Re-learning the language

A mingehzeh, Oji-Cree for bald eagle, flies near Webequie First Nation. Photo by Sara Mai Chitty

By Sara Mai Chitty

Community Journalism Trainer

A big part of the reason I took a job working in northern Ontario First Nations is because of the strength of the language in this territory.

Both of the communities I’ve worked in, Kasabonika Lake and Webequie, speak different dialects of Oji-Cree, and are home to many fluent speakers. Even though I do not speak the language fluently, I pick up differences in slang, enunciation and pronunciation between the two communities. The two communities even laugh differently. The women in Webequie have this specific way of laughing that I am sure I will miss when I leave. Their laugh gets louder and towards the end they go “Ah-hi-yo.” It’s infectious.

The language borrows from both Ojibwe and Cree languages. The Ojibwe and Cree are two distinct cultural groups whose traditional lands lay across parts of what is now known as Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Minnesota, Michigan and Manitoba. Historically they intermarried and traded together, making Oji-Cree a unique mashup of the two languages and cultures.

For example, a lot of the animal names are Ojibwe. Little things change, though. “Migizi” in Ojibwe (bald eagle) has an “n” in it up here and sounds more like “mingehzeh.”

As a group, we call ourselves Anishinaabe and these languages Anishinaabemowin.

Roots

My family’s traditional territory lies near Peterborough, Ont. Actually it lies along the Bay of Quinte, but that’s Mohawk territory now. The Mississauga people of what is now known as Alderville and Sugar Island were pushed west by refugees of the American Revolution landing in the bay. The land along the Bay of Quinte was promised to Joseph Brant for the Mohawk’s loyalty to the British Crown.

The language my grandfather used to speak would have been a Mississauga Ojibwe dialect. Very few people speak the language on our reserve, but people are trying to change that. My grandfather lost his ability to speak when his mother remarried a “white man.” She lost her Indian Status, and so did her children, and they were kicked off the reserve. He went to an English speaking school where he was punished for speaking the only language he knew. At home, his stepfather forced them to speak English.

He says he doesn’t remember a single word, and has relearned a few over the years. I remember my grandmother trying so hard to get us involved in the language as kids, writing out the moons (months), seasons, weather, animals, numbers. Not a whole lot stuck. I didn’t understand why it was important. At the time I was excelling in French at school. Everything in Canada is packaged with English and French, and not in any Indigenous languages. Coupled with the anxiety I felt about being Ojibwe and not looking like a “real” Indian with my white skin, the whole “learn Ojibwe” thing never stuck. But the guilt about not knowing it did.

How language frames worldviews

Language is the lens through which you view your world. The way language is structured frames our way we think. For example, using different pronouns for gender connotes that “gender” exists. One thing I noticed about people up here that grew up speaking the language, particularly the Elders and the very young ones, have trouble with their pronouns. Sometimes they say “he” instead of “she” or vice versa. It’s because in Anishinaabemowin, things aren’t gendered. Everything is animate or inanimate. Culturally, Anishinaabe did not think of gender the way we do in North America today. Don’t get me wrong, gender constructs are still very prominent in these communities thanks to colonialism, but this example demonstrates how language creates the framework within which you view the world. If you don’t have words or hierarchies or genders in your language, it’s likely you don’t have those things in your culture.

“…to truly understand the meaning of being Indigenous to the land, is to truly understand the land through your language.”

Within the framework of Anishinaabemowin is relationships. Words have relationships to each other, words for kin explain kinship relationships, and words for the land and everything in it are encoded with these relationships. Many words in Anishinaabemowin can only be understood through their relationship to other words in the same sentence. Context, as always, is key.

For example, using the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, the word for “spider” is “asabikeshiinh” in Ojibwe. Up here they just call them “googoos,” the affectionate name for a grandmother, but that’s a whole other (creation) story. The root word “asabike” means “s/he makes nets” and “shiinh” means “tiny creature.” The spider’s name represents its relationship to the land. It makes nets.

But it goes deeper than that: the way spider weaves her web, or lives her life, is a teaching for us. She taught us to make nets. She teaches us patience, and perseverance. Our relationship with her is how we have our knowledge to make nets. Everything we need is provided to us by the earth and the animals — and there is so much to learn from the land.

It is important to understand that languages (including slang) are a product of, but also contribute to the cultures they operate within. So, to truly understand the meaning of being Indigenous to the land, is to truly understand the land through your language.

Oji-Cree syllabics printed on cloth.

