years now I have been in love with a language other than the English in which I write, and it is a rough affair.
Every day I try to learn a little more Ojibwe. I have taken to carrying verb conjugation charts in my purse, along
with the tiny notebook I've always kept for jotting down book ideas, overheard conversations, language detritus,
phrases that pop into my head. Now that little notebook includes an increasing volume of Ojibwe words. My English
is jealous, my Ojibwe elusive. Like a besieged unfaithful lover, I'm trying to appease them both.
Growing up off reservation, I thought Ojibwemowin mainly was a language for prayers, like Latin in the Catholic
liturgy. I was unaware for many years that Ojibwemowin was spoken in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin, though by
a dwindling number of people. By the time I began to study the language, I was living in New Hampshire, so for
the first few years I used language tapes.
I never learned more than a few polite phrases that way, but the sound of the language in the author Basil Johnson's
calm and dignified Anishinabe voice sustained me through bouts of homesickness. I spoke basic Ojibwe in the isolation
of my car traveling here and there on twisting New England roads. Back then, as now, I carried my tapes everywhere.
The language bit deep into my heart, but it was an unfulfilled longing. I had nobody to speak it with, nobody who
remembered my grandfather's standing with his sacred pipe in the woods next to a box elder tree, talking to the
spirits. Not until I moved back to the Midwest and settled in Minneapolis did I find a fellow Ojibweg to learn
with, and a teacher.
Mille Lac's Ojibwe elder Jim Clark -- Naawi-giizis, or Center of the Day -- is a magnetically pleasant, sunny,
crew-cut World War II veteran with a mysterious kindliness that shows in his slightest gesture. When he laughs,
everything about him laughs; and when he is serious, his eyes round like a boy's.
Naawi-giizis introduced me to the deep intelligence of the language and forever set me on a quest to speak it for
one reason: I want to get the jokes. I also want to understand the prayers and the adisookaanug, the sacred stories,
but the irresistible part of language for me is the explosion of hilarity that attends every other minute of an
Ojibwe visit. As most speakers are now bilingual, the language is spiked with puns on both English and Ojibwe,
most playing on the oddness of gichi-mookomaan, that is, big knife or American, habits and behavior.
This desire to deepen my alternate language puts me in an odd relationship to my first love, English.
It is, after all, the language stuffed into my mother's ancestors' mouths. English is the reason she didn't speak
her native language and the reason I can barely limp along in mine. English is an all-devouring language that has
moved across North America like the fabulous plagues of locusts that darkened the sky and devoured even the handles
of rakes and hoes. Yet the omnivorous nature of a colonial language is a writer's gift. Raised in the English language,
I partake of a mongrel feast.
A hundred years ago most Ojibwe people spoke Ojibwemowin, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs and religious boarding
schools punished and humiliated children who spoke native languages. The program worked, and there are now almost
no fluent speakers of Ojibwe in the United States under the age of 30. Speakers like Naawi-giizis value the language
partly because it has been physically beaten out of so many people. Fluent speakers have had to fight for the language
with their own flesh, have endured ridicule, have resisted shame and stubbornly pledged themselves to keep on talking
My relationship is of course very different. How do you go back to a language you never had? Why should a writer
who loves her first language find it necessary and essential to complicate her life with another? Simple reasons,
personal and impersonal. In the past few years I've found that I can talk to God only in this language, that somehow
my grandfather's use of the language penetrated. The sound comforts me.
--------------------- What the Ojibwe Struggling to master call the Gizhe a language that Manidoo, the people had
to fight great and kind to preserve. spirit residing --------------------- in all that lives, what the Lakota call
the Great Mystery, is associated for me with the flow of Ojibwemowin. My Catholic training touched me intellectually
and symbolically but apparently never engaged my heart.
There is also this: Ojibwemowin is one of the few surviving languages that evolved to the present here in North
America. The intelligence of this language is adapted as no other to the philosophy bound up in northern land,
lakes, rivers, forests arid plains; to the animals and their particular habits; to the shades of meaning in the
very placement of stones. As a North American writer it is essential to me that I try to understand our human relationship
to place in the deepest way possible, using my favorite tool, language.
