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 Teaching Ojibwe

American Indian Faculty Member Uses Storytelling to Give Language Meaning

David “Niib” Aubid, an Ojibwe language instructor in the Department of American Indian Studies, brings traditional storytelling into his UMD classroom. “Storytelling helps me teach the language,” he said. “Ojibwe phrases also help teach American Indian history. It all works together. Even the very words used in a story are rich in historical context and cultural meaning.” Photo left: David Aubid.

Aubid has gained some renown as a storyteller and travels to regional events and classrooms with dozens of Ojibwe stories. “American Indian societies rely on oral teachings as a vital part of their identity,” he said.

In his classroom at UMD, Aubid gives students the opportunity to select an Ojibwe word to represent themselves in the classroom for conversation purposes. He encourages them to speak Ojibwe to each other, and in many of the class periods, he tells a story.

“Ojibwe words are easier to learn in a context,” he said. “You’ve got to use them to bring them to life. Memorizing isn’t the best way to learn. Hearing words illustrate a story has much more meaning.”

“The stories Niib tells explain morals and lessons,” said Katie Nickolay, a senior psychology and American Indian Studies major. For instance, many of Aubid’s Ojibwe stories contain a strong environmental ethic. “The Ojibwe have great respect for all living things,” he said. “It’s in the words. Animals and plants aren’t natural resources to be exploited. They aren’t treated just as things. Everything alive has a spirit. It’s fundamental to Ojibwe culture and it comes out over and over in Ojibwe stories.”

Many Ojibwe legends demonstrate complicated rituals involved in killing and eating an animal. They point to a larger worldview that includes give-and-take and balance. “Making an offering to the spirits before taking anything from the environment is part of that give-and-take,” Aubid said.

Strongest of all are the stories that impart the moral values of respect. Rebecca Golightly, a freshman international studies major, agrees. “I love hearing the classic Ojibwe stories Niib learned in his boyhood. They extend a bit of true Ojibwe culture to me.”

Molly Cummings, a sophomore psychology major and another of Aubid's students, added, “In addition to learning the language we learn about the Ojibwe nation today, about tribal elections, and reservation events.”

Ojibwe stories and teachings should not be trivialized by referring to them as myths or fables. “I call them living legends,” Aubid said. He continues the tradition of storytelling for many reasons. Stories teach lessons, strengthen cultural ties, entertain, and keep history alive. His students appreciate it. “He teaches us more than just how to put words together, he teaches us to respect the language and the past,” said Cummings.

Aubid uses technology, like powerpoint programs, to enhance his storytelling. "Adapting living legends to technology is important in order to bring them into the 21st century and beyond. Today there is an ever-increasing focus on technology in everyday life. Furthermore, I believe that I have inspired people to apply different technologies to these living legends. Thus the world view, messages, knowledge they impart will continue to enrich us all."

American Indians across the U.S. and Canada place importance on keeping native languages alive. The Ojibwe language, combined with hunting and fishing traditions, powwows, spiritual ceremonies, and family traditions, make up the culture. Using Ojibwe means that people are more than mere descendants of American Indians. Self-respect and self-identity come out through the language in songs, conversation, prayer and written and oral traditions. “One word can tell a story,” Aubid said.

Written by Cheryl Reitan with help from David Lislegard

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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