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July 15, 2018

11/14/2017 7:28:00 AM
Lessons in heritage: Abinoojiiyag (Youth) Center provides tribal children with sense of place, history
Language, art, tradition all being taught at new facility
contributed photograph

The Abinoojiiyag (Youth) Center in Lac du Flambeau provides many opportunities for kids to learn about Native culture and have fun in a safe environment.
contributed photograph

The Abinoojiiyag (Youth) Center in Lac du Flambeau provides many opportunities for kids to learn about Native culture and have fun in a safe environment.
contributed photograph

A deer hanger was recently erected at the youth center in Lac du Flambeau, to be used to teach kids about skinning and tanning hides.
contributed photograph

A deer hanger was recently erected at the youth center in Lac du Flambeau, to be used to teach kids about skinning and tanning hides.
By Raymond T. Rivard
Special to The Lakeland Times

The cost to build the newly completed Abinoojiiyag (Youth) Center on the Lac du Flambeau Public School property approached $2 million, but the lessons being learned by tribal children about their traditional Native culture - art and the language being among the facets of the children's sense of being and place - has been priceless.

Greg Johnson, officially known as the cultural coordinator at the center, has been one of several adult personnel who have made this center the place to be for children of all ages.

Johnson understands the effects and importance this new addition to the community has had since the doors were opened back in May, but he also sees the longterm impact this facility and the lessons being learned will have on the children.

"It's growing and it's become a living, breathing thing. It's growing into something magnificent now ...," Johnson said about the facility and all that's happening within its walls.

"Culture is the main component of the youth center," Johnson continued. "We're taking ownership of it and we really don't have to answer to anybody. We can let our eagle feathers fly, we don't need insurance to do any of that, you know? So, we're taking it back and we're working on it with our kids."

The premise for building the facility that sits near the public school in Lac du Flambeau, was to have a place where the tribal children could be taught about their rich heritage, their history, and their sense of place - something they have never had the opportunity to learn in the public school system.

"That was a worry of my elders and my friends' elders," Johnson said. "(The elders) were worried it was all going to be gone, but we worked really hard to preserve what we could and today we're very fortunate to have what we have in Lac du Flambeau. These kids are very blessed to have what they have."

'They are the ones that are going to carry it on'

The 6,600 square-foot facility was a long time in coming - about five years from conception to completion - but the finished product is "amazing," Johnson said.

Funding for this facility was contributed by the Tribe, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others.

The investment, Johnson said, is one that will benefit the Tribe's most precious resource, the children, and it will enrich their lives for years to come.

"I love it," Johnson said. "I love working with kids. It's amazing. They are the ones that are going to carry it on. When I get old and decrepit, they can keep it going and I don't have to worry about it."

What the children now have available to them is more than brick and mortar. They have a facility where they can learn about the way things were done in the past, their language, their art, and most importantly, from where they have come.

"We don't have to borrow anything anymore from other cultures, we can claim it as our own ... this is ours," Johnson said. "The kids are taking ownership of it and are really proud of it.

"We have very highly skilled kids today," he continued. "When I was young, those types of things weren't around as much. Today, kids know a lot more than we did when we were younger, so they are a few steps ahead of us and that's exactly what we wanted."

A day at the youth center

The facility, which opens its doors to children with the conclusion of the day at the public school, features two areas - the main building and the gymnasium. When one walks into the facility they will find the office, a common area, a technology bar, computer lab, kitchen, classrooms, and a movie theater.

All of these areas are being utilized daily by the children.

Classes and activities are available for the younger set - those up to fifth grade - immediately after school, according to Johnson, and are then available to those in grades 6-12 starting at 5 p.m.

"We see about 30 to 60 kids after school and on weekends it's closer to 80 kids," Johnson said.

Upon arrival, the children might find themselves learning language and culture, they might have time to hang out and watch a movie, or they might gather for a lesson in nutrition and cooking.

But those examples are just a small sampling of what's being offered.

"We teach a little bit of cooking ... traditional meals ... and it helps get these kids get ready for when they are home by themselves. We teach them how to prepare foods and take care of themselves," Johnson said. "We also teach language and culture. We show our kids how to clean up deer, we take them out hunting and fishing and snaring and ice spearing to give them that cultural background."

When the younger children attend between 3 and 5 p.m., Johnson said, "They have an open gym; we have 'creative kids,' where the kids come in and they color and learn the basic art forms. They get the chance to play on the computer, and there's always something going on.

"After 5 o'clock then it's the big kids ... sixth grade on up ...," he continued. "The gym is open for them and then those in sixth grade up to high school will enjoy a movie with a big projector screen - we get the latest releases and the kids enjoy that. We have sewing almost every night. One of the ladies will teach them how to make earrings, I'll teach them how to do moccasins - there's a lot of different types of crafts that we share.

