Natalie Owl and her nine-year-old son, Isaac, who is playing a traditional drum and singing a prayer song for healing. Owl is holding a book she co-wrote with her mother, Maryann Owl, which features Isaac and teaches the Nishnaabemwin language.
When Natalie Owl was a girl living on the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation on the northern Ontario shores of Lake Huron, her parents – survivors of the Indian residential school and the day school systems – chose to raise their three daughters and son in a traditional Ojibwa life.
“We led healthy lives, picking berries, hunting moose, fishing, and working the trapline without electricity or running water,” the University of Regina PhD candidate (ABD) recalls. “My parents were strict – no drinking, drugs, or cigarettes. My father didn’t talk much about his time in residential school, and I think that he has yet to come to terms with that experience. My mom went to a day school, and as a result, she was able to retain more of the language because she spoke it at home every night. My mom has helped us keep our language alive.”
Owl, who has three undergraduate degrees in history, native studies, and Ojibwa linguistics, focused her master’s research on the impacts of the Indian residential school system and negative racist stereotyping on the Ojibwa language, known as Nishnaabemwin. Her current doctoral research is a multiphased, mixed-methods study that includes digital storytelling. The storytelling project examines Indigenous language education and two social determinants of health: cultural continuity (the transfer of traditional Indigenous knowledge between Elders and the younger generations), and self-determination (the ability for individual and community control of political, social, and education systems).
Owl cites her mother, late grandfather, and the late Ojibwa historian and scholar Basil Johnston for inspiring her passion for the regeneration of her language. “The introduction of written Nishnaabemwin is a recent practice, as it’s primarily passed down orally through the knowledge keepers,” she notes. “More research needs to be done to accurately reflect the spoken word within communities of speakers. We’ve already been informally teaching Nishnaabemwin without teaching certificates, like my mother did for us. These informal ways need to be acknowledged and can be integrated with Western teaching methods to maximize language retention. For example, through the digital storytelling project, Indigenous language resources are being developed by community members and traditional knowledge keepers.”
The southern half of Saskatchewan has a strong presence of Nishnaabemwin (also referred to as Plains Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Nakawewin). Owl is passionate about the survival of the language, noting that many Indigenous languages are critically endangered in Canada, with only Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibwa expected to survive, although there is an overall increase of people learning Indigenous languages later in life. In an era of reconciliation, Owl’s work is especially significant.
“The introduction of written Nishnaabemwin is a recent practice, as it’s primarily passed down orally through the knowledge keeper.”
“It hits really close to home,” Owl explains. “My daughters Anangoons (Little Star), who’s 24, and Memegwaans (Little Butterfly), who’s 22, are not as fluent because I was fearful they wouldn’t do well in school growing up. This is a popular misconception, but it’s something I was not able to unlearn until my daughters were older. A lack of immersion schools was also a hindrance to their language retention. But things are now different with my nine-year-old son, Isaac. He is homeschooled and Nishnaabemwin is a key part of his learning.”
Owl is also trying to overcome the sad reality that many Indigenous boys and men are more likely to end up in jail than complete high school. “I’m hoping to help create a new path for him – one that’s closely aligned with his language, culture, and identity.”
Natalie Owl’s research is supported by a Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research Indigenous Graduate Scholarship called kaskitomâsowak, a Faculty of Education Indigenous Graduate Students in Education Scholarship, and an AGEWELL NCE Graduate Student Award.