- Now with audio! That was fun to do. Also, my pronunciations are strictly not authoritative.
- Language note: Anishinaabewaki is Anishinaabe + aki ‘earth, land’.
If you read this blog to find out what’s going on in my life, for a while I haven’t really been giving you much to go on. A lot of opinions, and that’s pretty much it. I kinda like my opinions (that’s why I believe them), but even I get tired of reading nothing else here. It’s much more fun when I can tell a story, and maybe some opinions happen to be part of the story. That way you find out what the heck I’m up to these days, and I know that I took some belief I had and lived it. So I’m going to try to do more of that. Starting right now:
So what’s all this about “sugarbush”? How did I end up at a traditional Ojibwe maple syrup camp? What did I do there?
It’s kind of a long story, but it winds through several things I’ve been wanting to write about anyhow, so I’ll tell it all (in three parts, because it got long). It starts before I ever got to Minneapolis, and before I had any idea it was starting.
I might not have been able to articulate it at the time, but when I started my Year of Adventure, one of the reasons I put my thumb out that first day was that I needed to search for someplace to be from.
I felt, and still feel, that I had grown up nowhere. I had a childhood, sure, but it mostly took place in a suburb and, like most suburbs, mine was purposely set up to give the impression that it was no place in particular. Ohio has qualities, I suppose. But I wouldn’t know. I grew up insulated from them because of suburb developers who came and went long before my time and left behind neighborhoods designed to be blank slates. I didn’t feel like I was from Ohio—and I still don’t—because if you live on a blank slate, there’s nowhere to be from.
What applies to suburbs applies, I believe, also to the United States in general. In the three hundred years or so since the American project got earnestly underway, one of the most consistent themes has been the attempt to erase all memories and remnants of the past and create something new under the sun, a country built not on top of a complex history stretching into time immemorial but, instead, a shining new republic drawn on a clean sheet of paper. As if there could ever be such a thing as a place with no history.
We can believe there is, though—even if we got good grades in history—because, although we’re aware of the past, we don’t think of it as something we’re part of. We think of it as interesting background information. There used to be Indians here. Isn’t that a quaint notion? To think, this land that’s now ours was once populated by people who were, well, not us! How anxiously they must have been waiting for us to get here and turn the land into what it is now. It was nice of them to hold down the fort for us. Or, alternatively: What a travesty that they’re all gone now. How do we live our lives well now that there are none (0) of them to live good lives here?
The sense of placelessness that comes from that way of thinking is how I knew that, when I found a place to be from, part of becoming local to that place was going to have to be getting up to speed on the real history, the deep history, of the place. The pre-American, pre-Columbian history.
Languages have a way of teaching you history without you even knowing it. Even though you live in a thoroughly modern world, even if you never took a course in early English literature, you have some dim understanding of what life was like in previous centuries in Europe, because you’ve been surrounded, since you started speaking the language, in thoughts that come to us from those days. We don’t put the cart before the horse; we don’t burn our candle at both ends; we sometimes have a hard row to hoe. You know the inhabitants of the “theosystem”1 of those times—the spirits large and small, from fairies to wizards to princesses to giants, who inhabited the imaginations and lives of the Britons—because of the fairy tales that (if you learned English in the cradle) you heard when you were so young that they became foundational parts of your self.
And, it so happens, languages are something I’m good at. So as I was looking for someplace to be from, I realized that an important step in the process of becoming part of the place would have to be learning the language that belonged to that place. I would learn, and I would get to know some new spirits. And unlike the spirits I grew up with, they wouldn’t feel like they belonged to a distant, semi-mythical time and place, removed from me by an ocean and a few hundred years. I would (I hoped) learn new common sense and new spirits, and knowing them would make my new homeland feel more immediate and alive to me.
That’s the full answer to the question I’ve often been asked and often answered less than satisfyingly, the question of why I’m learning Ojibwe. It seems that I belong to the northern forests and the lakes. I should learn the language they understand, so I can understand them.
What’s Ojibwe? What’s it like?
Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Chippewa, and Anishinaabe are all different names for the same group of people. Anishinaabe is how I usually hear the people named when someone’s speaking the language, but the same person might use Ojibwe when they’re speaking English, or might still use Anishinaabe. It’s only a little confusing.
