Pick Your Story

Kayla Gebeck | Red Lake Ojibwe | 2008-2012

Kayla started learning the Ojibwe Language when went to Dartmouth. She took Linguistics One to satisfy her quantitative distribution requirement, and “totally nerded out.” In class, James Sanford, the Linguistics One professor, introduced the Ojibwe word for Blueberry pie –  miini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan – followed by a session on language revitalization.

“That's when I was like, I can use [linguistics] to help myself revitalize the language in my own family,” Kayla said. “That's kind of cool.”

Part of the major requirement is to learn two languages. She took some Spanish classes, because she had already taken Spanish in high school. But then she didn’t want to take another “mainstream” language, she wanted to learn Ojibwe. She worked with her professors in the Linguistics department, who were all supportive, and organized a transfer term at the University of Minnesota. There, she spent a semester learning Ojibwe.

“Ojibwe is so unique,” Kayla said. “It's beautiful, but when you translate it, it loses some of that. Like the word for fall, it's brushing the hair of the tree. It’s more poetic. And it has more meaning. And I was interested in how languages capture different perspectives and views of the world.”

The irony is, though, that she went all the way to Minnesota to learn Ojibwe, her professor there used a textbook written by her Dartmouth professor, Lindsay Whaley.

Kayla grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but spent summers in rural Minnesota, closer to her community up north. When Kayla was accepted to Dartmouth, there was no question that that’s where she wanted to go. She had already had her sights set on the East Coast – she applied to Boston College and Boston University. Dartmouth was her reach school. She learned about it through her high school best friend, who’s older brother attended Dartmouth. He wasn’t Native, but he noticed that Dartmouth had a large Native community and encouraged Kayla to check it out. He put her in contact with a Dartmouth ‘09, Cinnamon Kills First, who told her about the Native dance group at Dartmouth, and about the diversity of Native tribes represented. Kayla, at the time, didn’t know much about Native cultures outside of Ojibwe and Lakota, and was most excited to attend school with Indigenous people from all over. And it was comforting to know that there was a Native “family” of sorts at Dartmouth, which made her feel good about leaving home.

At first, Kayla’s classes were challenging. And coming from the city, the campus felt too small. And for some reason, even though she’s from the north, the winters in Hanover were especially tough. But she coped, and even thrived.

During her time at Dartmouth, Kayla was involved in the NAD community. She was NAD co-president, and led the Native dance group. One year, she even managed to have the NAD dance group count towards a gym credit; she knew of a few NADs who were unable to graduate just because they hadn’t fulfilled their PE requirements. Some days, they would even take time away from dance practice to go to the gym to workout.

“I was like, come on, let's just hang out. We'll bounce around, you know, listen to some good music and work out,” Kayla said.

She also lived in the attic of the NAH her junior year. Everyone said the attic was haunted, and Kayla agrees it might be. Both her roommate and her floor mate moved out because of it. So Kayla was all alone in the haunted attic of the NAH. When she came home at night, she used to make someone walk upstairs with her. One night, she came home late from NAD meetings, and was so tired she went upstairs alone and went right to bed. When she woke up in the morning, she was in her friend’s room on the second floor – she had slept walked all the way there.

“So who knows?” Kayla said. “Yes, I was exhausted. But maybe the attic’s haunted? Pick your story.”

Kayla joined Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority because she wanted to meet more women at Dartmouth. She grew up in a family of mostly men, and wanted to involve herself with a female community. She also wanted to feel a little less socially awkward. While she didn’t completely immerse herself in that community, she doesn’t regret joining. She didn’t spend a lot of time with her sorority but she still has good friends who she met through her sorority. And now, in her adult life, if those girls have questions relating to Indian Country, they can call Kayla.

“I'm so connected to so many amazing people – Dartmouth alumni are amazing,” Kayla said. “Anytime you meet them, they always support you and try to help you grow. And I think I learned a lot [at Dartmouth]. And some of my best friends went to Dartmouth and we still text every day and visit each other. And I don't think I would have gotten that education, that challenge, the mentors and people guiding [me] anywhere else.”

Now, Kayla works as a lawyer in DC where she advocates for tribes across the country. Her linguistics background helps her every day with communication, and gives her a little different perspective on people and interactions. She’s raising her daughter far away from home, but she’s given her a strong Ojibwe name – Cedar – and she’s raising her to be familiar with her Indigenous language.