Ngwaagan Whitehawk-Eshkibok, Ed’20, has an important role in her job that most other teachers don’t have to worry about – saving her culture and language.
The graduate of the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at Queen’s is now a Grade 1 teacher on the Wiikwemkoong First Nation Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario.
She is working to revitalize the Anishinaabe language (also called Anishinaabemowin) in her community and she plays a vital role in teaching it to the next generation.
“I ask my students, ‘What is wrong with Anishinaabemowin?’ and they say it is dying,” Whitehawk-Eshkibok said. “I tell them, ‘This is our language’ and they are the next ones who will carry it.”
Like many Indigenous languages, Anishinaabemowin has been withering away for decades. The residential school system forced Indigenous students to only speak English or French and children were punished for speaking their own languages. It means many generations of Indigenous peoples lost their ability to speak their traditional languages.
A 2021 article in the Manitoulin Expositor stated there were fewer than 500 people fluent in Anishinaabemowin, with numbers dwindling because many were elders.
“It’s like we are in a rush. The older ones – the fluent ones – are passing on,” Whitehawk-Eshkibok said. “On some of the reserves, there are no fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers. They have lost it.”
Before becoming a teacher, Whitehawk-Eshkibok worked a series of office jobs and found sitting in front of a computer all day uninspiring. She’s realized becoming a teacher was a way to be paid to do something she loves – preserving her culture.
She applied to Queen’s and received the Chancellor Jim Leech Bursary for Indigenous Students, which is awarded on the basis of demonstrated financial need to Indigenous students in any year of any faculty or school at the university.
In honour of National Philanthropy Week, which runs Nov. 14-18, it is important to thank organizations and donors (such as Chancellor Emeritus Jim Leech) who have provided millions in support to Queen’s. Their gifts can be life-changing for students in need.
Today, Whitehawk-Eshkibok loves her job and attempts to teach her students in an immersion setting with Anishinaabemowin being the focus of instruction. She has taught her own two children to speak their traditional language and hopes more youth in her community will learn and keep the language alive.
“I have a passion for my language and my culture,” Whitehawk-Eshkibok said. “So, I really liked going to Queen’s and learning to be a teacher and seeing how I can put my culture and language into my lessons.”