Language, Land, and Body: An Indissoluble Nexus

  • Eufemia Fantetti (Editor), Leonarda Carranza (Editor) and Ayelet Tsabari (Editor)
    Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language. Book*hug (purchase at
  • Helen Olsen Agger
    Dadibaajim: Returning Home through Narrative. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by John Charles Ryan

2022 marks the beginning of the UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages, proposed two years earlier in the “Los Pinos Declaration” as a means to highlight “the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages” (“Los Pinos” 2). The Declaration acknowledges the fundamental role of Indigenous languages in fostering social cohesion, cultural identity, community health, and biodiversity conservation. Indeed, the preservation of linguistic heterogeneity is an urgent issue globally. Research suggests that forty per cent of the approximately seven thousand languages in use around the world are threatened in some way. Within four decades, “language loss could triple,” marked tragically by the disappearance of “at least one language” . . . per month” and ”over 1,500 by the end of the century end” (Bromham et al. 163).


In the Canadian context, Dadibaajim by Helen Olsen Agger and Tongues, edited by Eufemia Fantetti, Leonarda Carranza, and Ayelet Tsabari, present cogent interventions.  Although differing in composition—the former, a research monograph, the latter, an anthology of personal essays—both texts are comparably multilingual and polyvocal in their attention to the indissoluble nexus of language, land, and body. Whereas Dadibaajim comprises nine chapters and a conclusion, Tongues features twenty-six essays and an editors’ introduction by a diverse cohort of contributors. Notwithstanding their mutual emphasis on Canadian languages, lands, and communities, both respond to the increasing pervasiveness of linguistic homogenization and, more specifically, the dominance of English in postcolonial societies. The distinctive parallelism of their subtitles—“through narrative” and “through language”—intimates the crucial role of storytelling in mediating processes of returning and belonging.


In “Ni Noopimakamig-aajimomin: Our Boreal Narratives,” the sixth chapter of Dadibaajim, Agger details the teachings of her mother, Dedibaayaanimanook Sarah Keesick Olsen, an elder of the Namegosibii Anishinaabe people of northwest Ontario who was born in 1922. Dedibaayaanimanook alludes to a traditional narrative, or dadibaajim, of miishiijiimin skunk cabbage in which the early blooming, mud-loving plant offers a vegetal heuristic guiding children’s interactions with the community’s elders. Emerging soon after the boreal snow recedes, miishiijiimin expresses—through its physical transformation—the virtue of forbearance and, more specifically, the importance of respecting elders by not outpacing them. The plant teaches people to show patience by pacing themselves. Moreover, whereas both the vernacular English name skunk cabbage and the Latin Symplocarpus foetidus denote the pungent scent effusing from the leaves when bruised, the Anishinaabemowin term refers to the coarse texture of the plant’s edible fruits (223n1). Dedibaayaanimanook’s narrative of miishiijiimin is but one example of the intricate biocultural understandings embedded in dadibaajim, centralizing experiential knowledge of hydrological flows, seasonal patterns, animal behavior, plant ecology, human-land relations, and cosmic phenomena.


The concept of dadibaajim is foundational to Agger’s study, which comprises eminently readable analyses of knowledge making, identity formation, subjectivity, embodiment, community, language, tradition, and colonial adaptation among the Namegosibii Anishinaabe, or “people of pristine trout water” (6). Anchored in decolonial theory and participatory research strategies, Dadibaajim compellingly articulates the all-encompassing multi-dimensionality of the titular concept, especially for readers unfamiliar with the study’s cultural grounding. The author spent her childhood in Namegosibiing Trout Lake with Anishinaabe relatives, listening to the Anishinaabemowin language and learning about dadibaajim interweavings. A complex signifier, dadibaajim denotes narratives and practices of narration as well as the fortification of Anishinaabe identity through narratives. The polyvalent term encompasses the content, practice, and impact of narration.


As an ontological framework based on narrative and narration, dadibaajim imparts knowledge of relationships, values, practices, beliefs, and symbologies. Characterized by Agger as “a purveyor of culture and an institution of learning,” dadibaajim offers “a means for intergenerational conveyance of Anishinaabe identity across the eons” (81). Nourishing memory, reinforcing speaker-listener dynamics, and engendering “land-derived subjectivity” (46), dadibaajim illuminates genealogical, social, cultural, and ecological identities. In addition to “Ni Noopimakamig-aajimomin,” the chapter “Wenji-Anishinaabewiyang: Our Anishinaabe Selves” provides a nuanced elaboration of dadibaajim vis-à-vis the power of ancestral narratives to vivify “speaker-listener-land relationships” (81). For Namegosibii Anishinaabe, dadibaajim invigorates biocultural traditions and, in doing so, counters the destabilizing impacts of Euro-Canadian colonization.


