n’debaajaamowin – my story

The following is part of a presentation for a panel on ‘Indigenous languages: heritage and spirit at the CFSP 2013. I didn’t have enough time to finish my story so I thought it was necessary to share the whole story.

n’debaajaamowin – my story

as a child i only heard commands: wiisnin! eat! nmaadibin! sit down! this is the language our anishnaabeg gashiwag (mothers – the beings who mean well) used with children. they had a command over children. children were told what to do and not asked if they wanted to do it. this tells me that our mothers were very important and strong with the help from the language. now with the lack or loss of language the mother’s role has changed and that of the roles of the elders as well. many times children of all ages don’t really hear these commands they don’t behave well.

i listened to my older relatives speak indian: i use indian because at the time nobody said anishnaabemowin.  it was always very secretive. they would talk in english (zhaagaanoshmowin) and then switch if they didn’t want the children know what was being said. were they being protective and keeping us all safe? the dialect spoken at my granny’s (ella boyer nii: niigaanigijig-ba) house was from the odawa dialect from wikwemikong even though she was married into the ojibwe community of mississauga. she kept her original dialect. when i heard this language it reminded me of the wind in the leaves or on the water because it was smooth, fast, and very lyrical. this was my first love for language and perhaps what inspired me to be a writer. my uncle angus niigaanigijig-ba came to visit from wikwemikong and he was one of the first deacons in the community. he brought an ojibwe bible that was written by the jesuit priests and he taught me the lord’s prayer in indian. this was my first time reading anything in indian. i can’t remember the prayer it was too foreign. i do remember how hard it was to say the words.

as a teenager: i wanted to know more. my older relatives didn’t know how to teach the language. when i asked my grandmother (grace boyer-ba) if she could teach me she tried her best. she became very frustrated when she tried to remember words, verbs, or sayings. so she taught me how to count to 10 and for me that was amazing. we’d go to bingo in the neighboring anishnaabeg communities and i’d hear the language even more. the older ones always talked together in the language. we’d go to sagamok or garden river (kitigan ziibii) and these were the first times i learned the names of communities in the language. at the bingo, my grandmother would get frustrated with the loss of language. she would try to pull those words out and make sentences. they didn’t come. so she spoke half and half but i could tell from her body language that she was saddened by this.

as an adult: i moved away from my community after highschool. i was further separated from my community even though i never lived in mississauga (my mom’s community) or in wikwemikong (my father’s community). i still felt the disconnection from akiing (the land). the further i moved i held on to what little i had. i was on the west coast and having my two children out there as well. while i was out there i was starting to have an intense sense of loss, disconnection, loneliness, insecurity, and it was hindering on mental illness. i moved back to ontario 7 years ago and i’ve had personal struggles of putting myself back together because of the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental upheaval. i find myself here and it’s been about connecting back with the land of my ancestors. since this moving around i’ve recognized that it’s been a great learning experience for me as anishnaabe because i’ve learned so much of from the people i met and the friends that i made. i realized that we have so much in common from the generations of loss, disconnect, and shame that we all carried in one form or another. and the urgency of learning our indigenous languages has always been paramount. i’ve taken note of the resilience in everyone that i’ve met to keep on doing what they are doing. even the most vulnerable i see myself in them and know how hard it is to stay present and be grounded. this part of my life was necessary for me to grow and to connect with my relations, and also to have my children – they were waiting for me out there.

last 7 years: i’ve taken a beginner’s course at carleton university with jean akiwenzie from cape croker. this was my real first formal education and it was an amazing experience. one of the first things i learned was the definition of anishnaabe – the good beings, the good people. this is what we called ourselves. our language is anishnaabemowin – the good people language, the good beings language. this is what our people believed and still believe. i was in a class room with adult learners from many anishnaabeg communities. i learned for the first time that i wasn’t alone in the learning. there were others who had older relatives who didn’t speak the language, who experienced shame or violence when speaking the language, who only spoke english, who were survivors, and who were being pro-active and doing something about it. i learned that we need to celebrate that we are alive, we are survivors and that there is a deep solidarity in this action. and the greatest resistance is learning your indigenous language.

