Chapter 9: Reclaiming Indigenous Languages
9.11 Resources for teaching and learning Nishnaabemwin
Mary Ann Corbiere
Um, what I find problematic is like, when you look at culture, what is culture from a general sense? It’s like, it’s, it’s, um, it can mean many things. you think of say, mainstream or whatever, European-based culture and you, when you hear culture, um, you don’t think of knights and King Arthur and chivalry. You think of things like, um, the arts, uh, film, um, theater, ballet, opera, like it’s a huge thing. But when the term culture is applied to Indigenous peoples, it’s this static thing about the notion of authenticity and authenticity is thought of in terms of what was the Native lifeway, what was the Native worldview, and so on, in this time that people consider “traditional times” before contact. So that shapes what ends up being covered in the classroom. So it’s like people getting, to do, okay, moccasin-making, beadwork, and so on, which of course is an aspect of material culture. Uh, and there are people who do those things, but certainly it’s not something that everyone automatically does.
Hockey is a major part of our community life now. Although it’s considered a culture, cultural aspect per se, it’s a sport, but it’s a major part of community life. We have baseball as well. So the spoken language talked about not … you talked about beadwork, if that’s what you did, you talked about moccasin-making if that’s what you did. But if you didn’t do those things, I grew up with a hefty store of farming terminology because my father was a farmer, you know, um, others or their parents or their grandfather or whatever it was were did a lot of hunting, did a lot of fishing. Yeah. And those two particular, yeah, they sort of aligned with people’s conceptions of Indigenous culture, Indigenous lifeways, but then there were also Nishnaabeg who worked in the mines. We have a term for mining. We have a term for going on strike.
Uh huh, that’s part of mining! So are there, Ojibwe terms for hockey and baseball for the, you know, the equipment and the, and the rules of the game and stuff?
Some terms, for some of them, but not for all of them, you know, it’s like you score a goal, we have a verb for that, being hit, yeah, you know? Um, but you can talk about it. It’s like, like who won? Yeah. “Oh, they were beaten. Oh, they were skunked.” Both kinds of verbs are in the lexicon. I created to go with a manual and it’s like, so that’s why in the, like in the, when I was teaching, I would say, I’m not going to say you should learn these particular 10 or 15 or whatever, 20 verbs by the end of this course. You use whatever verbs are relevant to you. I’m just going to show you the patterns to enable, to equip you to talk about any hings that are more relevant to you, of interest to you. If you let me set the, the verbs to learn, you would just learn a bunch of things about figure skating, because that’s my favourite thing to watch!
Um, but what I would detect when I, from what I see of the materials I’ve come across for K to 12, the content is focused on… It generally does not include those other kinds of aspects of life, eh. It’s the term for bear the term for, um, , birch, birch bark, birch trees and so on. And again, and that’s where the students who have remarked about the word list basis, that’s where that comes in, they can say, “Oh yeah I know this term and I know that term”, but can you say anything communicatively about it, right. My notion of language learning is helping learners make sense in the language, in, in, uh, communicatively, to use it in actual communication every day.
Yeah, yeah. For a language to be, to, um
…to revitalize it, to reclaim it or …
Right, for it to be vital, you need to be able to use it!
Yes, you can go down the dictionary and memorize all the terms and you know, the language, but can you do anything communicatively with it?
Right. And can you, um, adapt it to your everyday situation? You’re not necessarily working with birchbark, but maybe you need a ream of printer paper.
Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, quilting was, is an activity of interest to some women in Wiki and it’s mostly women, I mean, in case somebody thinks I’m being sexist, no, it was done mostly by women, you know? Um, yeah. My mother made quilts. I hope to get into quilting now that I’m retired and we have a verb for that, badakiiga`ige, you know, we can talk about a blanket being so beautiful, you know, that person is such a good quilter, you know, if that’s of relevance to you, you know the patterns and you get to talk about quilting, if you want, you know?
Um, yeah. So that’s the, so that’s why I find the way the language and cultural connection is often construed for curriculum development purposes, for K to 12 teaching purposes problematic.
Now of course, from the students’ perspective, if a student is in the course, not only to, um, feel more rooted in who they are, they’re individual identity. And did, when did they want the greater rootedness in their Indigenous identity? Of course, an integral part of that rootedness is where did we come from historically as a people who were we before contact, before colonialism. It makes total sense for that kind of approach to be appealing. It would serve their broader learning needs. I’m just not sure just to learn the language, how to make sense. It’s part of their individual project and doing that is going to help them connect me to who I am.
