Instructor wins award for teaching Ojibwe language, traditions

by Fabiana Torreao

Earlier this month Dennis Jones was greeted with congratulations from his co-workers in the American Indian studies department.
“Is my wife pregnant?” Jones recalled asking after so many congratulations. He had no idea he had won an award from the city of Minneapolis.
“I was really surprised, really honored and really tickled,” Jones said.
The University instructor was awarded a 2000 Minneapolis Award for his work outside of the University. A native of the Nicickousemenecaning First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Jones devotes much of his time and energy to teach Ojibwe language and traditions to the community.
“I have a personal interest in the language surviving,” he said.
Jones remembered being forced to go to a boarding school, at age 6, where his native Ojibwe language was forbidden.
“I promised myself nobody would take our language away,” he said.
Jones’ nomination for the award competed with 41 others. His efforts to maintain, revitalize and stabilize the Ojibwe language and culture in Minneapolis stood out, said Sara Dietrich from the city’s communications department.
The awards have been given annually since 1987 to people who focus their time on making Minneapolis a better place to live and work, Dietrich said. This year, Jones is the only University staff member receiving the award.
Jones was nominated by Laura Pawalcyk, assistant director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center and one of Jones’ Ojibwe students. Pawalcyk gathered and submitted letters of support from Jones’ students and colleagues. She was the first to learn of Jones’ selection for the award.
“He puts more effort than just teaching — he really cares about what he does,” Pawalcyk said. “He lets people into his life and family.”
Pawalcyk was referring to the “total immersion” program set up by Jones, in which a group of Ojibwe students spends three to six days at his native community learning about a traditional American Indian topic.
She participated in three immersion programs, including the “wild rice retreat.” In this program the group spends a weekend at Jones’ community where they pick, parch, jig and winnow the rice.
“It was brilliant to be able to participate in this time-honored tradition,” said James Vukelich, a teaching assistant for Jones’ Ojibwe class.
Jones’ teachings awaken American Indian cultural aspects lacking in urban areas, he added.
Because of Jones’ passion for Ojibwe traditions, his goal is to ultimately work himself out of his job, meaning that once his native language is widely spoken he no longer will need to teach it.
“At that point, I don’t want to teach Ojibwe, I want to teach (the culture) in Ojibwe,” Jones said.
The award ceremony will be held Nov. 9 at International Market Square.

Fabiana Torreao welcomes comments at [email protected]