Elder and language-keeper Barbara Nolan is the recipient of the 2021 Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Arts Award. This award, created in 2012, celebrates the work of Indigenous artists and arts leaders who have made significant contributions to the arts in Ontario.
In recognition of this honour, Barbara will receive $10,000, a framed certificate and an Indigenous-designed blanket. A public presentation of the award will be made at a future date.
About Barbara Nolan
Barbara is a proud Nishnaabe-kwe, formerly from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, who now resides in Garden River First Nation. She is also called Nesdotmookiid, which means “Causer of Language Understanding.” She is grateful to have survived the attempts by Canada’s Indian residential school system to take her Nishnaabe language from her.
As a vibrant first-speaker of Nishnaabemwin, Barbara has spent several decades working with a variety of organizations to revitalize the language. She began this work in the 1970s, as a student, family and social counsellor in Sault Ste. Marie and Garden River. She developed the area’s first Nishnaabemwin curriculum, which began to be taught from kindergarten onwards. As Barbara recalls, “The kids were happy that they were taking their parents and grandparents language. It is an identity thing … I wanted them to be proud of who they were.”
With the success of the curriculum for elementary schools, Barbara received requests from Algoma University and Sault College of Applied Arts and Technology for their own language courses. Barbara later became a Nishnaabemwin immersion instructor, complementing this work with research on language acquisition and revitalization. She also designed and produced Nishnaabemdaa, a Nishnaabemwin language app.
Today, Barbara serves as the Language Commissioner for Anishinabek Nation. In this role, she advises on methods and approaches to support the protection of Nishinaabemwin and its revitalization throughout the Anishinabek Nation and within its four regional territories.
In addition to this role, Barbara continues to provide language immersion to daycare students and staff in Garden River. She is also Elder-in-Residence and a cultural advisor at Sault College, and frequently delivers presentations and workshops on community wellness that address the impacts of the Indian residential school system.
“Barbara is a humble and unassuming champion of language and culture whose practice starts right at the centre, with the connections between Elders and youth,” stated the jury. “Over a lifetime, she has used language-learning to help people understand each other and themselves. And thanks to her language revitalization work, and the curriculum she has developed for schools and universities, she is ensuring that future generations will thrive.”
Emerging Artist Laureate
The Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Arts Award also honours emerging arts leadership: each year, the award recipient is invited to nominate a rising Indigenous artist or arts leader to receive a $2,500 prize. Barbara has selected language-keeper and craft artist Cyndie Wemigwans as this year’s emerging laureate.
About Cyndie Wemigwans
Cyndie Wemigwans is a fluent Nishnaabemwin speaker and a self-taught beadwork artist. She recently returned to her homeland and roots of Dooganing (South Bay) Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. Here, she serves as vice-president of the Nawewin Gamik Nishnaabemwin language nest executive committee.
Cyndie is a language teacher with the Rainbow District School Board, and holds a Teacher of Indigenous Language as A Second Language certificate from Nipissing University. She also offers after-school courses where students can learn traditional crafts in a Nishnaabemwin language-immersion environment.
Cyndie has been commissioned to create custom beaded art pieces for the World Indigenous Law Conference, the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising and Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario. She shares her beadwork on Facebook under the name LuLu PoPs.
“Cyndie Wemigwans deserves to be recognized for the energy she puts into keeping her language and culture alive,” said Barbara Nolan, on why she chose Cyndie for this honour. “After becoming a fluent Nishnaabemwin speaker, she has focused on sharing this knowledge with the next generation – both as a teacher and mother. She leads her students through beadwork and leather moccasin-making in Nishnaabemwin, creating important connections between language-keeping and other parts of their culture.”