You might see Anishinaabeg sometimes, which is just the plural. A couple other words to be aware of are Ojibwemowin and Anishinaabemowin . The -mowin suffix means you’re talking specifically about the language (and not just about the people or the culture), is all.
The Anishinaabe nation is a large one, and northern. The language has been spoken around fires from what’s now known as North Dakota, on through Minnesota and Wisconsin, up into all the watery parts of Manitoba and Ontario (and on north until it blends into Oji-Cree and finally into Cree, a cousin language), and around the top and bottom of Lake Superior, fading into related Algonquian languages in the east, like Odaawaa near Ottawa, Mi’kmaq in Québec, Passamaquoddy in Maine, and the ghost of Lenape in New York State. The Anishinaabe people themselves once lived on the salty shores of the Atlantic. That was many centuries ago. They found their current home, and became the Anishinaabe, by following a prophecy and a miigis shell in the stars to the land here where food grows on the water—that’s manoomin, what you may know as wild rice.
You already speak some Ojibwe, believe it or not. Ever heard of a moose? English grabbed that word straight from Ojibwe—moonz. And a moccasin, too: it started out as makizin. Chipmunk is how settlers garbled the word ajidamoo (which actually means ‘squirrel’). Somehow our word pecan made it to English from Ojibwe bagaan, though you won’t find pecans growing in Ontario. (It means ‘nut’ here.)
And then there are all the place names. Mississippi (Misi-ziibi , ‘big river’), Milwaukee (Mino-aki, ‘good land’), Chicago (Zhigaagong, ‘at the skunk place’, which seems somehow fitting), Manitoba (Manidoo-baa, ‘spirit straits’), Menominee (Manoominii, ‘wild rice people’), Michigan (Mishi-gamaa, ‘it’s a big body of water’), and small towns, counties, and rivers all around Anishinaabewaki (Anishinaabe country).
Ojibwe is part of the Algonquian family of languages. Languages from the same family are the sources of the long, complicated, yet compellingly rhythmic place names you’ll find in New England, like Narragansett, Massachusetts, Piscataqua, Passadumkeag, Squannacook, Pemigewasset, Winnipesaukee, and Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.
Keeping the same spirit, Ojibwe is not a language known for its brevity. Beginning to learn the language requires a definite mental adjustment.
There are some notions that can be expressed with simple, short words. A lot of animals’ names, for example, are friendly and bite-size, like makwa ‘bear’, migizi ‘bald eagle’, nigig ‘otter’, adik ‘reindeer’, and amik ‘beaver’ (and not including mashkode-bizhiki ‘buffalo’ and ogiishkimanisii ‘kingfisher’).
Saying much about those animals, though, will mean that sooner rather than later, you’re going to have to use a verb. Most of Ojibwe is verbs. A sentence that English would express with several words might correspond to an Ojibwe sentence consisting of a single verb. For example, to say “I’ll try to speak Ojibwe with her”, you’d use a single word: Inga-gagwe-anishinaabemotawaa. All our words are in there somewhere:
|speak the language||to someone||to him/her|
It’s just that they’re all stuck together and you have to figure out what goes where before you start talking, or talk slow.
Sometimes, like in that last example, all the little bits seem, to an English-speaking mind, sensible and there for a reason. But other times, it seems like a word is far longer than it has any reasonable need to be. Like, for example, the Ojibwe word for Red Lake (a big lake and big center of Anishinaabe culture in Northern Minnesota): Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’iganiing, which for all that essentially just means “At the red lake”:
|Red||like a body of water||it is||lake||at|
But hidden in all those syllables is one of my favorite things about Anishinaabemowin. Each word is built up, piece by piece, of little elements of thought, and you can mix them together in almost infinitely creative ways, once you get the hang of it. It is a language made of liquid, and nearly every word is a vivid picture.
Let me explain a little. I’m comparing Anishinaabemowin, here, to English. The vocabulary of English is a huge collection of words that each stand for some fully-formed concept. One word, one concept. You can’t really alter the word to get something different, beyond maybe gluing it onto another word.
