Revival of Ojibwe Winter Games an opportunity for community-university collaboration

By Meghan Chua

Friendship is the first word that comes to Wayne Minogiizhig Valliere’s mind when asked about a partnership between UW–Madison and the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“It’s a really good collaboration between the university and our students,” said Valliere, an Ojibwe language and culture instructor, and former artist-in-residence at UW–Madison.

The partnership he’s talking about includes a series of projects with the Lac du Flambeau public schools: bringing back the traditional Ojibwe Winter Games, building birchbark canoes, and inspiring similar projects across the state. Their collaboration won a Community-University Partnership Award from the university in June.

Elementary and middle school aged students throw spears toward a target in a snowy landscape.
Students from the Lac du Flambeau public schools participate in the Ojibwe Winter Games in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Colin Gioia Connors).

A team of Folklore program faculty, academic staff, and graduate students has been involved with the project for over five years. The collaboration between faculty, staff, and students ensured mentoring and professional development opportunities for the students. Team members—many of whom were graduate students when the project began – learned the ins and outs of public humanities work while devoting their expertise and grant-writing skills to help document, finance, and sustain the project.

Colin Gioia Connors, a PhD candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic involved in the project, said that folklorists help translate cultures to broad audiences to promote cross-cultural understanding. But, the voice and agency ultimately lie with Indigenous people, he said.

“What folklorists can do is, with an understanding of the culture and patience and an ability to de-center ourselves from the story, [recognize that] it’s not a story about us,” Connors said. “It’s a story about what amazing, capable individuals in Native communities are doing for themselves, but to use the power of the university to help tell that story.”

Many of the competitions at the Ojibwe Winter Games hadn’t been played in Lac du Flambeau in over 175 years before Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe, educators began revitalizing them. Valliere said the project started with a vision of health equity, focused on getting kids outside in the cold month of February to exercise and eat traditional Ojibwe foods, which are typically quite healthy.

Now, games like snow snake, the hoop and spear game, and lacrosse are once again common knowledge in the community, Valliere said.

“We were able to put culture into our public schools, and what happened was our kids began to see themselves in their school,” he said. “They began to take ownership of their school, and education became more important.”

The projects have also resulted in higher high school graduation rates and college attendance rates among Ojibwe youth in Lac du Flambeau, in northern Wisconsin. Valliere said an approach of teaching culturally has been part of that success.

“They realize they don’t have to lose their culture,” Valliere said. “They can become educated in Western methods and they don’t have to give up their identity to do that.”

Tim Frandy, an alumnus who is now an assistant professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University, said in an email that a lot of good has come out of the project.

“We’ve helped build a model which we feel demonstrates that investment in traditional arts and cultural maintenance is an essential—and a relatively low-cost alternative—to improving educational and health outcomes for a community,” he said.

Rolling up their sleeves

Along with former-graduate students Frandy and Marcus Cederström as well as his faculty advisor Halls-Bascom Professor of Scandinavian Studies Tom DuBois, Connors was part of a team of folklorists that documented the Ojibwe cultural revitalization project led by Valliere and his team of apprentices and educators. The folklorists made a short documentary film about a birchbark canoe that Valliere taught Ojibwe youth from the Lac du Flambeau school how to build. Connors also produced a website about the Ojibwe Winter Games that serves as a resource for other Indigenous communities who want to revitalize their own winter games.

But, they have also been directly involved, Valliere said. It points to a different trend that has arisen in this project.

Colin Connors stands at the end of a shoveled path on a snowy lake holding a snow shovel.
Colin Connors, PhD candidate in the Department of Scandinavian Studies, is pictured using a snow shovel to clear a path on Lake Mendota for the upcoming Ojibwe Winter Games in 2016. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

“Before, a folklorist was a person that basically researched and documented communities and their stories. But these folklorists, they’ve been rolling up their sleeves and getting right involved, and are helping to save tradition, and save language, and save folklore, by actually processing it right alongside Anishinaabe,” Valliere said.

Connors underscored the importance of being just as willing to pick up a shovel and clear the ice for the winter games as he is to document the culture. He’s balanced these charges well, successfully securing a Public Humanities Exchange grant in 2016 from the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities to bring the Ojibwe Winter Games to Madison. At the event, Valliere, his apprentices Lawrence Mann and Iris Carufel, and their students from Lac du Flambeau shared their cultural knowledge and expertise with the Madison community. The graduate student folklorists were also involved, down to shoveling snow to clear areas of Lake Mendota for the games.

“The UW is so big that sometimes it feels like it runs itself, but this project really sustains itself through the actions of dedicated individuals. You have to show up,” Connors said. “From the outside, it looks like a well-oiled machine, but it’s all grassroots.”

In recent years, the UW–Madison folklorists’ documentation of the project has slowed, in part because of the capacity that has been built in the community with the help of Folklore program students, staff, and faculty. The Folklore program has continued to support this work and has long dedicated itself to serving Wisconsin’s diverse communities and sustaining community engagement throughout the state. As a result, Valliere and his team have started documenting the games themselves, and students and teachers in Lac du Flambeau no longer rely on Valliere to explain to them the rules of the Winter Games. As Connors, Frandy, and Cederström wrote in an article published earlier this year, “we have begun to work ourselves out of a job, as Valliere and his culture crew have transformed the games from written accounts in ethnographic texts to a living tradition in the community today.”

Both Valliere and Connors agree that the university benefits tremendously from its partnership with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“Folklorists study cultures, and we’re a living culture,” Valliere said. “They were able to be exposed to that on a deeper level. It woke up a lot of younger folklorists that are pursuing humanities and we were able to reach them and give them an insight and a passion. That’s what we’re about.”

Community-based partnerships are a great opportunity for those at the university to learn from the rest of the state, Connors said.

“The Wisconsin Idea is a two-way street,” he said. “Of course, the UW has knowledge and skills to share with the rest of Wisconsin, but the university has so much more to learn from the rest of Wisconsin, and especially from Native communities.”