Now, now the internet poses something interesting. We can form internet communities. Especially with zoom now, which is another like sort of new area to interrogate. That could be done! Because, um, especially now, like I mentioned, those learners, those really avid learners who email me sometimes to say, okay, about the language and they’re emailing me in the language, of course they’re making missteps because they don’t have 100% grasp on the grammar. I mean, when you learn grammar, you sort of learn the basic patterns that seem by which proper sentence structure is gauged. Whoever the authority is that decides that’s proper sentence structure. Conversationally, who gives a hoot? It’s like, all you’re concerned about is, do I make, make sense to the person I’m talking to? Yeah. Little mis-grammatically, patterns that don’t conform to the examples presented in a grammar book, appear all over the place and you just let them ride. It’s like, oh yeah, still make sense of what you were saying. So we’re doing that by email. Yeah.
So did you get on a zoom call and just talk to them about the questions?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And people, they could form a community where they were just doing zoom just to visit each other. Just like you in the old days, when we all lived in the community, you would just go knock on somebody’s door when you had not much to do in the afternoon and pop in and visit, you know, two or three hours, you know,
So that’s the other aspect of this, what is a community? In that when we, when I was growing up, I mean, there was a family and then there were the neighbours and being a First Nation. Many of the neighbours I learned later were like, okay, that man was my father’s second cousin. That’s why they were hanging around together so much. They weren’t just buddies, you know.
These learners, they come from different communities. They haven’t grown up together. Their families didn’t, weren’t living together, like in the same community. So it’s like, they have to sort of create a new kind of community. That’s not rooted so much in actual blood kinship. Yeah. So it’s a, it’s a very interesting thing to sort of extrapolate. Okay. What will the Nishnaabemwin speech community look like or consist of fifteen years from now?
Because, um, speakers who could be resources to language learners, um, are in many communities there’s no more of them first of all, some communities there’s only a handful, like maybe four or five, so like you mentioned earlier about yeah, uh, students, um, if they have opportunities to hear the language outside of the classroom… For many learners, many Nishnaabe learners, they don’t. They’re, they’re just not in a household or if they’re living in Toronto or their, their grandmother might be living up in North Bay or wherever, they’re not in contact with them regularly.
Um, so my sense is about, and language can survive. I mean, ideally we want it to survive as a spoken language, but a language can also survive as a written language. You know, it’s like, we can read Shakespeare. It might not be our ideal of English, but for some people that might be their only connection, like 10, 15, 20 years from now, to their people’s language. Um, if it were, if more and more of it were written.
So, uh, we, we fortunately do have a writing system that was devised by linguists, by Fiero. Um, and, uh, however, this came about, it was his system that was, um, adopted when they created the Native language instructors program that I think it used to be at the University of Western Ontario, but early on, back in the day. But at some point relatively early, it moved to Lakehead. That’s where it’s been ever since I was at the U of S, that’s where I would hear about people going off to train to teach the language. So that’s, that’s, what’s, that’s what the teacher trainees are learning and it’s, it’s, it’s quite straightforward.
It marks long vowels, which I think the linguistic consensus is it’s really useful for a language like Ojibwe because of its, um, polysynthetic nature you have that can have such long words, you need to know which syllables get the accent. And that, and long vowels always get accented, the primary accent. Short vowels, this is from Piggott’s analysis, short vowels get destressed or unstressed when you add certain morphemes. And the sh-, the short vowel syllable ends up in a particular spot in words. And he brilliantly worked this out, that there’s a, there’s a metrical footprint, that basically short vowels are arranged in pairs. And like, again, this is the magical thing about a language, eh, that these rhythms evolve organically. So that, I’m trying to think of an example in Nishnaabemwin. Anyhow, if I think of an example, I’ll mention it. But it’s like when the word form has changed, um, yeah. Oh, the short vowel pairs, the second pair tends to get the accent. The second in the pair, if I recall correctly, but anyhow, there’s a phonological logic to that.
And it’s in the writing system that shows up?
Yes and no. It depends on the community and the writer’s notion of what they are hearing, and then the other thing is because of our, um, the way we form sentences, not with separate pronouns, separate tense markers, like auxiliary verbs, and then the verb it’s like, it’s like it’s all one word.
So what hasn’t happened and again, because of the time pressures that K to 12 teachers have, uh, how scattered we are throughout Ontario and never having a chance to get together for any intensive series of sessions to work out how we’re going to apply the system exactly to longer pieces of discourse. It’s relatively to, easy to apply it to lists of isolated words.