Also, a lot of these English words are nouns: things. English has a pronounced tendency toward reification. Look at that last sentence. We say that English has a tendency, it has this thing called a tendency. Have you ever seen a tendency? Me neither. But we still agree that it’s a thing you can possess. And there’s another thing-word, reification, to mean ‘turning an intangible into a thing’. That’s an action if I ever acted, but we make it a thing. Not to mention that if you don’t know what reification is, and if you don’t know, at a minimum, the word reify, you’re kind of out of luck, unless somehow you can see the Latin word res, ‘thing’, in there.
We don’t think too much about how often we reify, but it’s right there in our everyday language: think of it the next time someone asks you incredulously, “Is that a thing?”
Anishinaabemowin works very differently. Anishinaabemowin, for the most part, doesn’t deal with things that are other things or are had by other things; it deals with events—or, to not reify, I should say it deals with what’s happening, to whom and because of what else is happening.
In English there are teachers, in Ojibwe there’s who’s teaching (gekinoo’amaaged). In English you might forget someone’s name, in Ojibwe you would forget how they’re named (gi-wanendaan ezhinikaazod). When you look up a noun in an Ojibwe-English dictionary, you’ll often find a verb or adverb that involves that noun, instead. Want day? Well, you can say ‘it’s daytime’ (giizhigad) or ‘all day’ (gabe-giizhig) or ‘for two days’ (niizho-giizhig). You express the concept of weather through a word that means ‘what’s happening (outside)’. Ojibwe has nouns, and many of them are independent, but plenty of them are built from verbs; the verb came first, and if you find yourself needing a noun, there’s that too.
And all these words are made out of a bunch of little atoms that you can combine and recombine in whatever ways you want. There are two interesting results from this. One is that you can achieve some very subtle shades of meaning by just swapping out one atom for another, or adding another one. Louise Erdrich wrote in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country that “Shades of feeling can be mixed like paints.” And:
The blizzard of verb forms makes it an adaptive and powerfully precise language. There are lots of verbs for exactly how people shift position. Miinoshin describes how someone turns this way and that until ready to make a determined move, iskwishin how a person behaves when tired of one position and looking for one more comfortable. The best speakers are the most inventive, and come up with new words all of the time. Mookegidaazo describes the way a baby looks when outrage is building and coming to the surface where it will result in a thunderous squawl. There is a verb for the way a raven opens and shuts its claws in the cold and a verb for what would happen if a man fell off a motorcycle with a pipe in his mouth and drove the stem of it through the back of his head. There can be a verb for anything.
The other result of building from all these little parts is that all the words are powerfully related, connected to each other, as opposed to English where you have to memorize each one. English has the words remember, forget, think, happy, excited, and others to describe some states of mind. In Anishinaabemowin you have the suffix -endam to mean “state of mind”, and it connects all of these, each one with a sensible prefix to go along with it: remember is mikwendam from mikw- ‘find’; forget is wanendam from wan- ‘lose’; think is inendam from in- ‘in such a way’, happy is minwendam from mino- ‘good’, excited is ombendam from omb- ‘up’. You can sub out the intransitive -endam for the transitive -enim to make it something you do to someone: You can forget someone wanenim, be excited about someone ombenim, and so on. You can see how easy it is to make words up. I just did it with ombenim and I’ve only been learning in my spare time for less than a year.
I won’t lie: it’s also a tricky language. Verbs come in four main categories, and the most complicated of them, verbs that describe that something is being done to someone, can be conjugated in several thousand different ways. The conjugation tells you not just who’s doing it and when, but also who it’s being done to, how confident the speaker is about all this, what kind of clause you’re in, and more.
How I’m learning
In many cities in the Eastern half of the country, it’s understandable if you believe there are no longer such people as Native Americans, so thoroughly have they been murdered, exiled from their homes, or assimilated. But in Minneapolis, Native Americans are unmistakably present and defiantly still Native.
I live no more than a few blocks from Franklin Avenue, where the American Indian Movement started in the 1960s. Even closer to me is Little Earth, the first housing project in the country built for Natives. When I walk around the neighborhood I pass places like the Minneapolis American Indian Center, the Ancient Traders Market, All My Relations Art Gallery (combined with Powwow Grounds Coffeehouse), the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe building, the Red Lake Embassy, and other places I’m sure I haven’t noticed. You can’t get more surrounded in Native America without moving to a reservation.
