Chapter 9: Reclaiming Indigenous Languages

9.9 Growing up speaking Nishnaabemwin

Mary Ann Corbiere

Mary Ann Corbiere grew up in Wiikwemkoong unceded territory on Manitoulin Island. In 2021 she retired from her long career teaching Nishnaabemwin at Université de Sudbury. In this unit Dr. Corbiere talks about growing up in Wiki and about how she became a language teacher.


My name is Marianne Corbiere. I’m originally from Wiikwemkoong unceded territory at the east end of Manitoulin Island. It’s one of the bigger Nishnaabe communities in Ontario, um, perhaps, um, in both Ontario and in the States. And the 1960s, which is when I started school, I was in grade one in 1961, our community was still, yeah, every household spoke the language. That was our first language. So I was very fortunate to grow up at that time.

Um, learned English through basically immersion before we threw around the term immersion, because we were just taught in English. Um, yeah. So Wiikwemkoong is, like I said, among might be the biggest or at least one of the biggest Nishnaabe communities. At the time it might’ve had a population of on Reserve of maybe a few thousand, maybe 2,500 or so I’m just roughly estimating. So we had our own schools up to grade eight. So I went to school for the first eight years in my home community. So I, we learned English only in the classroom, used it only with the teachers. Um, otherwise I would, at recess time out in the school yard and after school hours playing with friends, we all spoke the language.

So, uh, that’s why it has survived so long. Although our, our parents or, and our grandparents had gone to the residential school in Spanish. Um, I mean, we hear a lot about how, uh, the major role that residential schools played in destroying the languages, many of the languages, so Wiikwemkoong and also M’Chigeeng, another, the other bigger, bigger community on Manitoulin which is, uh, population-wise is a bit smaller than Wiikwemkoong.

Likewise, there the language survived in the households. So it might have been just the notion of critical mass, right? That although the students who are over in Spanish, uh, presumably around from September to June, two months back home, um, it seems, was sufficient to, for the kids to get their language back and to keep that up because certainly my mother and the woman who became my mother-in-law, who had both gone to Spanish, like both our households, that’s all we spoke. It was our first language.

Can I just clarify one thing, when you say “Spanish”, that’s the name of the place where the school was?

That’s the community where the residential school was. I see the actual name of the school in, um, writings about it. I can’t remember offhand.

And the kids would have been speaking, or the schools would have been run in English.

Yeah. That’s where my mother learned English and my mother-in-law, or whoever went there. Yeah. So, um, we were very lucky in that regard. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s right from, uh, I ended up teaching the language in 1989, very much by happenstance. That’s the last thing I ever expected to be doing in my life because, um, in, in grade seven I discovered I really liked science.

I can actually remember with a little science experiment our teacher had us do, that I found very intriguing. And after that, and I grew up on a farm, so it was always outdoors, which might have been, like also explained my interest in the love of natural things, you know? Um, yeah, so I majored in science in university, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and then did some, found a job back home, totally different, for four years.and I wasn’t very good at that job. So I thought, okay. I think some business administration training might be good. So I applied for an MBA program and I got in on the second try. They didn’t let me in the first time. I said, well, I really need to do, learn to, need to learn some useful skills. And I’m not in the sciences, working in the sciences anymore.

Yeah, anyhow. So after I finished my MBA, ran into an old friend from my grade eight days in Wiki (Wiki is what we call Wiikwemkoong for short). And this other position came up, contract job, And then coincidentally, the interviewers were, it was for a program at Laurentian, Native Social Work jointly created by the Department of Native Studies, as it was then known and the School of Social Work.

So the interview committee included members from both programs. So one of them asked  me about my language and it turned out and I said, oh yeah, I love it. That’s why I came back home after all these years away for high school and university I missed hearing it every day and it turns out they were also feeling me out for, okay, we need a part-time language teacher here to teach at least one course in the evenings.

So after I was offered the contract job with the social work feasibility study, uh, they asked me, oh, would you also teach the language? Oh, I don’t know about that. I never imagined myself teaching university. It seemed like a really it’s like, wow, you need to be a genius to be teaching university. It does help to have some brains but you don’t have to be a genius, like Einstein. So anyhow, so I said, okay, well, and they said, well, you speak the language. You’ll yeah, you’ll figure it out. And I said, oh, okay. I’ll give it a shot. And I fell in love with it. I thought, oh, this is fun.

Now, this might be the good thing about not having taken linguistics. And I don’t know what state linguistics was at the time in terms of the research on Indigenous languages, or Ojibwe, my own language. This is 1989. I do see that Richard Rhodes had produced a dictionary in 1985 and Rand Valentine filled me in, on some of the linguists who had worked on our language.

