Nov. 8, 1996
Kennedy's Ojibewe Preservation Efforts Lauded
By Jennifer DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau
Joan Kennedy is used to playing on two different fields. As director of student teaching placement at UW-River Falls, she must place and monitor up to 150 student teachers in area school districts. That, in itself, is a big job.
The other field is more personal. Kennedy, of Ojibewe (Chippewa) heritage, is running a race against time to preserve the Ojibewe language and stories before they are lost forever.
As a woman of color in the University of Wisconsin System, Kennedy was recently lauded for her "outstanding contributions" in both of her efforts. Kennedy was recognized along with other UW system recipients at an ceremony held at UW-Superior.
Kennedy, who is a faculty member in the UW-RF College of Education & Graduate Studies, serves on a University of Wisconsin System Ojibewe language preservation committee along with Native Americans from college campuses throughout the region. The task members meet each Saturday on campuses to develop strategies for keeping their native languages alive.
"The elders are the only true native speakers of Ojibewe, and they are the teachers. When they're gone, the language will die out without immediate resuscitation efforts."
One result of the meetings is a basic 10-week Ojibewe course broadcast on the WONDER fiber optic distance learning network to campuses in central and northern Wisconsin. The course is particularly designed for teachers of Native American students who will go back into the classrooms to teach the students the rudimentary basics. Plans are underway for more advanced courses as well.
Kennedy understands the difficulty of learning Ojibewe, a highly inflective language. One word can have 12 different endings and 12 different levels of meaning. She, too, is in the process of learning.
"My mother was the product of the boarding school policies which punished the children for speaking their native languages and forced them to cut their hair and assimilate [to Western culture]."
Kennedy grew up away from her mother's White Earth, Minn., reservation community speaking English with a smattering of Ojibewe and French words on the side.
In spite of living off the reservation and holding elementary teaching and administrative positions in the St. Paul public schools for 25 years, Kennedy didn't forget her Native American heritage.
"I supplemented the textbooks with the truth about Native American history. I questioned the theories which said Indians were descendants of Asians who arrived on the North American continent on the land bridge...how do they know that it wasn't the other way around? Every tribe has a creation story that has them created and put on the North American continent, and those creation stories are sacred to the Native American people.
It was after the death of her husband 14 years ago that Kennedy felt a powerful spiritual awakening. She felt very depressed, and went to see a holy man for help. She embarked on a vision quest and dreamed about a white wolf.
"As the white wolf is a teacher and keeper of wisdom, the holy man directed me to begin telling the stories."
Some she learned from books. Many others she learned from tribal elders. She goes to schools, community centers, and other gatherings to tell the stories.
"I'm careful to observe the traditions that go along with these stories. There are some stories that are to be told only when there is snow on the ground, so as to not to encourage the mischievous tricks of spirits."
Soon, she'll be an author of children's books. She has written two yet-to-be published books depicting classic Ojibewe stories. One is about Eseban, a raccoon that plays tricks on two blind brothers. The other is the Ojibewe version of the "Cinderella" story.
In addition, Kennedy serves on the UW-RF Faculty Senate cultural diversity committee, the UWS human relations committee and is a member of the National Association for Multicultural Education.
One of her favorite activities is the summer institute for college-bound Native American high school students she co-directs with colleague Jose Vega.
During the two-week institute, she lives in the dorms with the students and shares her experiences, This year, two graduates from past programs are studying at River Falls, and Kennedy serves as their mentor.
"I stress to the students that they can learn how to work within the system while still keeping their values."