MISKWAANAKWAD gives a hilarious Anishnaabemowin lesson at the 2nd Annual Gchi Dewin Festival | Image Credit: Matt McGregor
Language is culture. Anishinaabemowin is a major aspect of Anishinaabe culture that the Canadian government sought to eliminate through the Indian Act, the reservation system and residential schools. Today as more and more Indigenous people move towards cultural reclamation, a movement is taking hold to revitalize Indigenous languages. Some people are dedicating their careers to language revitalization. One such Individual is Miskwaanakwad Manoominii from Wasauksing First Nation. In 2016, Manoominii, along with two others: Monty McGahey of Chippewas of the Thames, and Jessica Benson of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation and Rama First Nation started an Anishinaabemowin immersion camp for adult learners to improve their Anishinaabemowin skills. He also is a host on Rez Radio at 91.3 FM where he produces Anishinaabemowin language learning videos, teaching the grammar of the language. MUSKRAT Magazine writer, Erica Commanda spoke with Miskwaanakwad about his journey and challenges in learning Anishinaabemowin and doing what he can to revitalize the language.
EC: Can you tell me about your journey in learning Anishinaabemowin. What inspired you to learn to speak it fluently? What challenges have you faced along the way in your journey?
MM: It’s something that I just kind of had in the back of mind growing up. When I was a teenager it was something I thought that I should learn from my grandma. As I got older and went to university, I never pursued it. I didn’t really see it as an option and eventually after so many years of telling myself that someday I would learn Anishinaabemowin, I finally started to do it. I was still living in Ottawa at that time and decided to make an honest effort of it. I took a beginner introduction class at Carleton. Myself and some other community members took the class and it was really helpful for getting the basis on grammatical stuff. Growing up we had classes in elementary school but it was only half an hour a day and we never really learned how to actually speak. We just learned a bunch of words, so as a kid it wasn’t until I started to learn more about how the language worked that I was able to start to speak it.
Then back in 2012, I moved home, to Wasauksing, to be close my grandma because she is a fluent speaker. It’s been challenging all throughout. I’ve been home now for five years. I still consider myself a beginner. I can speak basic conversational Anishinaabemowin. I still have a long way to go. I’ve ended up meeting a lot of people around Ontario and further west in Anishinaabe territory and have made some friends in Minnesota. There’s a school out there that myself and a few people from this way have attended called Ojibwemotaadidaa, its an immersion school. I’ve been out there a few times. It’s been really helpful for me and my friends who are learning as well.
We have so few speakers left here in Wasauksing. I think most of the communities are in similar positions where the only fluent Anishinaabemowin first language speakers left are our elderly. Some communities have no fluent speakers left. That’s one of the biggest challenges. We have so few speakers and on the other hand we have so few learners. Not a lot of people are making the effort to learn. Being home can be discouraging because a lot of my friends who are learners, or working on revitalizing the language live far a way. There’s a bunch in Minnesota, there’s a bunch here in Ontario, but we are all scattered. It can feel like an uphill battle at times, well all the time. We need more people, we need everyone to be working on it if we want to save and revitalize our languages.
EC: You are part of a team who organizes Shki-nishnaabemjig, an Anishinaabemowin immersion language camp where no English is permitted to be spoken for close to 3 weeks. What’s it like? What are the most common challenges amongst campers?
MM: The biggest challenge is that’s its actual immersion. Even if you study Ojibway a lot and you understand how the language works, it’s’ really hard to do, if you’ve never been a situation where you’ve been speaking Anishinaabemowin all the time.
My friends and I who organize it met each other through being learners. We’ve only met each other in the past few years, but it’s through our respective journeys that we came together. One of the things we always talked about was that they wanted to find immersion camps. There’s always immersion camps going on in the summers, so we travelled far and wide to go to these camps, but they weren’t really immersion- everyone was still speaking English at these camps. Myself, Jess and Monty we coordinated that together. We all attended Ojibwemotaadidaa and they do full immersion, so we modelled our program on how they do it over there.
EC: During your work with Anishinaabemowin revitalization, what results have you seen so far in your work? Do you see an uptack in interest or people speaking the language more fluently?
MM: I’m meeting more people who are learning, but that’ solely because I’m travelling around and meeting people working on revitalization. I can’t say for sure. I hope that more people are getting involved with revitalization movement because as it stands – we need everybody to be working towards this in order to do what we are trying to do.
EC: What else would you like to see be done in terms revitalization projects?
MM: It depends on how we’re looking at it. It’s an unfortunate reality that having money would make it easier, having money to run our immersion camp year round and to have an established school where people could learn in an immersion setting.
There’s a Mohawk language immersions school in Six Nations, I believe that does full immersion. They’re really well established. I met a handful of young students who had gone to that school earlier this year and was blown away by how well they could speak their language as second language learners and young people. It was really inspiring, so I feel like we do need full immersion learning, and immersion teaching. If we bring up kids in an immersion setting they will be able to speak the language, kids pick up language so much easier than adults. That’s all they need, is to be immersed in the language and they will learn. For people like me, we found we had to take a lot of grammatical instruction to learn the workings of the language in order to speak and understand. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a whole lot of money.
Its unfortunate right now that we have so few speakers left. When I was a kid, it would have been ideal for the First Nation to institute an immersion school on the rez. If there was immersion then, it would have been a lot easier for them to find fluent speakers to teach us kids, but at this point our teachers are all – around here anyways- quite old.
EC: Anishinaabemowin is vastly different than speaking English, how would you describe the Anishinaabemowin language to someone who has never spoken it before?
MM: I know a lot of speakers will tell you this that it’s very descriptive. The way words and sentences are put together, they are building blocks put together to create a larger picture of what’s being conveyed. Almost every single word in the language is a compound word – a construction of smaller names that have meaning in themselves. When an Anishinaabemowin speaker is speaking, there is so much meaning in every part of what they’re saying. It’s really cool that way. As a learner of it as a second language, I’m only just starting to be able to pick up on that- how those little parts of words work in coming together to paint the picture that’s being conveyed.
Miskwaanakwad Rice is an Anishinaabe from Wasauksing, an island on the shores of Mnido Gamii in Anishinaabe Akiing. Like most Anishinaabek his age, Miskwaanakwad learned a small bit of Anishinaabemowin growing up and in recent years he has sought to learn more of the language in order to help revitalize and pass it on to future generations. It is his dream to learn Anishinaabemowin fluently and to help others in their language learning journeys. Miskwaanakwad is very excited to work with the Rez 91 team to help make this dream a reality.