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Barbara Nolan – language keeper, elder – shares her wisdom

Residential school survivor, honoured elder, credits the love and support of her family and community for her well-being

Barbara Nolan is an Ojibwa elder and Nishnaabemwin-language immersion teacher who lives in Garden River First Nation but the community on the river has not always been her home.

When she talks about growing up in Dooganing (South Bay) in Wiikwemkoong on Manitoulin Island, she is there, in her heart.

"I was raised by my grandparents but I knew them as my parents until I was 15 years old," she said.

Nolan explained that her family only spoke Ojibwa – a Manitoulin dialect of it – up until she was five years old, 

"No one spoke any English at all. We didn't speak any English, we didn't hear any English. We didn't even have TV or radio to introduce us to any different language because we didn't have any electricity on that end of Wiikwemkoong."

She tells the story of attending the Spanish Indian Residential School for the first time in the early 1950s with her older sister.

"I was five, my sister was seven. (When) they took us there, we were all happy, we had our little suitcases. We were all happy we were going to school," she said. "We rang a bell, and you know, I didn't know what these things were. We went in and there were these nice big, high ceilings, everything was just shiny. Our eyes must have been that big. We had never seen anything like it.

"We were looking at the pictures and the cross and everything was so different. 

"Two nuns came to greet my mom and dad. After a while, we turned around and they (her parents) were gone. We started to cry.

"That's when we started getting strapped and we didn't know what these two ladies were saying. We didn't know why we were being punished. They grabbed our little hands and they slapped them with a big leather strap. We were screaming.

"Then they took us into a little room and stripped us of our clothing. They took away our little bags and I don't know what they did with them."

Later, she came to understand they were being punished for crying and for speaking their language, which was strictly forbidden.

"There was only one very small corner on the playground where we could speak our language," she said. "It was always packed."

Isolated from her family, friends and all she had known in her short life, Nolan adapted as best she could. She tried not to get into trouble but it was difficult to adjust to such a regimented life after living freely with her siblings, exploring the woods, playing in the water and learning from her parents. 

"I spent four years there," she said. "But I could come home at Christmastime and we went home in the summertime."

"We picked up English, and not in a good way," she said. "It was what I know as subtractive bilingualism. They subtracted our first language.

"We were lucky we were only there for four years because we still had our language. We didn't lose connection with our family and our community."

Others were not so lucky. Nolan said that some people who had stayed there from Grade 1 to Grade 10 lost family and community ties along with their culture, identity and language.

"They lost who they were. Their whole identity," she said. "They (the nuns) tarnished our identity."

She also talked about being isolated from her siblings. The girls school she resided at was divided into primary and elementary sections and the younger girls were forbidden from interacting with the older girls.

"We couldn't go over there and get hugs or talk to them, nothing," she said. "The boys were in another school down the road. We couldn't associate with them at all. Maybe make eye contact with them from afar, but that's about it."

Nolan said she has learned to forgive her parents for sending her to the residential school in Spanish. She is grateful that she learned to speak English and to read and write.

"I firmly believe that our dad thought 'I want my girls to be able to read, write and speak English.' He knew that we wouldn't be on the reserve all the time, that we'd have to go out into the non-Indigenous world to go and make a living."

Nolan went on to live and work in Toronto for a few years where she met her late husband, Tom. There, they married in 1967 and had their first two children.

They then moved to Detroit for a time. But she was worried about the health of their children in the polluted city and the couple brought their children to his home community of Garden River where she has lived ever since.

She started working in the Catholic school system as a social counsellor in 1972. During her interactions with students, she learned that many of the Indigenous children didn't want to learn French so she created her first Nishnaabemwin as a second language curriculum.

It was offered first at St. Hubert's School.

She worked as an education counsellor for Garden River for 12 years and then moved to Sault College.

"Language was building up in the early 80s," she said. "That's when they started this residential school awareness. I started my healing journey in 1985."

She said that, up until that time, she had denied or minimized the harm done to her in the schools. But, as a counsellor, she felt she had to be well within herself.

"If you're unwell, how can you help someone else be well?"

During a training session, Nolan experienced a breakthrough and the significance of that moment inspired her to seek help.

"I sought out counselling, I went to sweatlodges, I went to healers, I told my stories – even the most painful parts – and today I am able to talk about it."

The common thread throughout her life has been her language and its significance. 

