By Sam Laskaris
GARDEN RIVER FIRST NATION – It’s true that Barbara Nolan doesn’t get too many calls on her cell phone, which is why the 74-year-old Garden River First Nation resident was surprised her phone would ring recently while shopping with her daughter.
It was even more surprising when she saw that it was Sault Ste. Marie the mayor Christian Provenzano at the other end.
The mayor called Nolan to congratulate her on being selected as the 2021 recipient of Sault Ste. Marie du Mérite Medal.
The city annually awards the medal to an individual or group who has achieved excellence in a cultural, academic or sporting field and has made an outstanding contribution to the community for many years.
A committee of five people, including the mayor, reviews the nominations and chooses the eventual winner.
“I never thought people would come up with me,” said Nolan, who has been recognized for her five decades of local service for the advancement of the Anishinaabemowin language.
Nolan was appointed by Karen Bell, a constable with the Anishinabek Police Department.
Nolan has an idea why his work is recognized now.
“I think it’s where truth and reconciliation comes into play to make people aware of our history,” she said.
Nolan was born in the unceded territory of Wiikwemkoong on Manitoulin Island. She moved to Garden River First Nation when she met her husband Tom in 1970.
A few years later, she started teaching her language classes.
“I did it because the students weren’t happy to take French,” she says. “They wanted to do something in their own language.
And 50 years later, Nolan continues to teach the Anishinaabemowin.
She teaches the youth at the Garden River First Nation daycare. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been teaching these lessons from a distance, a fact that doesn’t bother her as she wants to stay safe and the young people she teaches would not have been vaccinated.
She also runs virtual classes as part of the Good Learning Anywhere program, based in Sioux Lookout.
Nolan also recently completed teaching a 10-week non-university Ojibwe language course offered by the Native American Cultural Center at Yale University, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States.
This was her second time teaching a class at the University of Connecticut. And she was invited back to teach in another class at the American School this spring.
Nolan also teaches language classes at various schools in Michigan. Although she used to travel to teach these classes, she now teaches them remotely due to the current pandemic.
Nolan plans to continue teaching for as long as possible.
“It’s my passion,” she said. “It’s a lifelong passion. I will do it as long as I can.
Provenzano believes that Nolan deserves his distinction.
“The Medal of Merit is a fitting recognition of Barbara’s great leadership and her significant contributions to our community,” he said.
Provenzano added that Nolan is providing a valuable service.
“Elders and knowledge keepers have invaluable knowledge, skills and wisdom grounded in Indigenous history, tradition, culture, language and ceremonies,” he said. “Barbara has inspired hundreds of Indigenous people to rediscover their language and celebrate their traditions, and she has shared and taught her language with many non-Indigenous people. We must collectively study Indigenous history and culture in order to learn from, celebrate and respect them. Barbara is helping us make significant progress in this regard and I am grateful for her continued efforts. “
Nolan was also appointed Language Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation in December 2020 and retains this role. His duties include advising nation leaders and the public on the importance of Anishinaabemowin protection, retention, revitalization initiatives and their use.