Struggling to adapt to life at the University and coping with the deaths of her grandmother and aunt her freshman year, Brooke Simon seriously doubted whether she would remain in Ann Arbor and continue studying at the University.

Kelly Fraser
Irving “Hap” McCue helped start the Ojibwe language program at the University. (COURTESY OF MARGARET NOORI).

For Simon, a Native American, adjusting to life away from her community was proving a difficult task.

But before making a decision, Simon talked with Irving “Hap” McCue, a lecturer of Ojibwe language and culture at the University and an elder in the Native American community. After McCue counseled Simon and told her one of his many stories, Simon decided to stay at the University, with McCue playing a vital role in her decision.

Simon is one of many students and faculty members whose lives were transformed by McCue, who died Monday. He was 75.

Simon, an LSA junior this year, now serves as co-chair for the Native American Students Association. She said she plans to follow in McCue’s footsteps by becoming an Ojibwe teacher herself. She attributed much of the credit for her interest in to McCue’s teaching and guidance.

McCue, who spent 33 years at the University, was born in Ontario, Canada, on the Curve Lake First Nations Reserve, where he was a Ojibwe tribal member throughout his life. Many praised him for his fluent and beautiful command of the Ojibwe language.

McCue also spent part of his childhood living in the Canadian Residential School System, which, like the infamous American boarding school system of the late 19th century, was created to strip Native Americans of their heritage and traditions.

But McCue survived the Residential School System, and first came to the University in the early 1970s, at which time he partnered with Richard Rhodes, a recent University graduate in linguistics, to create the University’s first program in the Ojibwe language.

Rhodes, who now teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, said McCue didn’t even have his GED when the two began working to build the program. But during their time together between 1972 and 1986, Rhodes and McCue successfully incorporated Ojibwe into the various other language programs at the University. McCue also played a major role in the researching and writing of Rhodes’s widely cited and renowned Eastern Ojibwe-Chippewa-Ottawa dictionary, which closely examines two dialects of the complex Ojibwe language.

When Rhodes left the University of Michigan in 1986 for a job at Berkeley, he made sure before his departure that the Department of Linguistics kept McCue to keep running the Ojibwe program the two had created 15 years earlier. “I went into the Dean and said, ‘Look don’t let this thing go. I don’t care he doesn’t have all the requisite degrees. He’s the guy to keep the Ojibwe language program going,'” Rhodes said.

Rhodes also said McCue was courageous for advocating the study of Ojibwe at the university level, considering the prejudices against Native Americans in the United States at the time.

“He was really someone who overcame the negative portrayals in the society,” Rhodes said. “He lived through the period when it was really bad to be an Indian into the time when it was OK to be an Indian.”

Although McCue taught only as a lecturer during his career at the University, many of his most recent colleagues credit him with making Ojibwe scholarship a staple of language studies at the University and generating significant student interest in the language.

American Culture Prof. Margaret Noori, who teaches Ojibwe language and literature, said the University’s Ojibwe program – with about 150 – is much larger than Ojibwe programs at other Big Ten schools, which she estimated to include about 10 to 25 students each.

This interest, she said, is a product of McCue’s passion for the language and genuine interest in the well-being of his students.

“You just don’t see people dedicate that kind of focus to undergraduate education at an institution of Michigan’s stature,” Noori said.

McCue was also a favorite teacher of many student-athletes.

Noori said one of the most memorable moments of the past semester in McCue’s class was seeing football players including Jamar Adams, Jake Long and Mike Hart sing “Hail to the Victors” in Ojibwe after McCue had taught them the proper translation.

American Culture Prof. Vicente Diaz said he remembered McCue not only for his scholarship at the University, but also for the cultural scholarship he took part in outside of Ann Arbor’s city limits.

“Hap was instantly recognized as an important figure, and feted as such in all the communities we visited,” Diaz said in an e-mail.

Never one to lose sight of his heritage or his culture, McCue frequently participated in Native American traditions and activities throughout Michigan.

Punkin Shananaquet, who works for the Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi Indians in southwest Michigan, said McCue would deliver the opening invocation in Ojibwe each year at the Dance for Mother Earth pow wow, which is a gathering for Native Americans from throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Many of the people who studied or taught with McCue offered one final message for him in Ojibwe – McCue’s native language, to which he devoted a lifetime of scholarship and passion.

“Pane igo kaa pakwenmigo maampii kchi kinomagegamigong,” they said, which translates into “We will always remember you at the University of Michigan.”

Services will be held at Muehlig Funeral Chapel on 403 South Fourth St. in Ann Arbor, as follows: a first visitation on Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m and a second on Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. The funeral services will be held at Muehlig Funeral Chapel on Saturday at 10 a.m.

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