MINNEAPOLIS — According to The Ojibwe Revitalization Project, back in 2019, approximately 19 Elders were identified as fluent speakers of the Mille Lacs dialect of Ojibwe in Minnesota.
UNESCO listed Ojibwe as a severely endangered language in 2010, and that continues to be the case today.
When it came to educating Native youth about Ojibwe culture, Tony Drews said he found it hard to keep kids engaged in the classroom.
"You have those students that are always asking questions ready to go, no matter what," Drews said, reflecting on his time at the Anoka-Hennepin school district as Indian education adviser. "And then you have those students that are in the corner, that don't. No matter what you do, they're not going to be engaged."
However, a shortcut to the students hearts came to Drews in a traditional game.
"I had an idea, I knew about a Moccasin game. I had one," he said. "And so I just brought it in and I had a lot of questions, engagement. I went home and I said, 'I gotta figure out how to capture that every time.'"
Several years and grants later, came Nashke Native Games. A repertoire now that contains of renditions of traditional Ojibwe games as well as puzzles and memory cards.
"Within Indian education, there's a really lack of resources," he said. "So by just playing my games — 'oh, we have a beaver hide here,' that will give teachers an avenue to be like, 'let's learn about the beaver hides, let's learn about the significance of blankets.' So it's a catalyst to talk about the culture."
Nashke, which roughly translates to, "look, behold!" comes at a time when the younger generation is racing against the clock and against cultural destruction done by harms of the past.
"My grandma was born in 1924, was sent to the Pipestone Indian boarding school for four years, and none of her children can string together more than a couple words of Ojibwe," Drews said. "I've said this before, it took one generation to rob my family of our language, and millennium of our cultural knowledge, and that's a common story amongst most of our people."
Each game Drews sees as an investment not just in the past but also in the future.
"There's a lot of Native pride by our youth, but they don't know what they are proud of," he added. "So when we can give them our history, our culture, our language, we build their cultural identity, which gives them an avenue to be proud of something."
Nashke games is sold directly to consumer on the website.
If you're an educational institution looking to partner with Nashke, Drews said he is welcoming that with open arms.
Currently, he is fundraising for a new game to add to the collection, Giiwen. It is going to be his first contemporary board game featuring the lives of the Anishinaabe and their seasonal activities. You can support the fundraiser here.
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