A group of people running on a field with large sticks in their hands.
A group of people running on a field with large sticks in their hands.

2023 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

The Fond du Lac Band Is Reclaiming Its Cultural Identity to Improve Community Wellbeing 

We all want to experience a genuine sense of belonging in our communities and homes. To foster belonging for the Ojibwe Nation while also addressing deep structural injustices, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is strengthening long-held cultural practices.

Honoring traditions is evident on Thursday nights on the Fond du Lac Reservation, as the Bapashkominitigong Baaga’adowekamig (“Bald-Headed Island Stick Game Field”) becomes home to two teams locked in competition. Each player uses a long wooden stick to chase a small ball toward the opposing goal, working with their teammates to score points along the way. Fellow Band members, family, and friends gather to cheer them on, speaking in both Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language) and English.

Reclaiming Cultural Identity Through Collaboration

Baaga’adowewin is a traditional stick game focused on both collaboration and competition that people of the Ojibwe Nation have played for centuries. Restoring this game is one of the ways in which Fond du Lac Band members have revived community culture and identity after the federal government lifted the ban on tribal practices. “Our ways of living were all given to us through creation, and those ways of living require collaboration,” says Naawakwe, Ojibwemowin project manager for the Fond du Lac Band’s Language and Culture Program.

Band members had not forgotten Ojibwe practices, though some traditions had been stifled. Today, the Fond du Lac Band is reclaiming its cultural identity and the nation’s authority to govern itself. Through partnerships, Band members have developed programs and approaches that revive traditional practices that were dormant or that colonialism or racial oppression took away. The tribal nation is rebuilding a Culture of Health that is rooted in traditional practices.

A  road sign featuring two languages on the side of the road. The Fond du Lac Reservation has road signs in both Ojibwemowin and English.
Four people standing at the back of a truck pulling fish out of a box. Eric Torvinen from the Natural Resources Division unloads tribe-harvested fish for Naawakwe, Nenaaw, and Kaage to label in Ojibwemowin.
A group of people gathering around a conference table. Band members hold the quarterly Language Advisory Board meeting.

Honoring the Connection Between Language and Health

The Ojibwe Nation has existed since time immemorial. Over the past few centuries, members of the nation have held their culture close despite unjust actions aimed at erasing the Ojibwe people, culture, and nation completely. Federal and local governments fractured the Ojibwe Nation’s cultural self-identity by outlawing Ojibwe ways of life, including the language, ceremonies, games, and foods. Having their culture deemed illegal prevented Band members from engaging in practices that were integral to community wellbeing.

Band members celebrate culture as a means to building health equity. Restoring and caring for Ojibwemowin as the spoken language in the community has been essential to revitalizing Band members’ health. The Fond du Lac Band understands, “If our language is healthy, people will be healthy. If people are healthy, our community is healthy.” In 2010, Band members made Ojibwemowin their official language. They later created the Gegaanzongejig Ji-Aabadak Ojibwemowin Language Program to embed language preservation across all tribal programs. This has strengthened cultural pride and enhanced the community’s emotional and spiritual health.

To collaborate is core to who we are. We may have lost a bit of that along the way. But we are in the process of taking our way of life back. Because that's what gives us a good life. For us, a Culture of Health is based on being collaborative with one another and depending on one another.

—Naawakwe, Ojibwemowin project manager, Fond du Lac Band's Language and Culture Program

Bringing back Baaga’adowewin has strengthened integration of the Ojibwe language and culture within the community. It exemplifies how the Band is reclaiming their culture through partnership. Weekly games have improved Band members’ physical, spiritual, and emotional health by instilling in players a collective pride in their cultural identity. This restoration was achieved through collaborative efforts across various tribal entities, including the Natural Resources Division, Health and Human Services, the Ojibwe Language and Culture Program, the Communications Division, and the Education Division.

The Ojibwe Nation secured bilingual road signs dotting the reservation by asserting tribal leadership in partnerships with federal, state and local governments. As the Ojibwemowin language revitalization effort gained momentum in 2014, Band members created a list of specific areas that needed Ojibwe names to make the language and the nation’s ownership of the land known. That list included county and state roads that the Band should have authority to name.

“Having a seat at the table and making sure our voice is heard is how change happens. That’s how we were able to change the road signs,” explains Jamie Adams, the Fond du Lac Band's economic development planner. The tribal nation is influencing state government by participating in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Advocacy Council on Tribal Transportation, where they led the state-and-federal-level initiative to update the road signs.

Two people are talking to each other while facing a lake. A third person is in the background looking at the water. Arianna Northbird and Nancy Schuldt from Fond du Lac Resource Management, along with Naawakwe from the Language and Culture Program, examine Zhaagaashiins-odabiwining (or Deadfish Lake), where Band members harvest wild rice.
Two people inside a greenhouse looking at plants. Museum director Jeff Savage and economic development planner Jamie Adams harvest food in Gitigaaning, or The Place of the Gardens.
Two people laughing in a parking lot. In between them is a cart full of different fruits and vegetables. Americorps Food Sovereignty VISTA Campbell Fischer gives locally grown food to school chef Mace Fontini, who will use it to cook the students’ meals.

Reviving Farming Practices to Sustain Community

Cultural identity permeates all aspects of the Band’s health and wellness efforts. Today, 11 different tribal divisions collaborate to create programs that make healthy Ojibwe foods accessible. As Rita Karppinen says, “We could not do what we are doing if it wasn't a group effort.” Band members are now reclaiming traditional farming practices to keep their families and communities fed. To do so, the nation’s sovereign government must often navigate state and local policies that prevented members from using traditional practices to feed their community. Despite this, they are reviving long-held practices, such as protecting and harvesting wild rice, fishing, foraging, and wild game hunting.

Gitigaaning (The Place of the Gardens) is the heart of the nation’s Food Sovereignty Program. A 36-acre farm, Gitigaaning is where many Band members are learning to grow food for the community. The nation uses food grown at Gitigaaning to help Band members maintain healthy diets, preventing diseases like diabetes that became widespread as a result of colonization.

For centuries, the Ojibwe’s nomadic lifestyle and natural diet kept the community healthy. Diabetes became prevalent only after decades of harmful U.S. government treaties and policies forced the Ojibwe people into a sedentary lifestyle and cut them off from their longstanding food sources. But through the nation’s food sovereignty work, Band members are regaining parts of their traditional diet.

The Band’s Health and Human Services Division, Resource Management Division, and Agricultural Division worked with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to create a Veggie RX program to provide Band members with produce and local meat. The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School also created a farm-to-school program, which uses food from Gitigaaning and other community gardens to feed students. These efforts have strengthened community pride by showing that Ojibwe people can, should, and always have united to provide healthy food for themselves and their community.

Collaboration—one of their most deeply held cultural values—is how Band members are overcoming systemic barriers to the community’s health. Reflecting on the harvest season, Naawakwe sums it up best: “It’s hard to go out there and pick rice by yourself. You need a partner and you need people. It helps to have people back at the camp to parch and dry your rice and help finish your rice. To collaborate is core to who we are. We may have lost a bit of that along the way. But we are in the process of taking our way of life back. Because that's what gives us a good life. For us, a Culture of Health is based on being collaborative with one another and depending on one another.”

A woman and man sit on a bunch at a bus stop.

Removing Barriers

Culture of Health Prize winners, Detroit; Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation; and Houston, are removing barriers to create more equitable systems in their communities.
A smiling mother and daughter sit at a table in a room of people doing arts and crafts together.

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Prize celebrates communities where people and organizations are collaborating to build positive solutions to barriers that have created unequal opportunities for health and wellbeing.