Most teachings in Anishinaabe culture come from observing the land, and the relationships animals have with the land and each other, the weather, their lifecycles and characteristics are lessons in and of themselves. And if we’re paying attention, we can learn from the land. Essentially, we were the last to be created and depend on everything else for survival. It was the animals that brought us gifts, and taught us how to share. They are our relations – they are our equals. The entire Anishinaabe worldview is based upon principles of coexisting with the world around us. We don’t own the land, the land owns us.

A lot of this is present in the language, when we talk about those teachings. It’s not the same another language. It doesn’t make sense the same way, and there isn’t context for this way of thinking in English without it sounding like a hokey Native stereotype. It took me a really, really long time to understand these concepts in English. My grandfather used to talk about how everything has a purpose. And I never really understood what he meant. But no joke, everything really does have a purpose, literally and philosophically. There is nothing and no one on this planet that simply exists for no reason. Everything exists to sustain everything else. This concept is called “gakina awiya,” or “everybody,” but it also means “everybody in relation to each other.” It’s about interconnectedness.

Basic scientific understandings of ecosystems explain how everything is connected, but it’s a scientific explanation in English. It’s not intrinsic to the English-speaker’s worldview. Without the language, these concepts are hollow and not properly explained, and the word for ecosystem isn’t synonymous with the idea that everything is connected in the same way gakina awiya means.

“As Indigenous languages across the world die out, we are losing all the knowledge and understanding of that specific land with it.”

Lastly, getting out on the land in a traditional territory with a fluent Anishinaabemowin speaker reveals knowledge about that land, and the plants and animals who call it home. As Indigenous languages across the world die out, we are losing all the knowledge and understanding of that specific land with it. Medicine, knowledge of species, migration, times of the year to harvest things – all of this valuable scientific knowledge could be lost with the language and the Elders who speak it. Indigenous populations across the world observed climate change before scientists because their intimate relationship with the land they live on meant that when things did not happen, or grow or migrate the way they had for as long as anyone could remember.

Drive to learn

I want to know my language. But in order to do that, I need to know the land I am trying to learn: everything and anything. I do not learn very well by ear. I am a visual learner, and from years of studying French and writing out conjugated verbs, I have trained my brain to learn languages seeing it written, and in pictures. Hearing it alone is not enough for me. I’ve spent a year in communities with many fluent speakers, and yet have only built a vocabulary of approximately one hundred words or phrases. However, the opportunity has been incredible. I can understand sometimes, but I am still often left in the dark in the company of my friends. I truly do not mind, because I listen intently for repeating words, then I ask what they mean. Because I cannot learn by ear, I mispronounce the words I think I hear, making it difficult for the person I am asking to know what I mean. But we make do.

Something I have observed though is that many of the youngest ones here cannot or will not speak their language, even though they’re surrounded by it I asked someone why they won’t speak it once and they said they were afraid to. A lot of youth understand it, but can’t or won’t speak it. Or they don’t understand at all. The more specific words, specific to dialect, names for specific plants indigenous to the area, and certain concepts, aren’t necessarily in their vocabulary.

Many of the adults lament this, as if the youth do not want to learn. But they are young and remind me of myself at their age. The youth are inundated with English speaking television and internet and it doesn’t seem practical to know Oji-Cree. The way it’s being taught in school isn’t effective. It’s not sticking — because it’s no longer the default. However it’s not all bad. In many ways, you can see how the language is being used by youth in the way that it’s evolving. Slang and certain phrases you would only here around here are evidence of this..

A lot of you are aware they need to keep their language and actively use it, and try to teach me too.

“I always took it for granted that my grandparents would be around to keep teaching me, that I could learn teachings and crafts, the language and about my culture from them forever.”

I wish I had the right words to explain how frustrating it is to not know the language and how it feels to have your identity questioned for not knowing it. That frustration is what spawned this blog post.

Moving up here gave me the right kick in the pants to start learning the language, but I see it being taken for granted in some small ways. People don’t realize how lucky they are to have access to so many fluent speakers. This is an opportunity I never had. I always took it for granted that my grandparents would be around to keep teaching me, that I could learn teachings and crafts, the language, and about my culture from them forever. Now my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and last time we beaded together, she lost interest. Whenever I call my Papa and tell him what words I’m learning, I can hear him smile through the phone. “Good stuff, Sara,” he’ll say. I think he always wanted to see us continue on our culture, to make up for the time he spent without it.

So even though I came up here to teach journalism, I ended up relearning many things my Papa was forced to forget. And really, that’s what it is. It’s up to us to make up for lost time. To pass on our languages and teachings. It’s a heavy burden, it’s overwhelming and it’s frustrating, but it’s worth it to reclaim those pieces of yourself you didn’t know you had.

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