i had many observations from this classroom: many of us were coming from only knowing a colonized language and their was a struggle with that. our tongues couldn’t pronounce the words properly, it took lots and lots of practice. we all got frustrated at one time or another. when it came to anishnaabemowin grammar some of us questioned the teacher so critically about the structure that it was shameful to be in the classroom. was it because of being colonized and learning english grammar so well that anything different including your own indigenous language seemed wrong or backwards? what i learned about the grammar was incredible. anishnaabemowin is very descriptive, exact, and always evolving. it’s also a verb based language and based on inanimate and animate verbs because in anishnaabe philosophy things are alive or not alive. what does that tell us? that we know that many things have a spirit and are alive like giizis, the sun and also can be the moon.

in the meantime: i listen to avr (aboriginal voices radio) 93.7 ottawa every saturday and sunday from 6am-9 and sometimes 10am to listen to anishnaabemowin lessons with basil johnson from cape croker. it’s the same lessons over and over again and i listen to them no matter what. it’s been helping me with the pronunciation of the words. and it’s very entertaining to listen to basil because he tells stories and gives the meanings behind the words, which helps someone like me. i’ve learned to be patient with the language because basil says, it takes a baby, a toddler to listen to their parent’s language for 40 – 50 000 hours before they even say a word. he also says that when babies learn how to walk they stumble but they always get up again and try again and again until they are walking. so i am learning to be patient and make mistakes because i will learn from them.

my romantic notions: i heard once that edgar cayce-ba, the sleeping prophet, would sleep with a book under his pillow and upon waking he would have attained all the knowledge or story within that book. i tried that and all i got was a kink in my neck. i guess edgar has a much more special gift than i. i also thought that if i prayed hard enough, meditated or in my dream state i would visit with my ancestors and they would give me a gift of the language. that hasn’t happened either. what has happened though is i’ve had many special dreams that encourage me to keep going. i’ve learned that i need to be more practical just like my ancestor’s.

reasons to learn: my reason to learn anishnaabemowin is that i want to be able to use it for writing so that other anishnaabeg can read something whether it’s a poem, prose, fiction or non-fiction in their own language. i want to write for the children and for all ages. i want to be able to speak the language and understand the language so that i understand things. even when i make mistakes with the language it’s going to be okay because i am trying and will continue to try. also i wanna know why when a group of fluent speakers are always laughing their asses off. the people are always laughing hard – anishnaabeg gchi baapi pane!

words to share:

o’de – heart

o’de’toon – the heart of the people in reference to the village centre or a town where people gather

(o) de’waagan – the drum (the first part of the word is o’de – what that tells me is that the drum is part of our heart)

(o)debwewin – truth (the first par of the word is o’de but the o isn’t pronounced, it is dropped – what this tells me is that truth is speaking with your heart

minwendam – happy or content

nasewin – the breath of life

anishnaabe – beings who mean well

anishnaabemowin – the language of the beings who mean well

noongom/noongwa – now or today

these words tell me so much about being anishnaabe. these words fill me with purpose and also inspire me to be all that i can be.

gchi miigwech to my relatives, my granny, grandma, uncles, and aunties, who gave me the first words that i learned as a child and as a young adult. this gave me a foundation even if it was a bit shaky, it was still there. and gchi miigwech to my mother, barbara wabegijig nii: boyer, who helps me today with the pronunciation of words even if it takes her a few tries, she eventually gets it.

gchi miigwech to all those language carriers and who are using technology that is available to us in a good way by teaching the language. gchi miigwech to the language teachers who in most part are our mothers and grandmothers who raise us children in the language. gchi miigwech to the language teachers in the classroom who have dedicated their lives in the promotion of the language and keeping it alive. gchi miigwech to the language learners who will carry it to the next generations.

our languages are alive and will continue to teach us our relationship with each other and with the land, water, air, and all life on this abundant and beautiful earth. if we listen carefully, the land and the animals, the birds, and the fish, will start talking with us again. and maybe new teachings and ceremonies will come to us and help us with our on-going healing. and who knows maybe this is what nanabush is waiting for so that nanabush can walk and talk with us again. or maybe we will find out that nanabush has always been with us and we will wake to a new truth. i’ve heard somewhere that our ancestors have always said that the answers are in the language. hmmm… i wonder what that means?

aho miigwech!


5 thoughts on “n’debaajaamowin – my story

  1. gchi miigwech to you Vera for this amazingly written piece! We hope to read your books in the future. We are going to share this link so that it inspires others around the world who are learning their ancestral languages too. You have definitely inspired us.


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