And actually one of them, I discovered, had actually come to Wiki when I would have been maybe in grade eight or grade nine. Grade eight I was still in Wiki, grade nine I was in North Bay for high school. Um, and Piggott, I think is the, the linguist. And apparently he had been interviewing or working with a farmer two or three miles down the road from our farm, Sam Zelmick

With that work, that’s how Piggott figured out why these changes, um, changes like, you know, when we say “he’s eating”, wiisini becomes niwiisin for “I’m eating”. Piggott worked out the, I guess, phonological basis for that, through his talk with Sam Zelmick apparently. So, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know what linguistics was out there in the journals or wherever.

So I was trying to figure out, organize the language on my own, like for teaching purposes. Okay. Where do I start? This is introductory course I’m teaching. Where do I begin. Yes. Yeah. So that’s what made it so much fun, you know, that problem solving. Hey, how do I? Yeah, rather than just talking at students to say, okay, repeat after me.

And just like, um, sort of like spiels of conversations, snippets to memorize eh, my name is so-and-so I come from this place, I like to do this or whatever, you know, I have stuff like that. It’s like I could, I decided, okay. Um, I just figured out, like by trial and error. Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll try teaching this way.

Give them the patterns and being scientific with a science, more of a scientific, I guess, inclination that’s like perhaps if that was why I gravitate to that kind of more like in a sense, a formulaic approach, like what’s like word methods, like yeah. You know this pattern, you just need to change the verb to say, “I want to go skating tomorrow”,

“I want to go skiing tomorrow”, “I want to go for a walk”. Here’s what stays the same, but what are you changing? The action! So we’ll find the verb  and I figured out a way to explain, okay, these verbs, nothing, if the verb ending doesn’t change, you know, but these words, the verb ending disappears, and this happens with long, the thing disappears with short vowel endings, when the end of the verb is a short vowel. It doesn’t disappear if it’s a long vowel! So I sort of figured that out on my own, just from like looking at a bunch of examples that would come up, eh, I don’t, I didn’t know why it was happening, but at least I could see that there was some kind of consistent pattern that made it somewhat predictable for learners.

So that that’s what made the thing really fun. And I guess that’s part of why I fell in love with the job of trying to teach it

The year after teaching part-time, um, uh, at the same time, the university like this, the, the social work program, the Native social work program, they had committed to making it available by distance for, especially for First Nations, because many can’t relocate readily to go to university.

So, and people had said, well, any, uh, Native social worker, uh, should ideally know the language of the community. This is a professional program. There’s so many other things you have to learn as a social worker, You can’t reasonably expect people to also gain at least advanced proficiency during four years of social work training.

So they figured we’ll at least have them make sure they take at least one course on Cree or Ojibwe. Since they committed to offering it by distance at the time. This was before all these fabulous technologies of course. it was correspondence eh?

So they mail you the tapes?

Yeah. So they asked me to be the writer of the  distance course on Ojibwe. So I worked with an instructional designer, which is another really good thing for me to learn because I did the usual thing, I said, okay, Lesson One, here’s the spiel. He says, okay, let’s backtrack. We can start. Okay. That’s the lesson. Let’s just have the students start with these patterns. So anyway, so that was really useful for me.

Yeah. So yeah, after that, you know, that was just for that one course. But so the person that I was filling in for, why I was teaching part time, decided not to come back to the university. So they now needed a full-time faculty member and they decided a full-time faculty member should also be somebody also able to teach the language. But that’s how I ended up lucking into that position. And at the time there were not very many first language speakers of our language who happened to have a graduate degree as well, I already had an MBA. So totally unrelated to language but at least it was a Master’s. So, um, yeah, so that’s how I got that position. So that really was helpful to have the time to think through and, um, flesh out a curriculum beyond introductory. I decided, okay. At the time there was just two courses in our program. There was an intro Ojibwe course, and then there was an advanced Ojibwe course.

Well, I also had taken French, a couple of courses in French on the side while doing my MBA, because I do have an interest in languages and French had, of course, logically you can’t jump from intro to advanced. There should be an intermediate, okay, let’s create an intermediate course. And then since we’re offering distance courses in the intro course, well, let’s also enable them, those who really want to learn the language, let’s give them an intermediate course and an advanced course  by distance. So that was like my, those were the projects for basically the first ten or fifteen years of my teaching career.

So I’m just thinking about you. So, so you grew up speaking the language, you had all this, you had your, your mental grammar. This unconscious knowledge about the language

Yeah I had acquired the patterns.

Right. And then to be able to teach it, you kind of had to figure out how to do the phonological and morphological analysis yourself to teach to your students. Yeah. So you had to learn how to do linguistics without ever taking linguistics.

I think a very rudimentary linguistics. Some of them anyway, like I said, like Piggott, sorted out the explanations for some of the things for me.

Yeah. Neat. But then you could use that for teaching your students.

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

So most of those students would have been, so they were seeking a professional degree and they wanted to be able to communicate with their clients.

Um, well, the communities wanted them to, but they were expected to. They had to know the basics of the language, whatever “the basics” are …


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition Copyright © 2022 by Mary Ann Corbiere is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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