While Ojibwe is spoken across southern Canada and the Upper Midwest, the language is considered severely endangered. Since Minnesota is home to the greatest concentration of fluent Ojibwe speakers, the state has cultivated many revitalization efforts, including those of James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw, 48, who lives in Apple Valley with his wife and son.
Vukelich Kaagegaabaw’s maternal grandmother was an enrolled member of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, but he learned Ojibwe in college, as did many other descendants of his generation. As a social media personality, public speaker and podcaster, Vukelich Kaagegaabaw parses Ojibwe words to reveal how the culture’s values are embedded in its language and how ancient wisdom can be applied to modern problems.
Through his Ojibwe Word of the Day series, which has amassed more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube over the past decade, Vukelich Kaagegaabaw shares pronunciations and cultural context for terms such as ziigwan (“it is spring”) and miinibaashkiminasiganibiitooyingwesijiganibakwezhigan (“blueberry sauce that is put between two layers of bread that face each other,” a.k.a. “blueberry pie”).
One example, from his new book, “The Seven Generations and the Seven Grandfather Teachings,” is the word indaanikoobijigan, meaning “my great-grandparent” or “my ancestors.” It contains the morpheme (a component of a word that carries meaning) aanik, a term Vukelich Kaagegaabaw translates as interconnected, which suggests each generation is linked to those before and after. The word indaanikoobijigan is also used for “my great grandchild,” he notes, reflecting the Ojibwe concept that we are, in some sense, quite literally our ancestors.
Neither your grandmother or your mother spoke Ojibwe growing up because they both attended residential schools. How did that impact your ability to learn the language?
Part of the mission of those schools was, “Kill the Indian in order to save the man.” As I grew up and started to take courses at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, the University of Minnesota, and Fond du Lac Tribal College, I both got exposure to the language and understood why I hadn’t heard it.
What was your first impression of the language?
I had studied French, some Italian, a little Latin, but never Ojibwe. I remember going to the bookstore and getting this book and opening it up and seeing some of these incredibly long words, like ishkwaa-manoominikewaad [“when they were done ricing”].
When you see it written in double vowel, it took up most of the page. I was like, “Who uses a word this long? What does this word mean? I’ve got to figure this out.” And that began the most exciting, fulfilling, intellectual, philosophical, linguistic, and spiritual journey.
It was the first time I had heard this story about myself, a story I’d never been told.
What was it like recording elders speaking words for the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary?
In some cases, we would talk about one word and the elder would say, “Okay, this word really means this. And the context that we used it in was during this ceremony.” And they would unpack it.
Sometimes we would talk about one word for 10 to 20 minutes. So, I wasn’t just learning about the language, but the oral tradition and how language was literally carrying the culture.
I began to realize that this is how a civilization with a really strong oral tradition can carry teachings on for generation after generation.
What was it like teaching Ojibwe to pre-kindergartners in Minneapolis Public School’s immersion program?
Most of the time, the kids came in with little to no Ojibwe language. But by the end of the school year, so many of them were passively bilingual. You could speak to them in the language and they would get it.
They were utterly fearless in repeating the language. They were miraculous little learning machines.
And then you started your Ojibwe Word of the Day series on MPS’ Facebook page?
I thought, well, I’ll share a word, maybe a picture, and a link to the dictionary citation, so you can hear how fluent first-language speakers say the word. But I learned that people usually wouldn’t click the link.
As I had begun leaving Minneapolis Public Schools, I started creating little movies for my personal Facebook page, where I would say the word and I would have it written down and have pictures illustrating the word.
Then the debut of Facebook live helped you go viral?
I did a Word of the Day on namebini-giizis, the suckerfish moon — what that story meant, why we call it that. That was something I had done for 18 years in Ojibwe class. I think I got more than 10,000 views.
I ended up doing a weekly program on Facebook for the first five years where I would take the word and then really explain what that word meant. Kind of following that example that the elders I worked with had shared with me.
Your social-media videos reach an audience far beyond people formally studying Ojibwe. What do you know about your fans?
In the beginning, there were a number of people who were Ojibwe speakers who were fascinated and happy to see their language have an online presence and representation on social media. Also, so many people like my mom did not grow up with exposure to the language, the history, the culture. This was a chance for them to learn, especially in a way where they didn’t have to go to a school and take a university course.
Then as it grew, I think there were people from other communities who had a chance to hear the language and learn about the culture, and maybe gain some perspective on the spiritual pathways and traditions.
What motivated you to get into public speaking?
About 11 years ago, I had reached a place in my career as an Ojibwe language teacher where I was chronically underemployed. I was in my mid-30s and I was like, “I don’t think I can afford to do this anymore.” I had impoverished myself and my family.
It was a really low point in my life. I use the term rock bottom because my relationships were stressed. Professionally, I was flailing. I wasn’t able to do what I really loved doing, which was teaching the language.
That sounds awful. What happened next?
I asked myself, “If this were your last year of teaching the language, what would you teach?” I have learned all of these fascinating stories and teachings from the older folks I’ve had a chance to listen to and learn from, and I would share some of those things with people.
That’s when I began looking at the seven generations concept — that what I’m doing now is going to affect someone seven generations from now, and that what my ancestors went through is probably affecting the way that I view the world, and how I’m acting, and how I’m relating to all of my relatives.
Why is it so important to sustain the Ojibwe language?
People have, generation after generation, faced the same problems we have. Recording knowledge in the language is an ingenious way of sharing that knowledge and making sure the language gets passed on to generations that are coming.
We are very much at a crossroads where we need investment of time and talent and money in the language, making sure someone seven generations from now has the same exposure to its beauty and teachings and way of living.