February 10, 2017
Waabishki OgitchidaKwenz Anang nidishinikaas. Mooz nindodem. As is our custom, I begin with an introduction in Anishinabeemowin (Ojibwe language) of my spirit name and clan. I am from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Anishinaabemowin is our original way of speaking which allows us to process and express our thoughts. It is our way of communicating with Creation, with Spirit, and with one another. My dad, Delaney, survivor of the Spanish Indian Residential School, spoke Anishinaabemowin fluently, and taught me words until he passed to the spirit world when I was nine years old. I loved hearing him talk to my grandma in our language.
Melanie and her late father, Delaney Goodchild.
These ancestral languages hold many insights for all of us and reconciliation may be creating protective space for these insights to emerge on college and university campuses across Canada.
Aki means earth in Anishinaabemowin. Aki comes from akikodjiwan which describes a dangerous whirlpool. Hence, aki describes the rotation and roundness of the earth, explains my cousin Rene Meshake, who is an Anishinaabeg language keeper, artist and writer. This is our ancestral language, so did the Anishinaabeg Nation know the earth was round, as did Pythagoras in ancient Greece? It is within our ancestral languages that we find our science, philosophy, intellectual thought, ethics and theories thriving today. These ancestral languages hold many insights for all of us and reconciliation may be creating protective space for these insights to emerge on college and university campuses across Canada.
I am currently working towards earning my PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. While my committee is wholly supportive of my Anishinaabeg scholarship, the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), at present does not have any Indigenous faculty. And so I must forge my own path in this regard, decolonizing my research and honouring my ancestors. This often causes me to reflect on the decolonizing trailblazers, the Indigenous thought leaders, who came before me in similar situations, immersed in scholarship where Indigenous perspectives are not considered a part of the canonical works of the discipline. Or, as in my program, looked over despite the ‘transdisciplinary’ nature of the program’s approach.
It has been nearly 50 years since the first Native Studies program was first offered at a Canadian post-secondary institution. Trent University, with its campus located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and Mississaugas peoples, offered what is now known as the Indigenous Studies program in 1969, two years before I was born, and the same year that the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Government presented the
White Paper to Parliament, proposing the abolition of the Indian Act. Since that time, several mainstream institutions, as well as Indigenous-led post-secondary institutions, have enhanced their capacity to offer modified and inclusive programs, with Indigenous ways of knowing, or Indigenous epistemology, at the heart of program design. Trent for instance now offers the first ever PhD in Indigenous Studies.
So how do I, an Anishinaabeg student at a mainstream institution, go about decolonizing my studies? I am studying social innovation, complexity theory and socio-ecological resilience. How do I explain these principles, terms, and teachings to my aunties and uncles, to my grandparents, my
Mishomis and Nokomis, back home? How do I tell my ancestors in ceremony what I am trying to learn and why?
For me, Indigeneity begins with my heritage as an
AnishinaabeKwe (Ojibwe woman). It begins with studying my traditional or ancestral language as a basis of a particular kind of ‘social theorizing”. A useful concept for me in this regard is the study of the holophrases and word bundles of Anishinaabemowin and other ancestral languages. Often, across lecture halls in the social sciences, undergraduate and graduate students are taught “definitions”. These definitions have foundations in the canonical texts of a specific discipline, say Sociology, in the case of my Master of Arts degree in Sociology. These definitions are often anthropocentric and Euro-centric. And, of course, these definitions are most often English or French, the languages of the colonizers.
Thus, I begin my decolonizing effort with language. How would my ancestors understand this? What differences might I find between the English version of a theory and the Anishinaabe teachings, living inside of our language, the portal to our culture, spirituality, cosmology, ethics and protocol? I will explain briefly this process.
In Anishinaabemowin we say
We can all, Indigenous and non, learn new theories from the vantage point of Indigenous languages and language structures. Profound teachings are contained within ancestral word bundles and holophrases. Here are some examples:
Bonedamawin in Anishinaabe means reconciliation. Bone (stop or end) endam (indignant mind) damaw (towards another). Anishinaabeg knew about the concept of reconciliation long before the settlers arrived, explains my cousin Rene. Miigwetch is thank you, but it means much more. Miigwe (to give) wetch (giver). The Giver is Giche Manido, the Grand Mystery or Creator. So when we say Miigwetch we acknowledge Giche Manido. Gichitwaawis is to elevate, gichi (great) twaa (action) wis (influence). We can either be uplifted or elevated when we work for the good of the community or suffer the consequences when we do not.