"And as far as the food and nutrition ... the staff is usually involved, but we also have a nutritionist who comes in once a week," Johnson explained. "She does the more in-depth stuff. We teach them fruit and granola versus (soft drinks) and all that other stuff, but they make specialty dishes when the nutritionist comes in. They will do wild rice, really healthy cakes and cupcakes ... only the good stuff."

This facility is far more than a glorified day care center, Johnson said, as the children learn and enjoy at the same time.

"The center is for the kids ... it's primarily a place for kids to hang out and kinda cut loose and do their social thing," Johnson said. "There are table games, a computer lab, places where they can do homework. We do a lot of things the kids enjoy."

And there is so much yet to do.

"Into the future, we're looking at having a nice organic garden ... where we're going to grow some of the original foods that our ancestors grew," he said. "We have organic corn ... the original corn that was (grown) by the Ojibwe people 100 years ago. We'll be growing that organically. We just erected a deer hanger so we can teach kids about skinning and tanning hides. We're going to teach kids how to can venison and other foods.

"We're going to build a pavilion where we can greet and honor our elders and have social events," he continued. "We're going to do a huge garden that's going to be surrounding the pavilion. We're going to teach how to hunt and gather. We're going to have a miniature village in there, so the kids will get a taste of the traditional life.

"As time goes on here and we get more people working, there will be more programming. We've got a full calendar right now, Johnson explained. "Some of the upcoming events is we're going to be canning venison and then we're going to have moccasin-making and winter moccasin-making, and making mittens. We have a lady coming in who is going to be teaching beadwork and try to cover all the things they did long ago ... These are some of the thing we're trying to do with the kids."

With each season, new and different lessons will be offered, Johnson said.

"We're addressing all of the activities of the four seasons," Johnson said. "As the winter months roll in, we'll be snaring rabbits, we'll be spearing muskies through the ice, we'll be teaching all the fundamentals of the Ojibwe culture.

"Next spring we'll bring the sugarbush to the area where all the kids can get together and we'll probably do our final cook-down (at the center)," he continued. "We are going to be doing all of the things that they don't allow in the public school - we will include the extension of culture and art ... all the things that I specializes in. These are things that we really hit it hard at the youth center. We make that happen."

The center is an expansion of the efforts by the Tribe to educate their children about their culture. Johnson and Leon Valliere have been teaching language and culture at the Lac du Flambeau grade school and the high school, classes that are offered through the public school.

Johnson said two language classes are offered at the high school and four classes at the grade school.

With the addition of the youth center, they are able to go beyond just the teaching of language.

"We also teach the version of our own history," he said. "A lot of the history in the history books is skewed and one-sided. It's written from the non-Native perspective. We share our own local history and our own local culture as to what makes us unique. It's an amazing history, it's wonderful and I'm glad I get to be a part of sharing it."

'Traveling into the unknown'

Another unique aspect of the center is that the LdF Tribe is trying something that hasn't been done much among other tribes.

"There are a few tribes out there ... LCO has a total emergence school where it's strictly Ojibwe and they incorporate a lot of culture," Johnson said. "There are a few schools that actually do that, but we're kind of traveling into the unknown as far as what we can do with our children. Everybody is really excited."

Utilizing social media has also been an important part of the center's mission, as they meld modern technology with their lessons about history and heritage.

"We have an online presence with social media and people are just totally thrilled anytime we show people what we are doing," Johnson said. "I think it's sparked a new interest in the way we take care of our tribal kids ... we're giving them their identity and the language and their art forms."

Providing tribal children with the knowledge of their past and allowing them to experience their heritage first-hand is an important premise, but the overall goal of educating their children in all that is native could be considered the bottom line.

"What I tell our kids is that we're told we have to leave the reservation to make a life better for ourselves. I'm often told that, you know?" Johnson said. "Me and my friends are all proof of our culture surviving and making it happen within the reservation's boundary. On one side we have our elders telling us you have to stay here and on the other side we have that pull to leave ... it's kind of back and forth. By having these skills (taught at the center) they will be fine. We're living in the footprints of our ancestors. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that and we're letting our kids know that. If the world fails them, they have this to fall back on or they can thrive with it. It's totally up to them."

Word about this facility has also gotten out among other tribes, Johnson said. The work they are doing is being noticed and appreciated.

"The building itself is absolutely beautiful. The kids here are very lucky," he said. "We have had representatives from other tribes visiting often and they are amazed with the amount of money and time and ideas that were put into this building and now they are giving ... a shot at making a cultural presence in the kids' lives. That's really wonderful. To have a place to do that, to explore those things with our children is really great.

"We have had reps come from all over - all four directions - they come in and see what we do and that's great," Johnson said. "They see what we do and they take the ideas back to their tribes and say, 'Hey, this is what Flambeau is doing ...,'

What's probably the most interesting aspect of participation is that there is "absolutely no cost to the kids," Johnson said.

"The only thing we ask of them is that they be respectful and they pay attention and listen," Johnson said.

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