‘For our children’: How families are passing down Indigenous languages

LONGREAD: Three families. Three languages. One goal — to speak through the generations
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Nov 25, 2020
 Illustration by Tehatsistahawi Kennedy

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Sit in on any Indigenous-language class across Canada, and you’ll hear many — I’d argue almost all — adult students say they are picking up their language in order to teach their children or future children.

Making sure the generations to come have what we did not seems to be one of the most urgent motivations for learning our languages. As adults, we can almost handle that we, ourselves, are not speakers. But when we think about the pain and loss that has caused in our life, we know we would never want the same thing for our little ones.

When I applied for my first Mohawk-language course, in 2017, I stated similar reasons for wanting to learn: “My mother and grandmother didn’t grow up with the language or teachings,” I wrote. “I would like to break that cycle within my family and spread that knowledge, as much as I can, to my nieces and nephews and my own children, eventually.” Although I’ve never really wanted children, I have thought that maybe I would change my mind — if only so that I could be in a position to give a child what I didn’t have growing up.

At some point, I came to peace with the fact that I would not be passing my language on to my own children, but I hope that my role as an auntie will allow me to share what I know about our culture and our language with my nieces and nephews as they grow. My sisters, each with two children under five, don’t have the time to learn a new language while juggling work, kids, and a global pandemic, so I feel that it is a part of my duty (besides being the cool aunt) to pass along what I can.

I have always loved that, in my language, Kanyen’kéha, there is no word for “aunt.” When referring to “my mother,” I say “ake’nihstéha.” When I speak to her, I call her “istah.” In our language, we also call our aunties “istah.” There is no differentiation between “mom” and “auntie,” but, in contrast, there are different words for “uncle” and “father.” To me, that speaks to the ways that we value the older women in our lives and the role that those women (blood relation or not) play in our growing and learning — in the influencing of who we will become.

Throughout my language-learning journey, I have had to re-evaluate what I am capable of, how I can integrate the language into my life, and to what extent I can pass it along to the next generation. The stories that we usually hear about Indigenous-language revitalization focus on resilience and reclamation, but it’s often much more complicated — not to mention difficult and emotional — than that. For the one-year anniversary of TVO.org’s translation project, I spoke with three families, all of which, in their own ways, are passing their languages down to the next generation.

I hope their stories will help to broaden our understanding of Indigenous-language revitalization and expand the narrative of resiliency to include more of the complicated emotions, pushback, heartbreak, tears, hard work, and commitment that go into preserving and passing down our languages. Whether they are creating their own language space where none existed before or discovering that, as adults, they have a lot to learn from their children, their stories give us a glimpse into the realities of generational Indigenous-language transmission.

The families also shared their experiences as members of some of the most vulnerable Indigenous-language communities and discussed the concept of family and what it means in their worldview. Most notably, though, they all spoke about what we are willing to do for our children that we won’t do for ourselves.

* * *

Tóka satahonhsatá:ton ne tsi thonteweiénstha ne Onkwehonwehnéha owén:na ne kwah tsi níwa ne Canada – kwah akatró:ri tsi thó:a ratikwé:kon ne ronatehiá:ron rónton teshonnékhwa ne raotiwén:na né:ne iaonsahshakotirihón:nien ne shakotiiookón:'a tóka ni’ né:ne tahatikonhsotóntie. Orihwí:io ronnón:nis ne tahatikonhsotóntie ahotiiéntake nen’né:’e nahò:ten iah ní:I teionkwaientá:o’n, á:ienhre ne aorí:wa e’tho na’tehotihsteríhens ahontoriá:neron ahonteweiénste ne raotiwén:na. Ne ionkwatehiá:ron iah tha’teionkwa’nikónhrhare tsi iah ní:I teiakwatá:tis ne onkwawén:na. Ok nó:nen eniakwanonhtonniónhwe tsi niiononhwá:kte tánon é:so ionkwahtón:ni tsi tióhnhe, ionkwateriéntare tsi iah tha’teionkwatenhontsó:ni ne sháka aontaiethí:ion ne ken’ nihonná:sa.