What’s remarkable isn’t that I was able to find language tables to study at, but that it took me so long to get around to going to them regularly, since I’d decided before I even moved here that I wanted to learn the language. I wish I’d gotten started as soon as I moved here.
I started studying the language in earnest around this summer. I rode out to Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchbark Books, and got some textbooks; I found out when language tables met (there are at least three per week around here); I made flash cards and made a habit of idly flipping through my Ojibwe–English dictionary to learn new words. I’ve been moving along ever since, sometimes faster, sometimes slower.
The language tables help the most. Each table meets once a week. Everyone gets together, and we all just teach each other Ojibwe. I go to two tables regularly. At one of them we get into some pretty advanced grammar, and at the other there are people who can barely tell us what their name is. (“So-and-So indizhinikaaz.”) Whatever the level is, though, there’s just no substitute for speaking the language in real time with your real mouth with real people.
Besides which, the people are after all really the point.
I’m not learning Ojibwe for the satisfaction of working out the puzzle of its conjugations, after all. I’m learning it to learn a way of living and understanding the world that is the heritage of real people who really live it.
Now, the people who come to these language tables live in the city, and they live in the 21st century. They’re all people with individual lives. Going to the language tables isn’t like going back four hundred years to do some sort of ethnographic study of the Ojibwe people’s pre-invasion lifeways.
But there is, still, such a thing as Ojibwe culture. It’s alive and well, and it’s not the same thing as U.S. culture, despite the best efforts of a hundred years of assimilation policy. It belongs to the present; it’s not built around a veneration for the past and a wish that it would return exactly as it was. Its stories and teachings have wisdom that people can use right now and in the future.
And the core of that wisdom is, indeed, passed down from the thousands and thousands of years in which the Anishinaabe people lived from the Earth, lived closely with it and had to know everything about how to understand it and keep it healthy to keep themselves healthy. And I believe that wisdom is important: now more than perhaps ever in history. And it’s all this—the religion, the language, the circle of the year, the present and the everyday, all a tapestry from which you can’t sensibly isolate strands—that I want to learn.
“But,” you might say. “But you’re white! Haven’t you ever heard of cultural appropriation?”
I am, and I have, and I’ve spent a long time thinking about the same question. I was hesitant the first time I went to a language table. I made sure to clarify very early that I’m white, that I don’t have any meaningful amount of Native blood in me, that the most Native part of my childhood was when my mom rented Smoke Signals. And someone asked me, curiously, what got me interested in learning the language, and then we just had a normal language table, and they treated me exactly the same as anyone else. The same thing happened at the second language table I went to. I asked if there was anything I should be aware of, any boundaries not to step over. The teacher told me a few things about Anishinaabe etiquette that someone who grew up white might not know, but he didn’t tell me there was anything I should stay away from because I wasn’t born Native.
It’s been like that wherever I’ve gone. The Chippewa Tribe, as far as the United States Government is concerned, is defined by your blood quantum, and if you don’t have at least such-and-so fraction of documented ancestry from enrolled band members, then you’re not part of the tribe. When you take the government out of the picture, though, what I’ve been gathering is that the boundaries are much more porous. I know at least three people who are white by ancestry and have been given Anishinaabe names. (One is named Asabikeshiinh-inini, which translates to Spider-man.) I’ve never seen anyone get turned away or even get looked at askance because they were too white.
Something that does matter, of course, is that you’re not just in it for the money, or just to take without giving. One of the most basic values in the Anishinaabe worldview is that you have to give back. If the world gives you good luck (in hunting, in your job, wherever), or even just gives you a beautiful day or a sight of eagles flying overhead, you offer tobacco in return. If you’re given knowledge, similarly, it’s expected for you to give back by sharing that knowledge with someone else who’s ready for it, because your teacher clearly felt it was worth sharing. Once when I asked if it was okay for me to be relaying language teachings to Misty (who was in a little over their head at the language tables), my teacher said, “This is for everyone. Everyone should be speaking Ojibwe.” Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been invited to learn and participate.
And that, finally, is how and why I got to sugarbush.
It’s like an ecosystem, but for the spirits local to a place. ↩