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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Bois Forte elder creates games to teach and preserve language

David Colburn
Posted 9/22/21

NETT LAKE- Three new board games created by a Bois Forte Band elder are intended to be a fun way to accomplish a serious task, preserving the Band’s native language, …

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Bois Forte elder creates games to teach and preserve language


NETT LAKE- Three new board games created by a Bois Forte Band elder are intended to be a fun way to accomplish a serious task, preserving the Band’s native language, Anishinaabemowin.
75-year-old Karen Drift is a well-known and beloved teller of ancestral stories and language teacher who is one of only four remaining members of the Band who are considered fluent, or proficient, in the Ojibwe language, she said, and one of only two actively teaching the language.
While the band has offered classes, and options for online language instruction are available, Drift decided to add a different approach by drawing on her 40-some years of experience as a Head Start and elementary school teacher. She designed two board games specifically for children, and another for adults.
“I want the kids to work with their parents and play these games,” Drift said. “They can learn together, even parents. Parents don’t know language.”
Drift has words and phrases on the squares of the checkers-styled game boards, some in English, some in Ojibwe, and a roll of the dice determines where a player’s piece moves on the board. Wherever they land, the player has to give the appropriate translation. The goal is to advance to the center of the board by giving correct answers.
Drift wanted the games to provide useful language for everyday life and routines, so the children’s games include phrases about daily routines such as hand washing, going to the bathroom, and more. They also include basic vocabulary.
“They have all different kinds of foods on there like breads and oatmeal and cereals and milk, everything we eat daily I have on there,” Drift said.
The adult game has language appropriate for fostering daily communication between adults.
Test run
As a young child, Band member Chaz Wagner was one of Drift’s Head Start students, and now as an adult he’s a serious student of everything Ojibwe, including the language. He considers Drift to be both a teacher and mentor. He’s been working to gain proficiency while also facilitating language learning for others. Wagner was among the first to get a look at Drift’s prototype.
“She came up to me with this idea about a month or two ago,” Wagner said. “She had this pretty large piece of paper and she said, ‘I want to play a game with you.’ It was all handwritten on a piece of paper. You had an object; I think we were using coins that we had in our pockets, and you roll the dice and we’re moving them around the board. It was pretty fun.”
So, Drift carried forward with turning the paper version into a formal board game. To formalize the design and graphics, she turned to grandson Anthony for the “bear/man” cover art for the adult game box, and grandson Perry did the work for the children’s games.
But producing the games in quantity was something that was going to need some seed money. She put up $500 and got donations of $400 from her son, Mark, and $250 from Bois Forte Tribal Council Member Shane Drift. That was enough to approach W.A. Fisher in Virginia to turn out about 100 of the games.
Wagner was duly impressed with what he saw.
“She called me up and she was saying, ‘You have to come over and check out these games,’” Wagner said. “I was really surprised and shocked at how well done these games were, how well they’re made. They’re just like beautiful artwork. They’re real, real games.”
“This is the first time something like that has ever been done on the Bois Forte reservation,” Wagner continued. “We don’t traditionally really play games like that, but I see how she’s trying to bridge the gap between cultures and ages, trying to get more interaction from the younger community, because they’re the ones who are going to have to carry on our teachings.”
Drift wants the games to have a broader audience than parents and children. As an educator, she sees the potential for classroom use benefitting both students and teachers. Because the game comes with an instruction manual that includes all of the translations for the items on the boards, teachers or other classroom facilitators who may be unfamiliar with some of the terminology can learn right along with the kids, she said. And the games also help children develop number and counting skills, promote good hand-eye coordination, and can help children to practice good attention, Drift said.
It didn’t take long at all for demand to outstrip supply. Posted on social media at the beginning of this week, by Tuesday night Drift said that she already had more orders, about 200, than she can fill. Calls have been coming from as far away as Ontario, where some teachers there want to buy games for their classrooms.
“It’s getting kind of like I don’t know how we’re going to keep up,” Drift said.
Initial sale will help to support the production of the games, and Drift said she would welcome any donations to assist in getting them out to the people and institutions that want them.
But if there’s one thing those who know her won’t be surprised by, before this venture is completely up and running, Drift is already planning for the future. Her devotion to preserving the language won’t let her stop.
“I’m getting up there in age,” she said. “I’m 75 years old now, and I have Parkinson’s, but I’m going to continue to make games. I’m going to make a memory game for the schools, elementary and high school, we’re going to be starting that next time …” and then she paused.
“But I have so many game orders,” she said.
Those who are interested in learning more about Drift’s language games, including pricing and availability, or those who would like to donate, should call her cell phone at 218-750-7268.