Sha’katatshenninión’te ne shontontiérenhte akateweienstà:na ne Kanien’kéha akateweiénste ne 2017, testiatié:ren tsi nahò:ten wa’khehró:ri oh nontié:ren tsi í:kehre akateweiénste. “Ake’nisténha tánon ne akhsótha tetsá:ron iah tho ní:ioht tsi tetionatehiá:ron atiatá:ti tánon aionateriéntarake tsi niionkwarihó:ten,” wa’khiá:ton. “I:kehre taontiá’ke ne tho naiohton ne í:i akhwà:tsire, tánon akhehroriá:nion kwah tsi níkon aón:ton ne kheionhwatookón:’a tsi nahò:ten wakeweientehtá:on, tánon tóka’ nón:wa í:i ó:ni kheiookón:’a, katkehshón:’a.” –  ronhá:tien tsi iah nonwén:ton akwah tewaké:ron aonkewiraién:ta’ne, wakehre toka’ nónwa tensewakaterihwaté:nien ne akkweniésheke aontakhé:ion ne kheién:’a nahò:ten ní:i iah tewatientá:o’n tsi takatehiá:ron.

Ia’káhewe, skénnen tsi sakanonhtonniónhwe tsi iah se’ í:i thakheiohétsten ne akewén:na ne kheiookón:’a, nek tsi aiá:wens ne kheionhwatenokón:’a tóka’ enwá:ton akhehró:ri tsi niionkwarihó:ten tánon tsi nitewawennó:ten ne tsi enhontehiá:ron. Khehtsiokón:’a tekeníshon teiotiwí:raien káron ne wísk tehonohseriiá:kon, iah teiotináktote atiateweiénste ne onkwawén:na tsi iáwe iotiio’te, akotiiookón:’a tánon ki ohontsakwé:kon kahnratarí:ne’s, kanonhtónnions ki’ wakaterihwaién:ni akóhetste nahò:ten enwá:ton, kenón:we’s ne onkwawén:na Kanien’kéha, iah teionkwawén:naien ne “aunt”, nónen “mother” khehtharáhkwen enkí:ron ake’nisténha. Nónen ienkhená:ton enkí:ron Ístah, ne onkwawén:na, ne “aunties” Ístah ni nen’ né:’e. Iah thénon tha’tetiattíhen ne sa’nisténha tánon ne sa “aunties”, sok ná:’a ne ianonhá:’a tánon ne ia’níha ó:ia nen’né:’e na’té:iot. Tsi ni’ ní:ioht tsi kanonhtón:nions ne tsi iethikweniénstha ne tiotí:ions konnón:kwe ne iethiientéri’s (tewatatenónhkwe kho ni’ ne iah) tsi nahò:ten ionkhirihonnién:ni tsi wetewatehiá:ron ne entewanónhton tsi ni’ ní:ioht tsi wetewatehiá:ron.

Kwah tsi náhe wa’kateweiénste, wa’kkaén:ion nahò:ten wakkwé:nion, oh ní:ioht tsi akátste ne onkwawén:na tsi konhnhétie, tánon tó: nitiótte enkkwé:ni enkohétste ne tontahonatehiá:rontie. Ne okara’shón:’a ionkwathón:te’s ne aonsontónhnhete ne Onkwehonwehnéha owénna ne enhatitharáhkwe ne iókste tsi ní:ioht tsi aonssaioiáneren’ne, nek tsi sénha se’ teioni’tón:ni, iah ne khok te tsi wentó:re tánon iohní:ron né:ne aionnonhtonniónhwe. Ne tsóhsera tsi náhe tiotáhsawen ne TVO.org’s translation project, ahsen nikahwatsí:rake wa’tiakwahtháren, akwékon tsik nihotikwé:nion ashakonohétsten ne onkwawén:na ne onwa’k ronatehiaróntie.

