Ojibwemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes, is the fourth-most spoken native language in North America, after Navajo, Cree, 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.