Even after she took early retirement from Sault College, she continued to share her knowledge of Nishnaabemwin and became recognized in her community as an elder.

Elders are the holders of cultural knowledge and examples of how to live well, she explained. They have lived and learned their culture, it has become their identity and they share it freely so the next generations will benefit from it.

Her specialization is her language.

The language of a culture reflects how its speakers lived and what was important to them in ways that can't be expressed in other languages.

By forbidding it, the nuns at the residential schools forbade references to the way of life and culture it reflected and tarnished the identity of its speakers, obscuring that identity with corporal punishment and subtractive bilingualism.

Nolan's identity as an Ojibwa person and a Nishnaabemwin language speaker was protected by her parents for the most part but she remembers times when the voices of the nuns and the sting of their straps on her hands rose up in her.

One thing she regrets in life, she said, was not teaching her children more of their language when they were growing up.

"I did speak to my kids in the language when they were growing up but only just the basic commands like, 'hurry up, sit down, eat your dinner'," she said. "I should have continued but one day, they were eating at the table and my daughter said 'Mom, Chris ain't wiisniking, here.'"

Wiisnii is the verb meaning to eat in Nishnaabemwin but her daughter added the 'ing' like you would in English.

"And I thought, oh my god, what am I doing with my kids," she said. "So I quit. I shouldn't have quit."

She was worried her children would grow up to speak English poorly.

Reflecting on her time at the residential school, Nolan wonders if the shame instilled in her about her language by the nuns was what motivated her to stop teaching it to her children when they were young.

But, it also may have been part of her motivation to become a keeper of her language.

Now, as an elder, she nurtures her community with the language and it nurtures her.

"For the last eight years or so, I've spent four hours a day at the daycares in the mornings," she said. "And all I do is speak the language to them. I go and cuddle up the little babies, I sing them the songs and after a while, they recognize my voice and they recognize my face and they're all happy. Then I'm a happy person."

Nolan told of one of her most rewarding days in which a little boy understood her and responded in Nishnaabemwin.

"My heart just about burst!" she said. "So I know that works. Immersion works."

As a language-keeper, she was awarded the 2021 Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Arts Award. Also in 2021, she was named the 2021 City of Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit recipient and appointed Anishinabek Nation Anishinaabemowin Commissioner.

"When I received those awards I felt humbled. Like I wondered if I were worthy of them," she explained. "I feel like I could crawl under the table sometimes. Like, when I got the merit award from Sault Ste. Marie, I felt so humbled. For me to be at that level, it's so humbling.

"Because of how we were raised in residential school, we were taught you don't deserve to be human beings, you don't deserve any goodness but we have to plow through that. So, here, a little bit of that comes in and (I ask myself), do I really deserve this?" she said. "So, it's very humbly that I accept these."

As an elder, Nolan also serves her community by saying opening prayers at events, singing songs and making presentations when she is invited to do so. 

"There's a lot of young elders," she said. "I don't think age matters. It's how much knowledge and how well you carry yourself in the community - the things that you've done, that you do and how you are with other community members. That's what counts."

Nolan was also part of the contingency of dignitaries that went to Edmonton to hear the Pope's apology this past summer and she went shortly after major surgery.

"More healing there," she said. "I think the healing just came from seeing all these Anishinaabe elders there to see the Pope, to hear his apology. They were all speaking the language. I could hear the language all around me. I could understand some of what they said."

Nolan said she wept when she heard the apology, as did many others. For her, it meant something that the Pope came to the land where the wrongs were done and said it wouldn't happen again.

"It won't ever (really) be enough," she said. "You can't undo what has been done. But, for me, it was enough."

She contrasted that with apologies made by another Pope and by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"That didn't mean anything to me at all," she said. "I don't think that came from the heart at all."

Nolan says that she feels the good she does in the world comes very much from the love she felt from her family.

"We were loved, we were included in everything," she said. "We went picking berries, hunting moose, we fished with our dad. Even after we came from residential school that continued."

She said that the first five years of her upbringing provided her with a strong foundation and maintaining her connection with it helped her get through the pain inflicted upon her at residential school and quiet the voices of the nuns that she had internalized.

To learn more about Barbara Nolan, visit her website. Also, learn more about a recent project she participated in and watch a video interview with her here.

This evening you can see her in person as she will narrate a story at the drone show at Garden River as part of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation activities in her community.