Aiá:wens ki’ ne raotikara’shón:’a aionkwaié:nawa’se sénha aionkwa’nikonhraién:ta’ne ne Onkwehonwehnéha owénna aonsontónhnhete tánon sénha taonré:ni tsi kahiá:ton ne iókste e’tho kárak tsi teioni’tón:ni tsi ní:ioht tsi ionnonhtón:nions, ieshonwatí:reks, teweriahsahrí:on, okáhseri, ioio’tenhserahí:ron, tánon tsi rotihrharátston tsi enhatinónstate tánon enhonnó:hetste ne onkwawén:na. Toka’ nón:wa ronnón:nis tsi nienhénwe ne owénna tsi nónwe ne iah nonwén:ton tetkaiéntahkwe ne tiotierénhton tóka ni’ entewatsén:ri ne ionkwatehiá:ron tsi é:so ká:ien aionkhirihón:ni ne iethiiookón:’a raotikara’shón:’a tionkwá:wis kwah tokénen aetewatkátho ne ietsithiiookón:’a tsi ní:ioht tsi ienshonnóhetste ne Onkwehonwehnéha owénna. Ne kahwà:tsire ne wahatithárahkwe tsi nahotiia’tawénhseron ahonwatikaréwahte Onkwehonwehnéha owénna kanakeráhsera tánon wahatithárahkwe tsi nahò:ten thonehtáhkwen tánon tsi ní:ioht nen’ né:e ne ronnónha tsi rontkáthos. Sénha ki’ wahéne’ne tsi ne wahatitharáhkwe nahò:ten ronatateweienentá:on’ tsi nahatíiere ne shakotiiookón:’a raotirihwá:ke, iah ki’ tho thaietewá:iere ne í:i onkwarihwá:ke.

(Translated into Mohawk by Wilhelmina Beauvais)


The Ireland family — Oneida Sign Language

three women in profile
There are four living generations of Deaf people in the Ireland family. (Courtesy of Marsha Ireland)

Max Ireland remembers one of the first times he met Marsha.

His mother was driving her family from their home in the Oneida Nation of the Thames community to the Ontario School for the Deaf, in Milton. “All the way there, she was crying and crying and crying,” he says. “I didn’t know what was wrong.” His mom explained to him that Marsha was going to a school far away — a school just for her. “I said, ‘Well, in the future, if there’s something I can do so she won’t have to cry as much, then that’s what I’ll do.’”

Max and Marsha Ireland have now been married for 40 years and have five Deaf children. They also have 12 grandchildren, eight of whom are Deaf, and a Deaf great-grandchild — meaning there are four living generations of Deaf people in the Ireland family.

Marsha attended the Ontario School for the Deaf (now called Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf) until she was 13. She looked forward to Friday all week, when she would go home to her family, and dreaded the arrival of Sunday. “I would be saddened and disheartened that I would have to go back to that very strict, regimented place,” says Marsha. The memories of always being in trouble and being teased for the colour of her skin stick with her. “From a very young age, I knew that they were trying to teach me white ways that were in direct conflict with what I internally knew was right.”

At school, Marsha was exposed to different methods of communication, such as the Rochester method of fingerspelling. “I’ve never felt connected to any of those different communication strategies or languages,” Marsha says. “The way that things of importance to Indigenous people are talked about within American Sign Language or English, it feels almost insulting.” For example, the ASL sign for “reserve,” she says, suggests something being taken away — and the only way to describe a ceremony in ASL is to use the sign for “celebrate.” “We would say ‘ceremony,’ which for us incorporates people, a fire, and Creator. In ASL, it’s the same sign as if you are celebrating a birthday — and those are not equivalent.”

When Marsha would bring interpreters to an event, their hands would drop as soon as the speaker started to use Oneida rather than English, which left her disconnected from both the Deaf community and the Oneida language community. So, in 2016, she and Max began developing Oneida Sign Language: “Many of us, Indigenous Deaf people, feel rejected from that very dominant white culture within the Deaf community. So, for me, I really focused on learning my own traditions, my own culture, and that’s where I felt connection and understanding and acceptance. Developing Oneida Sign Language just takes that another step further.”

When they had their own children, Marsha wanted to protect them from the same feelings of isolation and disconnection. “When my children would see Elders sharing stories, and they didn’t know what was being said, that really pushed me to be more of an advocate within the community,” she says. “It was important for them to be able to look at me as a role model, not only as an Indigenous woman, but also as a Deaf woman.”

OSL does not simply involve translating spoken Oneida into ASL. The language is more closely related to Plains Indian method or American Indian hand talk, which have been used by tribes in North America for centuries. OSL is rooted in the environment and geography of Max and Marsha’s home in the Oneida Nation and in an understanding of Oneida language and culture. It provides a sense of pride and identity.

