Updated: Nov 21, 2020
As Winnipeg’s Indigenous population strives to integrate decolonization and reconcilia- tion processes into the future development of our society, the inclusion of mother tongue languages is an important aspect of this work. Some people, who have an interest in learning their mother tongue but are not flu- ent in Cree, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, Dene, Dakota or Michif, struggle to grasp the social and cultural nuances of the words spoken at ceremonies and events by the medicine people and Elders. Generally, they become familiar with common words like asemma (tobacco), bindiigen (come in), miigwetch (thank you), and bakwezhigan (bannock), and awkwardly integrate them into social situations.
The struggle to reclaim the languages that
successive Canadian governments tried to extinguish is further complicated by the introduction of pan-Indigenous interpre- tations of language, culture, and spiritual practice. For example, concepts like Turtle Island, the Medicine Wheel, Dream Catcher and Smudge Ceremony can be found in many areas across Canada.
The Algonquian family of languages – which includes the Cree language, Ojibway and Oji-Cree among others – had the most speakers at 175,825 and spans from Nova Scotia to Alberta, according to the 2016 census data.
With the prevalence of pan-Indigenous concepts being readily adopted by the mainstream, Roger Roulette and I recently set out to begin to authenticate Ojibwe culture using the language. Roger is an Ojibwe translator and specialist who taught at the University of Manitoba for twenty years. He grew up in Manitoba, the son of a well-known medicine man. I initially became intrigued in 2003 when I heard Roger speaking about the concept of “Mother Earth” on CBC Radio. He asserts that the commonly used term is a non-Indigenous concept that attributes a personal nature or human characteristic to something nonhuman (i.e., personification). The term is not found in the Ojibwe language.
Language is sort of our safety valve. If a practice is presented to our people, and we don’t have the necessary language, or we don’t have the terms for it, then it tells us this is foreign. This is not ours. Mother Earth is a great example. Mother Earth is something that people use constantly when they’re talking about native spirituality. And that’s difficult to say, if not impossible to say, in Ojibwe, because Ojibwe is divided into animate and inanimate categories. So, “mother” is animate, and “Earth” is inanimate. You can’t make a compound term where one word is animate and one is inanimate. It goes against the rules of our grammar.
After thirty years of interviewing Elders, reading historical transcripts, and working with
other language specialists, Roger consolidat- ed his research and knowledge into a frame- work he titled, Bimaadiziwin: Anishinaabe Life Model. The model highlights the follow- ing four primary values: bimenindizowin (independence), debwetamowin (faith/ belief), gizhewaadiziwin (grace/kindness), and bapiiwin (survival/overcoming). Each has a subset of four related values. Over the past year we have presented a series of public workshops wherein Roger orients partici- pants to his work and explains the origin and pragmatic application of each value. Many of the examples he shares are based on his childhood experiences of living in a unilingual village near MacGregor, Manitoba. The workshop provides a rare glimpse into a pre-contact world where Indigenous thought, ingenuity, science, and respect for nature were supreme.
As we move toward reconciling the damage that colonization and resource extraction have imposed on Indigenous people, authentic points of reference are required to ensure that we honour the history of our ancestors and the intent of the treaties that were negotiated with the Settlers. Roger assures us that the Ojibwe language will endure into this century because there are language-speaking reservoirs in Poplar Hill, Pikangikum, and Pauingassi.