• Basil Johnston (Author) and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Author)
    Think Indian: Languages Are Beyond Price. Kegedonce Press
Reviewed by Margaret Noori

“Anishinaabenendamon,” Basil Johnston would say if all readers spoke his language. “Anishinaabe” is the term for the people of the Great Lakes and “enendamo” implies the act of thinking. In his latest book, Think Indian, Johnston explains how Aboriginal identity is a combination of language, life, and literature. “Thinking Indian,” he says, “is not so much a mode of thought as it is an understanding of one’s duties and fulfilling those duties.” In a series of essays written over several decades, Johnston describes the duties he considers important for preserving and continuing Aboriginal identities. He began his journey as a cultural philosopher and language teacher when he was asked to speak to schoolchildren in the 196s and has become an honoured leader in the field. His audience today still includes the young and curious, but also the members of Aboriginal communities who seek to know more about their own cultures, and scholars who focus on the Anishinaabe people.

Johnston’s narratives include events that span a century: the racism surrounding the Jim Thorpe scandal in 1912, Native veterans in WWI and WWII, Hollywood’s creation of the Indian stereotype, and the eventual civil rights movement inspired by Kahn- Tineta Horn and carried forward by the pan-tribal leaders of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. Looking back to a time before his own, he quotes the 1805 speech of Seneca leader, Red Jacket, who pointed out the differences between Aboriginal and western religions, as well as the importance of diversity. He also dis- cusses distant times, arguably thousands of years ago, when storytellers shared complex knowledge systems with younger genera- tions through word choice, performance, and memory. By taking this broad view of history and culture, Johnston “thinks Indian.” He sees it as the duty of the Anishinaabe to ensure that their identity not be understood only through material artifacts of the past and present. According to Johnston, Anishinaabe lives must be examined in connection with the many cultures around them, across a broad range of time.

Johnston has encountered many well- intentioned individuals who have not grasped the complexity of his culture. His essays warn that learning the Anishinaabe language is essential to understanding the people. To support this belief, he has created many teaching tools and sets of curriculum for those “willing to invest an hour a day.” Johnston describes Anishinaabe words as medicines with many meanings used to create narratives that explore the mysteries of life. “We are the offspring of ‘manitous,’ best translated as ‘mysteries,’” he writes. Stories about manitous of the sky and earth trace spiritual and scientific beliefs. Translation risks diluting or disguising the truth. This message is consistent with the contents of several of his previous books, but here in Think Indian, Johnston shares his reasons for writing Manitous, Ojibway Ceremonies, Ojibway Tales, and Ojibway Heritage. His vision is to inspire action, not merely archive the tales and practices of the elders. For this reason, Think Indian is a welcome addition to his works.

This review “Anishinaabenendamon” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 166.

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