For me then, language is crucial to Indigeneity on several levels. First, it is an acknowledgement of the ancestors, the language they spoke reflects their worldviews, thus it is important spiritually that we do things the right way and that we ask the ancestors for their guidance while we conduct the contemporary business of scholarship. It is also important cognitively, to help us all reflect on the colonial history of this country now called Canada, that the present-day “definitions” and “social theories”, do not necessarily reflect Indigenous epistemology, rather they originate in Euro-Western discourses of science and social science. On another level, the level of consciousness, bringing ancestral language into the classroom privileges the place-based nature of the post-secondary education that happens on campuses from coast to coast, thus it is a pedagogical practice. Where I go to school then is as important as what I study. For instance, if you attend the University of Calgary you can now study the Stoney Nakoda language through its School of Linguistics, Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
Some universities and colleges have come a long way since 1969 in offering Indigenous programming. Others are still finding their way, while others have no interest in Indigeneity in their program offerings. For those institutions and those professors who seek to privilege and learn ancestral thought I would suggest learning the holophrases and word bundles of the local Indigenous peoples.
It is our responsibility to walk in our name, our given
My cousin Rene explains that when we say
, it is about our name, Ishi (to serve) nikaas (name a certain way). As Anishinaabe we must live out the ishinikaaso (name) we were given by the spirits in everything that we do. It is our responsibility to walk in our name, our given ishinikaasowin.
My name and my clan define who I am and what I must do as a scholar, studying in the language of the colonizers.
Anishiniaabemowin teaches me even though I am not yet a fluent speaker. For example,
Ishinikaasowin, our given name, is a social theory about ethics and protocol, about how to conduct oneself on earth, fulfilling our responsibility to walk into our name. Aki is a scientific theory about the earth being round. Yet there is no word for Anthropocene in Anishinaabemowin. How could there be when our culture and spirituality is one of reciprocity and profound respect for Creation, of which humanity is only one part?
We have no word for nature or environment. We say
Anishinaabe gidakiiminaan, it is our original connection and relationship to the Land and all of Creation. It is the experience of knowing and understanding the relationships that exist throughout Creation, and understanding your own role and responsibility in this relationship. This connection is the primary shaper of Anishinaabe identity and it is the total relationship with Creation that informs us of our environmental ethic. Ancestral languages present challenges to the mainstream, western Academy, as a source of knowledge production.
So, how do we create protective space for Anishinaabemowin, and the other dozens of ancestral Indigenous languages, to be nurtured in post-secondary education as a pedagogy?
How can we invite our traditional language speakers to teach us, to provide new insights, new innovations, through our powerful and ancient discourses? Program design is key.
We can create space to invite language keepers into the lecture halls or go out onto the land with them, listen to the artists, the poets, the musicians. Listen to the elders and the language keepers. The systematic introduction of colonizing languages like English and French and consequent erosion of ancestral languages is the cornerstone of assimilation. Protecting and nurturing not only the languages but the teachings within those languages is our greatest hope for
Bonedamawin, reconciliation. For me and others seeking this pathway to knowledge it will take Shibendamowin, perseverance, Shibe (stretch towards), bendamo (mental concentration) and win (action).
Coming up in our series, Mike Rowlands shares his reflections on the RECODE Dialogue, where participants came together to explore opportunities for post-secondary to support Indigenous entrepreneurship. Stay tuned.
“To engage authentically in Reconciliation is to endeavour to see past, present and possible futures through the eyes of another. As Melanie so eloquently articulates, often that empathy requires a deeper understanding of language, history and tradition, for these give shape to culture. This is not easy, but it is vital and profoundly rewarding.”
~ Mike Rowlands, President & CEO, Junxion Strategy
 Holophrase. Holos derives from the Greek word for “whole” so holophrases are holistic expressions. Sometimes they are a one word sentence or clause. See Neuhaus, M. (2015). The Decolonizing Poetics of Indigenous Literatures. Regina, SK: University of Saskatchewan Press.