Exemplary OCT

Muriel Sawyer, OCT

Keeping the Language Alive

by Leanne Miller, OCT

A single sentence on her Nbisiing SS blackboard drives Muriel Sawyer. Senior student Zach translates the quote by Algonquian linguist Earl Nyholm: “When the language dies, we become decedents of the Ojibwe people, and we are no longer Ojibwe.”

Muriel Sawyer is a living example of the Ojibwe culture and the recipient of a 2009 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. This distinction honours the imaginative and hands-on techniques she’s used during her 35-year career teaching the Ojibwe language to Anishinaabe and non-native children.

The 2006 Census of Canada reports that there are 24,896 Ojibwe-language speakers in Canada. Sawyer makes it her mission to increase this number, even if it’s one speaker at a time. Students come to her Grade 9 language class for their mandatory second-language credit – and once they come, most stay.

Shane and Ryan, both Grade 10 students, describe Sawyer’s teaching style as fun and engaging.

“She cares about us and wants us to pass … We have to work hard but she makes it fun … We pay attention and learn because she’s so enthusiastic … She teaches us about culture and language together … She teaches us about our ancestors and the old ways, and it’s interesting.”

Most of the students know very little about their ancestry or culture and arrive at the school speaking little or no Ojibwe. To enhance their self-worth and sense of identity, Sawyer gives them the opportunity to develop the language and learn about Anishinaabe philosophy, spirituality and values. She calls her approach a cultural/linguistic infusion.

For instance, when her students practise their breakfast vocabulary, they eat breakfast. When they learn about fishing, they walk to the Lake Nipissing shore and speak with the fisher people working on their nets and filleting their catch. As winter approaches, they make snowshoes and learn how their ancestors prepared for the cold. When they learn about residential schools, they hear the stories from community elders.

“The kids must learn the language in context,” Sawyer says. “They must practise the vocabulary, and the best way to do that is in real-life situations.”

The students write and illustrate children’s stories based on Ojibwe legends and read them to children at the local daycare centre.

“My goal,” explains Sawyer, “is to have these young people graduate with a sense of identity – proud that they know their language, their culture and their past. We want them to feel and believe that they can succeed in both the Anishinaabe and non-native worlds.”

Translator Zach graduated in 2009 and has returned to upgrade his Grade 12 English mark and continue his language studies with Sawyer. Before coming to Nbisiing SS in Grade 11, he attended his local secondary school for two years. He found it had too many rules and too much structure for him. The students moved in small cliques and he felt he didn’t belong.

“Here is where I belong,” says Zach. “Everyone gets along – it’s like a big family here.”

Zach will attend Canadore College in September. He greatly appreciates and admires Sawyer and looks forward to returning next year as a guest speaker and role model for her language students.

“She has taught us so much about ourselves, our language and our culture,” Zach says. “Ceremonies, drumming, to respect all walks of life and especially creation. The grandfather teachings show us that everything is equal and that we have to respect all ways. There is no hierarchy – no one is better than anyone else.”

“In my class,” Sawyer explains, “these young people become part of a group, and they feel welcome and connected. That makes a big difference, and it doesn’t take long for them to fully engage in school and learning a new language. It’s a fabulous transformation for most of these teenagers.”

Sawyer started teaching after she earned her BA from Nipissing University in 1974. She was invited to join what she calls the Hamilton Course – Ontario’s first native teacher certification program, offered over two summers. Students had to complete Grade 12 to get into the program and had five years to begin work on a full undergraduate degree to validate their certification.

“It was like a rigorous BEd program,” Sawyer remembers. “We studied philosophy of education and teaching methodologies. There was a native component as well to help strengthen our language skills by using our standardized writing systems.

“They were very intense, those two summers,” she says. “We often had class on Saturdays. Then, during the school year, we went back home and taught and completed more assignments for Hamilton.”


Muriel Sawyer and her students prepare bannock at Nbisiing SS in North Bay.

Teacher candidates had to complete three qualification areas – Primary, Junior and Intermediate – and be evaluated in each of them during the school year. Her 127 classmates came from places such as Brantford, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout, as well as her own home, North Bay. She was taught and inspired by native teachers. Some of her teachers also taught at faculties of education; others studied at universities or worked at the Ministry developing curriculum.

“We had great field trips and guest speakers, such as Anishinaabe authors Cecil King and Basil Johnston.”

During the 2004-05 school year Sawyer attended a reunion of her Hamilton colleagues. Most were working in education, many in the classroom. Others, like her friend Marianna Couchie, taught for a few years and then worked at the Ministry as a supervisory officer. Today, Couchie is chief of the Nipissing First Nation.

Sawyer’s first job came in 1974, teaching half-time at Our Lady of Sorrows ES in Sturgeon Falls, in what is today the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic DSB. She had in fact attended that school as a student. After completing her Hamilton training in 1975, she taught there full-time.

Back then, a third of the student population was Ojibwe, so she asked her principal to let her teach the Ojibwe language – a course that didn’t exist at the time. Sawyer marvels at her own audacity as a young Anishinaabe woman, creating her own job and demanding payment for it. From 1975 to 1998 she taught Ojibwe and whatever else needed to be taught, in JK to Grade 8. Her Primary, Junior, Intermediate qualifications definitely came in handy.

During that first year Sawyer felt like she had two jobs. Mornings she taught JK – with a complete program and resources available – and afternoons she taught Ojibwe to Grades 1 through 5, developing all her own teaching and learning materials. “We had no books, nor did we have Ministry guidelines or even a course outline,” she recalls.

She took a thematic approach, which she still uses today with her high school students, using the language of nature and the seasons. She translated songs and stories, and her students read and acted out Raven Locks and the Three Bears.

The Ojibwe language and culture are fading, and it’s up to us to preserve them for the future.

Anishinaabe and non-native children learned a new language and discovered a different culture. The Anishinaabe children learned more about their history and ancestry. It was exciting, she reflects, but a great deal of work. Sawyer was also heavily involved in writing the province’s first Ministry guidelines for teaching the Ojibwe and Cree languages.

When the Nipissing First Nation Band Council built Nbisiing SS in 1998 and offered her a job, Sawyer felt ready for a change. Since joining the school she has served as a full-time teacher and principal. Today she is part-time vice-principal and the school’s only Ojibwe-language teacher.

When Sawyer retired in 2005, the band council asked her to return to teach her language program. There was no one else who could teach it, and that mantra of hers kept running through her head: “When the language dies, we become decedents of the Ojibwe people, and we are no longer Ojibwe.”

As the students acquire more language, their confidence grows. So does their self-esteem, as they gain a better sense of who they are and where they come from. Sawyer usually sees an overall improvement in academic achievement and attendance, plus a greater willingness to participate in activities.

She incorporates the language in daily activities throughout the school. Signs and announcements are in Ojibwe, guests are greeted and thanked in Ojibwe, and meals often begin with an Ojibwe blessing – and the students do most of the speaking. Her native and non-native colleagues ask her to help them create visuals for their classrooms to reinforce the language in subject areas such as math and science.

Sawyer’s efforts to keep the language alive extend beyond the classroom. She facilitates Friday-evening community socials to practise Ojibwe. The socials include elders, students, parents, guardians and other community members. Participants are eager to learn the language in a fun environment, so Sawyer translates country and western songs, and everyone enjoys the singalong. Other activities include storytelling, cooking and discussing seasonal activities in the community.

She has won other accolades for her work. In 2003 the Union of Ontario Indians gave her a lifetime achievement award. At the 2008 Nipissing First Nation Annual Pow Wow, the community’s cultural committee presented her with an eagle feather and recognized her as a language keeper.

Says Zach: “Muriel Sawyer is a passionate and enthusiastic teacher who has devoted her life to educating students in the Ojibwe language and culture. The Ojibwe language and culture are fading, and it’s up to us to preserve them for the future.”

Thanks to Muriel Sawyer, it just might happen.

The Nbisiing SS in North Bay is a provincially inspected private secondary school offering a wide variety of high school courses with an emphasis on the needs and aspirations of First Nations students. Its funding comes from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and it is run by the Nipissing First Nation Band Council.

According to the 2006 Census of Canada, 32 per cent of Aboriginal peoples 25-34 years of age did not complete high school, compared with 10 per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians of the same age. Nbisiing SS boasts a 79 per cent graduation rate.

The school’s motto is Aboriginal Pride, Academic Excellence. In English class students read Aboriginal authors Basil Johnston, Thomson Highway, Ruby Slipperjack and Drew Haydon Taylor. Many visual-art activities and assignments reflect an Anishinaabe aesthetic. Entrepreneurialism is strongly encouraged. Students run their own business, Spirit Creations, selling hand-made traditional clothing with striking beading and leatherwork. See for yourself at www.spirit.nbisiing.ca.