2021 Fellow Brooke Niiyogaabawiikwe ‘Niiyo’ Gonzalez has dedicated her career to revitalizing the Ojibwe language. From her leadership at the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute (WOLI) to her doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii, this profile details Niiyo’s lifelong dedication as a “language warrior.”
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change.
In 2021, the fellowship was expanded to award $75,000 to 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.
Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow: BROOKE NIIYOGAABAWIIKWE ‘NIIYO’ GONZALEZ
Brooke Niiyogaabawiikwe “Niiyo” Gonzalez is an enrolled member of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin. Her Tribe speaks Ojibwe, but it is an endangered language. According to a community survey, less than 500 Ojibwe speakers lived in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 1999. Today, some communities report less than 10 fluent Ojibwe speakers.
Niiyo grew up in an Ojibwe-speaking community where most adults learned it as a first language and continued to use it with one another in daily conversation. She later learned how to speak it from elders and relatives so she could participate in ceremonies and has made it her mission to help preserve the precious Ojibwe language.
In 2010, Niiyo was recruited to serve as executive director of Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Charter School, which she helped transform into the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute (WOLI). Under Niiyo’s leadership, WOLI has doubled enrollment from kindergarten through 8th grade.
At WOLI, Niiyo developed Ojibwe-based language curriculum and educational resources. She also designed a track for an Ojibwe language medium teacher certification, as well as other professional development programs she hopes to get codified into law for a state-recognized preparation program someday.
Niiyo says the process of developing a language medium teacher certification program was difficult and time-consuming because Western educational standards rarely address the needs of Indigenous language instructors and their students. “These systems are not designed for us. They were intended to disenfranchise us from our communities, from our ancestors. We must recreate these systems and redesign them to meet our needs.”
The St. Croix Chippewa Native is currently a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii. She documents her experience in developing WOLI curriculum in more detail in her online article, “Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute Teacher Training and Development Initiative.”
Developing the Next Generation of Language Warriors
“Language revitalization work is all-consuming. I haven’t been able to stop and think about the future,” says Niiyo. “For instance, how do we train people to take over these leadership positions as people like myself get older?”
The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship will allow Niiyo to “take a step back” from some of her administrative duties. The fellowship will provide the time and space to reflect upon her life’s work and strategize with Ojibwe elders and fluent language speakers about the best way to move forward with Ojibwe language revitalization efforts.
“Too often we are in survival mode,” says Niiyo. “We forget to stop and process our vision.”
During the fellowship period, Niiyo will interview elders and other fluent language speakers to lay the groundwork for a new leadership program that will foster the next generation of language revitalization leaders. These “language warriors” will help preserve and perpetuate Ojibwe and other Indigenous languages.
Through her efforts, Niiyo will ensure that the once nearly extinct Ojibwe language grows and thrives well beyond her. “The thing about language revitalization work is that you are very unlikely to see the fruits of your labor. It’s generational work that will live on in our community years from now.”
A Solid Partnership with First Nations
As WOLI’s executive director, Niiyo has worked with First Nations for several years through the Native Language Immersion Initiative. Under Niiyo’s leadership, WOLI has received several grants to support their mission and fine-tune their language-immersion curriculum and programming.
Today, she is using that experience to help other Tribes and community leaders strengthen and improve their language initiatives. “I believe everything we do should be in our ancestral languages,” she advises.
Niiyo is one of several Luce fellows engaged in language revitalization work. Although each fellow is taking a different approach to language revitalization, they are all committed to preserving and perpetuating their language and culture for future generations.
“I am very humbled to be a part of this fellowship,” she says. “First Nations and Luce did a great job putting this cohort together. We all complement each other so well. At our last convening, I wrote a note for myself that said, ‘sacred synergy.’”
Niiyo uses the phrase “sacred synergy” because she believes these 13 fellows were destined to come together to share their knowledge and expertise. She says the fellows have restored her faith during a difficult time.
“In many ways, COVID shook my faith,” she reflects. “This fellowship reminds me to remain faithful and believe in our ways. The other fellows are amazing. I am so happy to get to know them and listen to them support each other as we all work through our different goals.”
Niiyo says she is grateful to First Nations and Luce for this fellowship. “These funds are strengthening our collective peoples and giving us the opportunity to work on projects within our chosen fields. That’s really important because there’s not enough Indigenous people and many of us are doing multiple jobs. This fellowship allows us to strengthen our work and our communities.”