For example, the ASL sign for “Indian” looks like the letter “F” on the cheek — a reference, some believe, to the word “feather.” “The word ‘Indian’ has always been insulting to me and has made me feel less-than,” says Marsha. “However, the [OSL] sign or word ‘Indigenous’ has given me some self-identity and self-esteem. It represents who I am. The one hand being the land, the other hand representing the water and then the roots. That’s what Indigenous is.” 

About 30 people are now fluent in OSL. Most of them are in Marsha’s family, but they are also training people in the community. The Irelands have developed signs for roughly 600 words; their ultimate goal is to create a dictionary. Max and Marsha’s children grew up with ASL as their primary language, but, Marsha says, “as they grew and became mothers themselves, they started to see the importance of having a connection to your own language and not that of the dominant culture.” 

Their children and grandchildren are now helping with the creation of OSL and bringing the language out into the world. “They are the energy behind it right now,” Marsha says. “They’re the ones that are asking, ‘Hey, how do you talk about this?’ ‘What’s the sign for that?’ So they’re inspiring me.”


(OSL interpretation by Debbie Parliament and Marsha Ireland​​​​​​)


The Mosko family — Lunaape

six people gathered together
Clockwise from bottom left: Nephew Alex Flewelling, sister Crystal Flewelling, mother Heather Dolson, brother-in-law Ben Flewelling, niece Corrinna Flewelling, and nephew Cobin Flewelling. (Courtesy of Karen Mosko)

Karen Mosko unintentionally started her journey as a Lunaape language student in 2004.

While her mother was recovering from eye surgery, Mosko agreed to drive her to Lunaape classes at the administration office in the Munsee-Delaware Nation, where she grew up. “My mom sat around the table with everyone else, and I sat in the back of the room,” she says. She remembers the teacher coming up to her and asking her to repeat a Lunaape word — she reminded him that she was there only as a driver, not a participant. “He said, ‘Well, if you’re in this room, then you’re taking the class.’ I remember thinking, ‘Oh, crap: I should’ve stayed in the car.’”

In those first classes, the teacher, Glen Jacobs, explained the history of the language: 200 years ago, the Munsee people were fluent in Lunaape, and fewer than 10 were fluent in English; now, everyone can speak English, and there are only about 10 fluent Lunaape speakers. “At that point,” Mosko says, “I remember thinking, ‘This is a very important class that my mom has decided to take.’” In 2019, Lunaape teacher Ian McCallum wrote an article for TVO.org in which he offered updated figures: “As with many other First Nations languages in Canada, the number of first-language speakers in both Lunaapeew communities has declined: there is now just one,” wrote McCallum. “Between 20 and 25 people understand Lunaapeew — all are second-language learners, with varying ability levels.”

After attending a year of classes and a language-immersion weekend, Mosko’s mother, Heather Dolson, decided they should start teaching what they knew of the language. Starting out in Mosko’s uncle’s gas station, they made themselves available to answer community members’ Lunaape questions and taught them specific words and phrases. Soon they moved to more structured settings.

At first, Mosko focused mostly on administration, but a push from her mom led her to start teaching. “I was sitting beside my mom at the head of the table,” says Mosko, describing the first class she taught. “As soon as I started with the prayer, my mom just walked around to the other side of the table and sat with the rest of the students. That was my sink-or-swim initiation into teaching the classes myself, but she still came to every class.”

Mosko has now taught Lunaape classes in storefronts, council chambers, and community centres; at the N’Amerind Native Friendship Centre in London and the Can-Am Friendship Centre in Windsor; and, most recently, over Zoom. In 2014, she taught the first accredited course in the world for the Munsee dialect of the Lunaape language, at Western University.

The death of her language teacher in 2015 and of her mother in 2020 have caused Mosko to reflect on who will carry the language forward when she’s gone. “I don’t have kids, so I worried that I didn’t have anybody to pass it down to directly,” she says.

Her life, though, has always been abundant with family. “To me, growing up, family was really a community,” says Mosko. Though she lost count herself, her brother recalls their parents taking in 40 to 50 foster children; neighbourhood kids would sometimes stay for a day or a weekend — or even longer. “We always had enough kids over to have two baseball teams to play against each other,” she says.

