Meet 2 Ojibway speakers who are using Facebook to teach their language

James Vukelich and Roy Tom are sharing Anishinaabemowin words on social media to help people reconnect with the language.

James Vukelich and Roy Tom are using social media to connect with learners

James Vukelich teaches Anishnaabemowin. He and Roy Tom are both using social media to teach the language outside the classroom. (Submitted by James Vukelich)

More and more people are turning to social media to learn their Indigenous languages, and two Ojibway speakers are using different techniques to connect with language learners across the country on Facebook.

Every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. CT, James Vukelich turns his phone's camera toward himself, and hits "go live" on Facebook. He starts off with a traditional Ojibway language — or Anishinaabemowin — greeting and delivers the "word of the day," connecting with and teaching the language to his online friends.

"For me, putting stuff on social media is a way to get language materials to [people] for free that they can use at a touch of their fingertips," said Vukelich.

Vukelich is from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reserve in Minnesota. He said his mother, grandmother, grandfather and uncles all went to boarding schools in the United States — like Canada's residential schools — and the language was lost for two generations in his family.

"I didn't hear the language until I was 24 years old," said Vukelich.

He was originally going to become a French teacher. He went to study at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. However, in order to get financial aid for schooling, he needed to take a course back home and decided to enrol in an Ojibway language class.

"It was the most fascinating language class I've ever taken my life. And I never looked back after that first semester," said Vukelich.

For the past decade, he has worked as an Indigenous language specialist, helping to develop Anishinaabemowin curriculum and training teachers to help teach the language.

His 10- to 15-minute videos break down different parts of each word of the day, and go into the philosophy and teachings behind the word. He credits his teaching style to the late Tobasonakwut Kinew, a respected Anishinaabe elder who taught in Manitoba and Minnesota.

"In my last year of university I was able to both study the linguistics behind it, the scientific approach to it... but then [Tobasonakwut Kinew] was sharing 'well, this what this word really means if you break it down,'" said Vukelich.

He has been doing the videos for two years and said he loves the reaction he gets from Anishinaabemowin language learners from across North America.​

Language learning is a family affair

Roy Tom is also using Facebook to teach Anishinaabemowin except he doesn't use any English in his videos.

Tom grew up with the language being spoken fluently by most people in his community of Big Grassy First Nation, about 100 km south of Kenora, Ont..

"There's not too many that are fluent [today]. Some people understand but they speak back to you in English," said Tom, who works as a cultural co-ordinator in Kenora.

He said he went to a workshop in May 2018 at Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba and heard Cree elder Wilfred Buck say that it was everyone's responsibility to teach Indigenous language.

A few months later in October, he had the idea of putting the language videos on Facebook. Using an iPad, his wife helped him to get the videos online.

"She said don't worry about writing and don't worry about reading. You know the language, you speak the language, just do it and hopefully that will help people learn the language somehow."

Since then, Tom has uploaded about 50 "words of the day." He uses combinations of words with practical uses, things like porridge, milk and brown sugar.

He also gets his grandchildren involved the videos, having them indicate objects and repeat after him.

More recently, Tom has organized a weekly language night. On Monday nights, his children, grandchildren and friends get together to teach the children everyday words and how to introduce themselves in the language.

Tom's family has also helped him to set up a Facebook group called "Anishinaabemowin with Roy Tom," which archives all of his language posts and has nearly 800 members.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1