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Words matter

by Ruth Voights

Language has power, the power to mediate between individuals and cultures. Rose Shingobee Barstow taught Ojibwe language at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. I was a young instructor in the Department of American Indian Studies with an office down the hall from hers. Rose gave me (and many others) stories as a gift. They continue to inspire me as a teacher.


In the early 1920s, little Rosemary Shingobee lived with her grandparents on the White Earth Reservation. Her father, Tom, worked in the lumber camps to earn a living. One beautiful fall day, Tom came home to take his family wild ricing. At rice camp, Rose found her friend, and cousin, Julia. Rose's grandfather set the girls to digging a hole to jig the rice. Rose swung her hoe to make a hole, Julia picked up dirt clumps.

A bigger boy began to tease them. Rose turned to yell at him. Julia bent down for more clumps. Not paying attention, Rose swung her hoe back into the jighole. When she looked back, Julia was in the hole, blood flowing from her forehead. Horrified, Rose believed she killed Julia. She ran into the woods and hid. Her family eventually found Rose, but they thought telling her Julia had been taken to a doctor would just upset her more. No one mentioned Julia, or more important, that Julia was OK.

After ricing, Rose was scheduled to go to boarding school. Rose's grandmother braided her hair and talked to her. But boarding school was an English phrase Rose did not understand. She thought it meant punishment for killing Julia. A depressed Tom took Rose to the school in his truck and on their way, he tried to help his Ojibwe-speaking daughter by repeating an English phrase: "What is your name? My name is Rose." Rose was sure this phrase was how she would be identified by her jailers.

At St. Benedict's school, a nun met them at the entrance and asked Rose her name, but Rose would not answer. Tom had to leave and Rose, crying, ran after his truck. The boarding school staff had to literally drag Rose into school. To Rose, her punishment had begun.

Eventually, Rose made friends with another Ojibwe girl named Josephine. One day, the sister told the children to take out their books. She asked Josephine to start the reading aloud but Josephine didn't know the first English words. Sister said, "Think hard." Josephine assumed those were the English words, so she repeated, "Think hard." The teacher laughed uproariously at this misunderstanding.

Rose was taught by her grandparents not to ridicule others. Because of Josephine's shaming, Rose decided she wouldn't say one English word until she could speak English as well as anyone else at school. She kept that promise but got labeled "not bright."

Later, Rose gave herself away during a math lesson. Sister asked, "If I have four apples and give you one, how many apples do I have left?" Rose, without thinking, responded in English, "That's not fair, Sister. You'd have three and I'd have one. That's not sharing." English words. Ojibwe values.


Rose never forgot her childhood experiences. She knew the power of words to keep individuals and cultures apart or bring them together. It was a lesson she would never forget, a lesson she passed on to others.

When the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota was formed, Rose was instrumental in developing the Ojibwe language curriculum. Rose's classes taught not just the complexities of Ojibwe verb forms, but respect in conversation or the concept of "visiting" while you beaded.

As she did for generations of students, Rose taught a beginning teacher that our words, our stories, count. This gift from Rose is at the core of how I teach and why. Thank you, Rose. Miigwech!

Ruth Voights lives in Cottage Grove and teaches in the liberal arts department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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