She models her life much the same way. Her two sisters and brother have children, ranging in age from five to 32, who have always been part of Mosko’s home. “[In Lunaape], ‘my mom’ is ‘nii nguk,’ but ‘my aunt on my mom's side’ is ‘nii ngukush,’ and that means ‘little mom.’ And it does feel like you're the little mom,” she says.

Mosko remembers a call she got from her brother a few years ago. Her now five-year-old nephew, Dallas, who has been coming to her classes since he was two, was repeating a Lunaape word over and over, and her brother called to find out what it meant. “He was saying ‘wchapihkal,’ which means ‘medicines,’” she told him. Part of the reason kids love this particular word, she says, is because of how her husband teaches it. “When he’s helping the kids pronounce it, he would say the beginning of it like a karate move: ‘Whaaachaaa,’ you know? So, he’d say ‘whaaachaaa-pico.’”

Children have always been welcome in Mosko’s classroom. Sometimes, she says, they play on an iPad while their parents study — but, even so, they are surrounded by the language. “Every time we said the prayer in class, and we said the word ‘medicine,’ as soon as Dallas heard ‘wchapihkal,’ he would sit up and look around, like, ‘How do you guys know that word? That's my word.’”

While some people have requested separate classes for children and adults, Mosko wants to keep everyone together. “I feel like it’s good for everybody. We always learned as a community, and I think it’s time to come back to that.”

* * *

an older woman with three children
Clockwise from left: Niece Cheyenne Dolson, mother Heather Dolson, niece Sierra Dolson, and nephew Dallas Dolson. (Courtesy of Karen Mosko)

Karen Mosko alumu huluniixsuw Niish tawsun waak neewa. Kii kuk pkwucheenaaw wuskiinjukw, Mosko kaalhame naxpii kii kuk aachumohkeewak wihkuyaan Nalahi. “Nii nguk papaa- exhundakpoonung lapuw waak nii nulapuw wteeng” neeka uw. Neeka mshaatam sheeshkoolhaaluwees kwchiimohkeew laapiixsuw—neeka mihkoome nbeetooteewu.  Neeka uw “wulu peechpiinjiikeew, kii kkuhuluniixsuw.” Nii nmaashtam, “Suchuy, taas xaa nalawapuw naxpii ahtamoombiil kwachumung."

Neek shayee keexun, sheeshkoolhaaluwees, Glen Jacobs, kumihtakunootumawihna huluniixsuwaakan, laawate, weemu Munsiiwak huluniixsuawaakan, waak noondaa wiimbut shihshuwanakuw; kway weemu aween shihshuwanakuw waak nondaa wimbut huluniixsuwaakan, Glen Jacobs uw. “Niin nmshaatam punaweelundam,” Mosko uw, ‘nii nguk kuwulalohken.” Niish tawsun noolii txanihka, Munsiiw sheeshkoolhaaluwees Ian McCallum wulukham TVO.org in which he offered updated figures: “Naxpii kohlawiixiin liixsuwaakan Canada nda, kway shukw mayat nihtawaaptooneew,” wrote McCallum.  “Takwiinaxke waak takwiinaxke waak naalan kohtaasuwihna huluniixsuwaakan – weemu niish huluniixsuw, msu-nihtaawaaptooneew.”  

Aayaaxkwu mawii-shkooluw katun waak huluniixsuw ngwut kunduween, Mosko’s kuk, Heather Dolson, ahweelundam kweek neekawa weewihtoow huluniixsuw. Noochi-akehkiingeew Mosko’s nooxwush koopmaaniikaan, neekawa naxkoomeew aween Lunaape waak lakehkiimeew huluniixsuw. Peexoot neekawa tputaawii eenda-maawehlaang. Mosko, shayee wulihtaweew pambiilak, shukw neeka kuk kiihiimeew nxoo akehkiingeew. “Nii lumutapi pumiichii nii nguk eehundaxpoon, Mosko uw, mshaaleew shaayee akehkiimeew. “Mehtxii pahtamaweew, nii nguk wiiwunooxweew eehundaxpoon waak niishapoomeew weemu aween. Nun ha ngwutawihleew waak pumaashuwihl ndalu-nxoo shkoolhaaluweew, shukw neeka iiyaach kchiit eesh shkooluw.” Mosko shkoolhaaluweew Lunaape huluniixsuw koopmaaniikaan, aachumohkeewak wihkuyaan, waak tputaawii eenda-maawehlaang, N’Amerind Friendship Centre London, waak Can-Am Friendship Centre Windsor, waak kunjooka, zoom. Niish tawsun waak neewaanihka, neekaakehkiimeew shayee shkoolhaaluweew akwaawu Munsee Lunaape huluniixsuw, Western University.

Mbuwaakanal eeylii neeka sheeshkoolhaaluwees niish tawsun waak naalananihka waak neeka nguk niish tawsun waak takwiinaxke Mosko leelundam aween uch shkoolhaaluweew eenda neeka manihleew. “Nii mahta ngaxani niichaanak, nii nzakweelundamun neen nii mahtaaween akehkiimeew.” Neeka pumaawsuwaakan, muleekoonzheew. “Eenda amiimunzuw, nii eelaangoomaatiit wulu maawehleewak,” Mosko uw. Neeka mahta akiimeew, neeka wtulunoohum mshaaleew niiloona kwukal waak wtooxwiit kxanuw neewiinaxke li naalaniinaxke noochaawsaweewak; Nalahii amiimunzak aa mawiikeewak ngwutahkameew waak nxookwunakat waak njihnal. “Nah apuwak teepihlaleew niichanak niisha meelawusuw nehneenaxkwiisak.”

Neeka pumaawsuwaakan maash neeka kwukal waak wtooxwiit. Neeka niishuwak kuwiitkoxkwak waak ktulunoohum wunii chaanuwak, naalan lii nxiinaxke waak niisha txii-katum, aween ngumee Mosko’s pumaawsuwaakan. “Lunaape, ‘my mom’ nii nguk shukw ‘my aunt on my mom’s side, nii ngukush waak ‘little mother.’ Waak nii ngukush.” Mosko mshaaleew wtulunoohum wiittoonheew keexeeli katunal laawate. Neeka wtulunoohum kwiisus naalan txii-katum, Dallas, aween kchiit shkooluwak niisha txii-katum, laapiixsuw, waak neeka wtulunoohum wtooxtaweew. “Neeka uw wchapihkal ‘medicines’ neeka uw.  Amiimunzuwak wunj wiingsutam wchapihkal, neeka uw, eel neeka wiitaweemaachiil, Michael, lakehkiimeew. “Eenda wiitaweemak akehkiimeew, neeka uw maash karate kwchukwiiw: ‘whaaachaaa,’ kuweewihtoowan? Neeka uw whaaachaaa peekull.”

Amiimunzak ngumee Mosko’s shkooluw. Tahtaas, neeka uw, neekawa meelawihtaakw iPad weetumu neekawa kuk waak noox alohkeewak – shukw, ach li, niiloona wiiwunihkaweewak huluniixsuw. Heesh na pahtamaweew shkooluw, waak niiloona uw ‘wchapihkal’, ndulunoohum kwiisus, Dallas, uspohkweew ndawaapuw, “Tha ha nihtaa wchapihkal? Na ha nii.” Neeli-kaanzhaween kata shkooluw kihkuwaweenuwak waak amiimunzuwak, Mosko kataatang takwihleew. “Nii liiteeheew wulii kweek weemu aween.  Kiiloona ngumee weewihtaakw takwihleewak, waak nii ndiit kway kataatang laapii aapuweelundam.”

(Translated into Lunaape by Karen Mosko and Ian McCallum)


The Allan family — Ojibwe


E-S-L. Rochelle Allan could hardly believe it when she saw those three letters written on her son’s paperwork from daycare.

“It’s still my most treasured piece of paper because of how unimaginable it was to me 10 years ago that a professional would look at our family and say, ‘This kid is living in Toronto, in 2017. His first language is Ojibwe, and his second language is English.’ I don’t know that my parents or grandparents would have imagined that possible.”

Although Allan refers to her Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin, skills as beginner level, that’s the language she and her partner speak with their four-year-old son, Norman, and three-year-old daughter, Kay. “I’ll often preface [our story] by saying, ‘We speak something very close to Ojibwe,’ because we’re so far from being fluent speakers,” says Allan. “But I have a choice every day. I can teach them now with what I know, or I can wait to teach them until I know more. If I waited until I got fluent myself to start, they would grow up without the language.”

Around seven years ago, Allan decided she wanted to advocate for and support the development of more language programming for kids in the city. But, when she phoned around to different organizations, she says, she found that the funding and interest weren’t there at the time.

Her discouragement turned to renewed determination after a chance encounter: “I was at a [language] conference,” Allan remembers. “I was kind of complaining, and this older woman said to me, ‘Well, now you know that they’re not going to help you, so you have to do it yourself.’”

After that, she immersed herself in any language resources she could find. She listened to audio recordings, took online courses, and tried to speak Ojibwe as much as possible. “Through doing those things, I became better, and then I could teach my son more,” she says. “I’m still scrambling to learn constantly to keep ahead of him.”

English remains part of her children’s lives — in conversations with grandparents, in the television shows they watch, at daycare. “My impression is that you couldn’t stop English if you tried,” Allan says. Still, she checks in with their daycare occasionally to see whether there are any issues with their English-language development. She has explained to Norman’s teachers that there are letters in the English alphabet that don’t exist in Ojibwe and that English pronouns such as “he” and “she” were new for him. “My son called everybody ‘he’ all the time,” says Allan. “I explained that we don’t have ‘he’/‘she’ indicators in our language, so you can mention to him that in English we use ‘he’ and ‘she.’”

Allan believes that children have a lot to teach adults about language learning. “[My kids] can speak to fluent people more easily than I can now, partially just because they don't get scared and get stage fright as soon as they don’t know what’s going on.” One evening, she noticed that Kay was lying in bed and talking to herself in Ojibwe about all the things she’d done that day. “If I lay in the dark and tried to speak in this language that I’m trying to learn, for two hours, without getting upset or distracted, I would learn a lot also. They put in the time in these ways that adults just don’t.”

When Norman was younger, Allan says, she read him books in Ojibwe but didn't always understand what she was reading: “I was saying the words and smiling when appropriate, based on the pictures, and that’s how I was able to learn, frankly.” For Allan, learning the language alongside Norman and Kay meant she had to put in the work. “Reading to Norman, listening to stuff on the radio all the time, trying to expose him to as much as possible — I don’t know if I could have done that for myself, but those are the reasons I was able to become more proficient more quickly.’”

In 2018, Allan started a YouTube channel with playlists of videos in Ojibwe for Norman to watch. After daycares closed down due to COVID-19, the family started creating their own videos, and, in August, Allan launched a website to share language resources and track their journey. “I’ve now become the person I wanted to find when I was starting out, which is someone who is a bit more competent at speaking and is engaging with other families. I want people to know that where they are in their language journey now is not where they will be. They may be surprised at what that path might look like.”

* * *

a man, a woman, and two children wearing masks
Rochelle Allan and her partner with their two children, Norman and Kay. (Courtesy of Rochelle Allan)

E-S-L. Rochelle Allan gii-maamakaadendam gii-waabandang niso-ozhibii’iganesing ogosisan mazina’iganan gaa-piitood abinoojiiwigamigong.  “Aapiji ogii-gichi-inendaan iye mazina’igan onzaam midaaso-bibooning, gii-ganawaabamagwaa nindinawemaaganag ‘indaa-ikid owe abinoojiinh gii-taa Toronto, 2017. Anishinaabemowin nitam ogiigidowin zhigo miinawaa zhaaganaashiimowin’. Ninii’igoo, nimishoomis, nookomis omikwendaan owe sa chi-ishising.”

Allan gi-gagwe-anishinaabemod mii go bijiinaa ninitaa-anishinaabemowaad oniijaanisiwaa’, Norman, niiyo-biboone gaye Kaye niso-bibooned. “Ningagwe-anishinaabemonaanaanig onzaam gaawiin nitaa-anishinaabemosiimin. Mii go endaso-giizhig gagwe-anishinaabemonaanaanig owe minik gaa-gikendamaang. Giishpin giiyaabi baabii’owaan owe anishinaabemowin ji-gikendamaang daa-ombigi’og niichaanisag ji-gikendanzigwaa anishinaabemowin.”

Niishwaaswo-bibooning, Allan gii-onendan wii-gagwe-wiiji’aad giiyaabi anishinaabemowin ji-gagwe-gikendamowaad omaa gichi-odenaang. Aanagii babaa-giigido miziwe andone’aad zhooniyan chi-wiiji’igowizid anishinaabemowin chi-bimaajitood. Allan gii-anowezi mii dash imaa gaa-izhi-gagwekendang gii-izhaad gaa-dazhi-zagaswe’iding,” Allanan ominjimendaan. “Ningii-anwez, gii-pizindaag owe gichi-mindimowenh gaa-izhi-giigidod. Gaawiin gaa-gawijisiig injida giin igo ji-dazhiikaman.” Mii dash igo imaa gii-gagwe-mikang gakina gegoo anishinaabemowin ogii-bizindaanan gaa-giigidowinan, gii-gikinoo’amawaa mii dash igo imaa gii-gagwe-anishinaabemod. “Owe gii-izhichigeyaan, mii go gashkitoowaan ji-kino’amawag ningozis ji-anishinaabemod” gii-ikido. “Giiyaabi go ingoding gagwe-gikendaan igo ji-nitaa-anishinaabemowaan.”

Gii-gaganoonigwaa niniigi’igoog — gii-waabandamaan mazinatebii’igan iwidi abinoojiiwigamigong mii go zhaaganaashiimowin apane omaa ayaamagak. “Gaawiin gidaa-gibichitoosiimin zhaaganaashiimowin”, Allan gii-ikido. Abinoojiiwigamigong giishpin gegoo gii-maazhiseg zhaaganaashiimowin ozhichigenan. Owiindamawaan Norman ogikinoo’amaageman gaawiin ayaasinoonin ozhibii’iganensan dibishoo zhaaganaashiimowin idash anishinaabemowin giishpin ginwaabandaman wiin. “Ningozis ningii-gaganoonaan onzaam kina awiiya ogii-izhinikaanaan “he, she”, ningii-wiindamowaa gaawiin niinawind ayaasinoon iwe ikidowinan gii-anishinaabemong.”

Allan ogikendaan owe abinoojiinyag odaa-kino’amawaa oniigii’igowaa’ ji-nitaa-anishinaabemowaad. “[Niniijaanisag] ninitaa-anishinaabemog gaawiin zegisisiiwag onzaam gikendaanaawaa aaniin ezhiwebak. “Owe bezhig onaagoshig ogii-naabadawaabamaa Kay zhingishin nibewining gaganoonindizid anishinaabemod gaa-izhichiged gaa-giizhigak. “Giishpin geniin izhichigeyaan gagwe-anishinaabemowaan niibiwa geniin nindaa-gikendaan aapiji sa. Gidaa-magoziyog abinoojiinyag piich oniigii’igwaa.”

Norman gii-oshiki’ayaa’id ogii-aginadaamowaan anishinaabebii’iganan, ikido Allan,“Ningii-zhoomiingwen ginwaabandamaan mazinaa’kizinan mii dash geniin gaa-onji-gikendamaan anishinaabemowin.” “Maamawi-gagwe-anishinaamowaad bizidamaang bizinjigan idash gakina gegoo anishinaabemowin — amanji igo ji-gashkitoowaan aaniin niin eta, mii dash gaa-onji-gagwe-taamagoziwaan.”

2018, Allan ogii-maajitoonan YouTube mazinaatebii’igan idash nibiyo mazinaatesijiganan gii-anishinaabemong ji-ganawaabandang Norman. Gii-gibe’igaategin abinoojiiwigamigong owe onzaam aakoziwin gaa-babaamagak nindawemaaganag ogii-maajitoonaawaa mazinaatebii’iganan, gaye, Allan ogii-ozhitoonan websayt ji-maada’okiid anishinaabemowin idash ginwaadaman aandi ezhaamagak. “Mii gii-makowag awiya nitam gii-maajitaayaan nawaj ningikendaan anishinaabemowin idash gaganoonagwaa nindinamaaganag. Nidawenimaag ji-gikendamowaad owe sa anishinaabemowin miikana gaawiin imaa apane daayaasiiyog da-gashkwendamoog iwe miikana ge-niizhinaagwak.”

(Translated into Ojibwe by Jason Jones and Shirley Andy)

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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