Can you say hello in Ojibwe? How about in Dakota? These are two beautiful examples of languages that are experiencing two critical processes today. On the one the hand they are severely threatened because people are speaking them less and less. On the other hand, they are being revitalized by passionate native speakers who are determined to share them and keep them alive. Speaking one’s language is a dynamic way to retain culture and to converse and really have fun. Language holds the key to really understanding the meaning of life, metaphors and cultural perspectives.
There is another reason why is it is essential to say hello in Ojibwe and Dakota. It can serve as a metaphor for people living outside of native communities to reach out to their native neighbors in bonds of fellowship. For people outside of indigenous language communities, greeting a native person in their first language is a small step to make a new friend and break down the cultural walls that keep us divided. I checked in with two people to gain perspectives- Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University and Elma Strom an educator of Finnish descent who lives in northern Itasca County, Minnesota.
Tony, what is your perspective on learning one’s native language and for people outside of indigenous tribal communities to learn how to speak Ojibwe?
This is the issue I have devoted my personal and professional life to for all of my life. A language encapsulates the worldview of a people. Each group of humans on the planet has a unique view of the world and a unique way to deal with its problems. For example, in Ojibwe, the word for elder is gitchi-aya’ah which means great being. The Ojibwe word for an elderly woman is mindimooye, which means one who holds things together. So in the Ojibwe world you don’t have to teach anyone to respect their elders because it is built into the words already. In mainstream America, elders do not receive the same level of respect or adoration as Ojibwe elders experience so this worldview that is encapsulates an Ojibwe perspective of the world and can be shared with others. All languages have unique views and unique ways to view the world that can influence others in positive ways. Native people have a lot to offer to others and there is many ideas to learn from our native brothers and sisters.
Tony, if someone is interested to learn Ojibwe where do you suggest they go or start from?
There are many ways. Ojibwe has a free online dictionary that you can look up words to learn meaning and pronunciation. Ojibwe is taught at 20 universities and there are several speakers throughout the region. There are many books and resources available as well. You may go to Bemidji State University’s Ojibwe Language Resources webpage for a list.
Tony, why is it important for people not associated with a tribal community to learn Ojibwe or another native language?
First it is a powerful way to overcome the fear of reaching out to a group of people who they have never associated with or worry they will offend because of past and present treatment. Already 50% are students of color and 85% of teachers are white and female with limited understanding of native communities. As a result, everybody has to do better with speaking cultural languages and linguistic languages. Learning a native language provides a safe starting point for some of the most important work of our time. We all need to be brave, lean in, and learn how to say hello in another language- the languages of our children.
The exclusion of native voices in the schools system promotes the dominant culture instead of providing a nurturing multicultural environment where all students thrive and learn. Learning another language is an easy way to provide empowerment for our native students and cultural competence for all of our students.
Elma what prompted you to learn Ojibwe?
I have traveled to several places in the world. Every time I go, I try to learn the language of the people so I can say hello, thank you, I love you, and other pleasantries just to be able to communicate a little. It occurred to me after moving to northern Minnesota I needed to learn the language of the place that I live. And part of the motivation for learning the language of the place I visit and now the place I live, is that there is so much cultural understanding embedded in the language. I have also learned from past experiences there are many instances that some things don’t translate from one language to another and it is important for me to learn the language and know the pronunciation and meanings. It requires courage to make mistakes and to be able to speak properly.
By studying the Ojibwe language I could understand a little bit of the worldview of the Anishinabe. A person’s language shapes the way they think and I want to be culturally aware especially since I am living here as a squatter on Anishinabe land. The experiences of the native people has affected me since my youth regarding my choice profession, my standard how I live on the land, and my spiritual search to be able to respect the Ojibwe people from whom we can learn so much.
Overall, I have learned that there are some things that cannot be expressed in English so what is expressed in Ojibwe or other languages can really enrich the human race.
Elma please tell us how you learned Ojibwe-
I searched for books and bookstores didn’t have anything but found a pimsleur (language learning program) course from the local library. That is how got started. Later, I joined an Ojibwe language table with several youth. One table was about greetings, another animals, another about trees for example. It was great fun to learn together with young people in this way. It is so different than how English is taught. I made new friends along the way as well.
There is a lot to learn from Tony and Elma regarding the importance of learning to say hello in Ojibwe and other indigenous languages. Indigenous languages are important contributions to humanity because they share a unique worldview that can contribute to the well being of society. Important concepts and ways of being missing from a language can offer a new perspective. Furthermore, if we wish to understand and make friendships across communities it will require a courageous effort to make friendships and learning each others languages can help unpack meaning. Cross-cultural conflicts can be avoided if we take the time to understand what a concept means in English and Ojibwe and other indigenous languages.
Chi mii gwetch Tony and Elma for inspiring us to learn how to say hello in Ojibwe! There are two ways to say hello or give a greeting- aaniin and boozhoo. Your homework is to learn their exact meanings and discover how they are different and when to use them. Also, take a moment to think about how you will reach out to make new friendships.