Even there, like even a short word, like mko, learners, depending on who their teacher is, or what little booklet they’re using from the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation or wherever. You’ll see the word for bear,mko written in possibly three ways. M K O as I would write it, mko, and M A K W A as I’ve seen it in something this makwa, and then maybe M A K O perhaps from another source. So very hard on students, like “which is the correct spelling? And I would tell them, it’s like, sorry, but they’re all correct.
This spelling is how it sounds from my mouth, which is how it sounded from the mouth of the, those who were around when I was growing up. So, so there’s quite a, so the challenge would be when we say we need more resources, it would be ideal if everybody decided, okay, here’s how we’re going to approach it. But how do you decide that when it varies within the community and the last thing like we, the last thing any of us I think wants to do is either appoint ourselves as, well, “I am the equivalent of the L’Académie Française.”
“I decide what’s correct!”
None of us wants to do that. And then people will say, well, the Elders are our authorities, they’re our experts. But among Elders, again, many of them do not write much. And there’s, uh, also on another, uh, another aspect is the resistance to writing the notion that, well, we shouldn’t write our languages. Some people will, uh, in the past I’ve heard like ascribe, uh, sort of a spiritual component to that. It’s like our languages and our Creator didn’t mean for our language to be written. It was always oral so it should stay oral. Again, that worked fine when that’s all we heard. But English intruded and so on and so forth.
> So if you want to preserve it…
We’ve found, I’ve, some of us have found writing very helpful.. So that’s where we’re at. And well, and teachers anyway, are familiar with the double writing, the double vowel system. They don’t, they don’t have any problems using that, but some Elders that’s like gobbledygook to them.
Again, the K to 12, their opportunities to write the language is very constrained because they’re writing for basically rudimentary-level learners. I’m writing more expansively because I’m reading for learners who, uh, whose interests I anticipate are widely varying. So I have to write about various things. Although I do write a bit about figure skating, I also write sample dialogues about hockey, because hockey is a big thing. It’s like, have you heard of the Little NHL, the Little Native Hockey League?
No, I hadn’t!
Big huge event! There’s always a mass exodus from Nishnaabe communities, not just Nishnaabeg, Cree too, and Mohawk, Haudenoshonee. Um, it’s, it’s held in Brampton these days. You rotate, the host would rotate. Um, yeah. Minor hockey is a big thing. So these First Nations, all send this range of teams to compete at the Little NHL! So it’s a natural part of our discourse. It’s like, oh, you know, is your grandson competing with the Little NHL, uh, did his team win, did they win and so on and so forth? You know, uh, so and assorted things, I try to cover other things as well, besides sports, um, movies, again, who does not watch movies these days?
So having to do that, create those kinds of things is it has given me lots of practice with applying that double vowel system and my decision that, and letting the students know, um, I’m spelling these the way they sound to me from what I heard.
So, so that’s the other challenge. If, and I do premise my work on the language is going to survive largely as a written language. I don’t know that many others premise language revitalization that way, I think many, most seem to be still sort of wedded to the ideal of “it will be spoken as we spoke it”. Like I’m thinking, okay. Yes, that would be great. But for some people, some people are adept at reading stuff, and that might be like, I mean, literature supplements what we hear on TV and in the movies, literature is an aspect of a culture, you know? So if we’re preserving the language, let’s also preserve it in that fashion, not just focusing on oral.
Yeah. So, um, so that’s the litera- literacy aspect of it. If they’re going to have written resources that are going to be helpful to second language learners, it would be great if they could all use it in one systematic fashion. So those are the things that ideally would have been great if us teachers had had time since 1972 to confer, have an opportunity to confer extensively enough, often enough, before we walked into any classroom. Of course like the language teaching theories evolve, of course you would have had to tweak what we did, but at least to have some good, solid basis to start with, rather than just throwing speakers into their individual classrooms throughout Ontario. Okay, well you go teach a language
And yeah, the Ministry did come up with a curriculum that was being reviewed several years ago. I got involved in the workshop to review it and it’s like, yeah, I was very dismayed because it was like not, not much in the way of actual communicative use, in the curriculum. It was very grammar-structured, which shows its origin, like back in the day, back in the day the grammar-translation method was a common way of teaching a language and over the years, they’ve said, okay, That’s not, that’s not the best way. There’s other ways we should try and experiment with. And they’ve got, they found a variety of ways.