Today’s post comes from DJ Fife, a park ranger at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. DJ takes every opportunity available to promote Anishinaabemowin preservation during programs at the park and in everyday life. DJ has taught Anishnaabemowin for several semesters at Georgian College in Barrie and during various other cultural events.
As a person of mixed heritage, seeking expression of my identity has been a never-ending journey.
The main components of my known ancestry are Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) heritage and Scottish-Canadian heritage. Having grown up in Curve Lake First Nation, the former has significant relevance to me and many elements of my identity can be tied to that heritage.
DJ at Petroglyphs
One of those elements is Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language (also Ojibway, Ojibwa, Chippewa, among others). For as long as the Anishinaabe people have existed, Anishinaabemowin has been spoken. Up until the time my mother was born, everyone in my home community spoke the language.
Anishinaabemowin was the way everyone connected and expressed their thoughts, hopes and dreams, joys and heartbreaks.
My grandparents on my mother’s side speak English and Anishinaabemowin, my grandmother spoke our language before English, and due to circumstances and greater social influences, my mother and her sisters did not learn to speak the language at any kind of conversational level.
As is the case with many Anishinaabe peoples, there was a break in the generational passing of this ancient legacy.
Between active and passive influences, Anishinaabemowin use has declined dramatically over decades. Almost all of the first language speakers in my community are elderly and, more unfortunately, constitute the last remaining speakers of the Mississauga dialect, which originally represented five Anishinaabe communities in southern and central Ontario.
My search for language
I have long felt very aware of this cultural erosion and this is part of what has motivated me to dedicate myself to our traditional language.
Anishinaabemowin has specific meaning to me in several ways. As something that is directly related to my family history, I consider it something of a family heirloom that I treasure deeply, and my language skills reflect the countless hours I spent with my grandparents, talking and asking questions.
For years I have made a point of visiting and talking to them every week. It is a social interaction that I value beyond the learning opportunity. In this way, the language has grown to signify the connection to my grandparents and the security and tranquility of our collective family home.
Beyond my family, Anishinaabemowin means a connection to my community with its close ties and history.
Anishinaabemowin is the traditional language of my hometown and dates back to a time when social ties were even closer. When everyone came together to share stories and laughter before modern distractions led us to increasingly disconnect from each other and instead connect to various devices, televisions, phones and computer screens.
Our deep connections
The community connection of our language extends to the greater Anishinaabe community.
Occasionally challenges may arise with dialect difference, but overall the language provides a means to remember our common Anishinaabe heritage, values and culture. A connection that exists over a very wide geographic area, stretching from parts of Quebec to the Prairies and several states, and even more so when considering the peoples of the Algonkian (or Algic) language family to which Anishinaabemowin belongs.
More relevant meaning to my work as a park warden at Ontario Parks is Anishinaabemowin’s connection to this land. Anishinaabemowin developed here. Whatever your understanding of the origins of indigenous people, the origins of this language lie in this part of the world. I am inspired by my Anishinaabe ancestors’ intimate knowledge of this land.
I am motivated to explore and learn this terrain to know it as they did, and knowing the language helps strengthen my feeling of connection to the land. When walking in nature, I often come across some secluded spot and wonder when the last time someone was standing or paddling where I am now. I encouraged the thought of “Manj pii nshkwaaj maa gaa-nishnaabemogwen wiya” (“I wonder when anyone last talked about Anishinaabemowin here.”)
Thinking about the people who have lived in the lakes and forests of Ontario, it is through Anishinaabemowin that their history is passed down, and therefore, for me, to know the language is to recognize and honor their history.
Listen to me anishinaabemodaa. (Come on, let’s talk Anishinaabemowin.)
I invite you to learn more about the language: