Headwaters of Ojibwe

by Translation Guy on April 4, 2012

Ojibwemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes, is the fourth-most spoken native language in North America, after NavajoCree, and Inuktitut. For centuries it was the lingua franca of lake and stream, the preferred patois of traders paddling back and forth across the center of the continent. But you don’t hear it much at truck stops these days, as it’s only spoken by old timers, who don’t get out much, amid a society awash in English.

Although there are almost a quarter-million Ojibwe people living in North America, the language is fading fast as English becomes the language of daily life. Only the old-timres are speaking it, and languages gone grey are in trouble. The kids have to speak Ojibwe, otherwise Ojibwe will die.

So the University of Minnesota has launched a new site called “The Ojibwe Peoples Dictionary”  which provides a digital portage path to the Ojibwe language. Supporters hope that getting the Ojibwe language and cultural context online will provide a digital guarantee that the language will endure.

The dictionary contains more than 30,000 words spoken by native speakers  in accompanying audio and “sets the standard for how indigenous languages will be learned and preserved into the future,” says James a Parente, Jr. dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts.

Added bonus: Speakers are identified by locale in a very nice approach to dialect.

Plenty of pictures and other documents provide cultural background. It’s very nicely done. Since English speakers are likely tp already know a word or two of Objibwe (remember, big trade language) you can check out the correct pronunciation here.

“If we lose our language, we lose our distinctiveness as a people,’’ explains Brendan Fairbanks, an American Indian Studies and Ojibwe language professor at the university of Minnesotta. “Each language represents a different pair of eyeglasses, how people see the world. If you lose that language, you lose how that people see the world.”

“Do we have the right to say we are Ojibwe if we don’t speak the language? Some argue not. Some argue yes. If you don’t speak the language, how are you different from everybody else, except for your skin-tone?”

I would propose to Brendon, that how you handle a canoe must count for something too. The Ojibwe are the people of the canoe, and everyone who has ever drawn a j-stroke must acknowledge their gift to the world, this magic carpet made of birchbark, swift as the wild goose flight.

Now, should you ever get into the front of my canoe, not only are you apt to get damp from my patented beavertail splash stroke, but you’ll have to listen to me sing too, as it makes light work of heavy loads (all those steaks and boxes of Chablis). Here’s my favorite, a corny, beautiful old standard, but of possible Ojibwe provenence.

Every time I hear that song I start doing heroic paddle poses. Got to start training. I’ve been meaning to head up the Oswegatchie to the Five Ponds. This September, maybe? Serious paddlers and not-so-serious singers welcome.

I think it would be great to catch the sound of some Ojibwe on the water again.  But it’s a hard pull to the headwaters of a heritage language.  May the paddles of the Ojibwe language preservationists be keen and bright!

The rest of Cynthia Boyd’s excellent report on Ojibwe language preservation efforts in the MinnPost here.


  1. Sweetpea says:

    How Ojibwe is Brendan with that pinstriped button down shirt and tighlty cropped hairdo? Does he have a home with electricity and running water? His own car? If one adapts to all of a modern society’s comforts, does that make him less Ojibwe more than the loss of language?

  2. Nick Zegell says:

    Many of my friends are native speakers (I live in Wisconsin). Some are still very involved in their heritage, while a few others don’t think twice about it. Hard for me to take a side, but I wonder what will happen to language if more and more minority languages fade away.

  3. Harry says:

    I’m Ojibwe and I have long since given up using my native language. It is more important to me to be able to communicate on a daily basis with society than with the smattering of natives where I live. Evolution shrank the appendix just as it does languages that are not needed anymore. Face it, some of the older languages just aren’t efficient and really have no place anymore.

  4. Lester Riggs says:

    Is losing languages really such a bad thing? Doesn’t keeping these differences perpetuate racism and inequality? Why would it be so bad if more people were similar? Look around, how many of these Ojibwe (and other natives) are marrying outside their own? The ancestery is being “watered down” anyway.

  5. I don’t think it should matter whether you speak one language or another to identify who you are. Frankly, I think the US has advanced well enough and long enough to start losing the long list of labels used to identify each other. How many African Americans are actually from Africa? Let alone visited? It is my thought that if you were born here, raised here, moved here or whatever, that is who you are. My grand father was from France and he married a native from Minnesota in the early 1900’s. I don’t go around saying I’m French American or native or anything like that.

  6. Tom Haiden says:

    I think that it is great news for the Ojibwe people that their language is being preserved. Hopefully, others will see this and take initiative to preserve other languages as the big ones seem to take over. The great think about technology is that we won’t have to rely on finding a Rosetta stone somewhere in the future to help decipher anything. Video and internet help us see actually people using these languages.

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