There are place names in Ojibwe and Dakota for every physical feature of Minnesota, including recent additions
like city parks and dredged lakes. Ojibwemowin is not static, not confined to describing the world of some out-of-reach
and sacred past. There are words for e-mail, computers, Internet, fax. For exotic animals in zoos. Anaamibiig gookoosh,
the underwater pig, is a hippopotamus. Nandookomeshiinh, the the lice hunter, is the monkey.
There are words for the serenity prayer used in 12-step programs and translations of nursery rhymes. The varieties
of people other than Ojibwe or Anishinabe are also named: Aiibiishaabookewininiwag, the tea people, are Asians.
Agongosininiwag, the chipmunk people, are Scandinavians. I'm still trying to find out why.
For years I saw only the surface of Ojibwemowin. With any study at all one looks deep into a stunning complex of
verbs. Ojibwemowin is a language of verbs. All action. Two-thirds of the words are verbs, and for each verb there
are as many as 6,000 forms. The storm of verb forms makes it a wildly adaptive and powerfully precise language.
Changite-ige describes the way a duck tips itself up in the water butt first. There is a word for what would happen
if a man fell off a motorcycle with a pipe in his mouth and the stem of it went through the back of his head. There
can be a verb for anything.
When it comes to nouns, there is some relief. There aren't many objects. With a modest if inadvertent political
correctness, there are no designations of gender in Ojibwemowin. There an no feminine or masculine possessives
Nouns are mainly designated as alive or dead, animate or inanimate. The word for stone, asin, is animate. Stones
are called grandfathers and grandmothers and are extremely important in Ojibwe philosophy. Once I began to think
of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself into my hand.
Stones are not the same as they were to me in English. I can't write about a stone without considering it in Ojibwe
and acknowledging that the Anishinabe universe began with a conversation between stones.
Ojibwemowin is also a language of emotions; shades of feeling can be mixed like paints. There is
a word for what occurs when your heart is silently shedding tears. Ojibwe is especially good at describing intellectual
states and the fine points of moral responsibility.
Ozozamenimaa pertains to a misuse of one's talents getting out of control. Ozozamichige implies you can still set
things right. There are many more kinds of love than there are in English. There are myriad shades of emotional
meaning to designate various family and clan members. It is a language that also recognizes the humanity of a creaturely
God, and the absurd and wondrous sexuality of even the most deeply religious beings.
Slowly the language has crept into my writing, replacing a word here, a concept there, beginning to carry weight.
I've thought of course of writing stories in Ojibwe, like a reverse Nabokov. With my Ojibwe at the level of a dreamy
4-year-old child's, I probably won't.
Though it was not originally a written language, people simply adapted the English alphabet and wrote phonetically.
During the Second World War, Naawi-giizis wrote Ojibwe letters to his uncle from Europe. He spoke freely about
his movements, as no censor could understand his writing. Ojibwe orthography has recently been standardized. Even
so, it is an all-day task for me to write even one paragraph using verbs in their correct arcane forms. And even
then, there are so many dialects of Ojibwe that, for many speakers, I'll still have gotten it wrong.
As awful as my own Ojibwe must sound to a fluent speaker, I have never, ever, been greeted with a moment of impatience
or laughter. Perhaps people wait until I've left the room. But more likely, I think, there is an urgency about
attempting to speak the language. To Ojibwe speakers the language is a deeply loved entity. There is a spirit or
an originating genius belonging to each word.
Before attempting to speak this language, a learner must acknowledge these spirits with gifts of tobacco and food.
Anyone who attempts Ojibwemowin is engaged in something more than learning tongue twisters. However awkward my
nouns, unstable my verbs, however stumbling my delivery, to engage in the language is to engage the spirit. Perhaps
that is what my teachers know, and what my English will forgive.
Louise Eldrich Bio