Namegosibii Anishinaabe people use dadibaajim narratives to consolidate relations between human communities, noopimakamig boreal lands, and ishpiming celestial beings. Linking identity to the environment and other-than-human life, Anishinaabe narratives reverberate with lessons delineating responsibilities to nature. Evoked by Agger as resilient media with the capacity to evolve, dadibaajim narratives also integrate Anishinaabe perspectives on wemitigoozhiwag—the culture of European settlers and their descendants. Some narratives satirize Euro-Canadian attitudes towards the environment as an expendable resource while, at the same time, expressing an abiding resolve to endure the privations of colonization, including government policies designed to deny Anishinaabe people their land and language. Agger explains lucidly that, as a fountainhead of cultural sovereignty, dadibaajim “reminds us that knowledge resides in unexpected places, whether the land, the wanagoshag of the night skies, the omagakiig frogs and their mists of rain, or each of us as Namegosibii Anishinaabeg” (214).


Agger’s study contributes emphatically to Indigenous research paradigms recognizing the value of narrative (Windchief and San Pedro). In the last two decades, scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith have implicated Eurocentric research in the colonization and subjugation of Indigenous societies. As a culturally responsive method, traditional storytelling incorporates Indigenous perspectives on land, community, and health (Datta). In the context of Aboriginal Australia, for instance, yarning is a research approach that places human and non-human relationships at the front and centre of inquiry (Atkinson, Baird, and Adams). The method of “Yarning with Country” reflects an Indigenous research ethos cultivating respectful and reciprocal interactions with the environment regarded as a living presence (Hughes and Barlo).


Throughout Dadibaajim, the inclusion of Anishinaabemowin words alongside their English counterparts amplifies the text’s polyvocality. The generous infusion of non-italicized Anishinaabemowin serves as “a perspectival reminder about the diversity of human thought, conceptualization, and world views” (16). Free from italics, scare quotes, parentheses, bracketing, footnoting, endnoting, and other typographical interpolations, the in-text presence of a Canadian First Nations language decentres the linguistic hegemony of English, enabling Anishinaabemowin to express “history, spirituality, ceremony, and land-based identity” directly, on its own terms (77). Comparably, in “The Seven Grandfathers and Translations,” her contribution to Tongues, Ashley Hynd considers the implications of using non-italicized Anishinaabemowin in English-dominant writings. For Hynd, if done conscientiously, the insertion of Anishinaabemowin advances the decolonization of written texts by privileging the epistemologies of Indigenous language speakers (108). Hynd’s essay also underscores the difficulties—indeed, impossibilities—of translating between process-based Indigenous languages and noun-focused imperial languages in which subjects impose their will on passive predicates (108).


In “Say Something in Your Language” from Tongues, Rebecca Fisseha similarly challenges the norm of italicizing non-English. In conjunction with the normative use of equivalents and explanations, italics produce a “distancing effect . . . both for readers who do, and do not, know Amharic” (86). In contrast, embedding terms from other languages generates a more accurate representation of reality, especially in linguistically diverse Canada where “[t]here are more than seventy Indigenous languages and over two hundred mother tongues” (8). The momentary delay—what Fisseha describes as a “hiccup in the flow of English” (89)—becomes an appreciable element of a text’s aesthetic, allowing readers to derive meaning from unfamiliar terms through their presence on the page. Rather than an act of exclusion, non-italicization aims to immerse readers as active participants in the text-world. Raised by several contributors to Tongues, the convention of typographically signaling non-English words has been critiqued elsewhere. Poet Khairani Barokka, for instance, aptly characterizes the editorially enforced application of italics “as a form of linguistic gatekeeping; a demarcation between which words are ‘exotic’ . . . and those that have a rightful place in the text: the non-italicized.”


Italicization, translationality, linguistic heterogeneity, and language imperialism, as addressed by Hynd and Fisseha, exemplify the engaging mix of concerns raised in Tongues, a timely anthology that—as its title suggests—is as much about longing for language as it is about belonging through language. As the editors comment, “the essays in this collection . . . confront the pain of losing a mother tongue or an ancestral language, and celebrate the joys and empowerment that come with reclamation” (9). Opening the anthology, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s “Tongue-Tied” calls critical attention to “first-language attrition, or FLA, a process that happens when people are isolated from other speakers of that language or when another language dominates” (12–13). Al-Solaylee adroitly navigates the joys and tribulations of embracing his birth language, Arabic, after a protracted period of “dereliction” beginning in his teenage years (13).


A common thread between Dadibaajim and Tongues is their focus on the intergradations between language, land, and body. Many essays in Tongues exhibit a visceral lyricism that enlivens this conjunction—this indissoluble nexus—asserting the inherent relationality between these three elements. For Kai Cheng Thom in “Language Is the Fluid of Our Collective Bodies,” an ancestral language is one that exists as “a mostly dormant neural network, a vestigial organ that has lost its original purpose” (67). For Ayelet Tsabari writing in “Disappearance/Muteness,” the process of reclaiming Yemeni Arabic involves attuning to the corporeality of her mother tongue, “the throaty ayin as it was meant to sound, as though a marble slides down your throat” (162). Tsabari likens her longing for Arabic to a physical ache: “Can a language be lodged inside your body, folded into your organs, the same way we inherit memories from our ancestors, like trauma? How else can you explain the warmth that spreads inside my body when I hear it? The yearning?” (170).


For many contributors to Tongues, the visceral yearning evocatively narrated by Tsabari is a response to the gravitational pull of place, land, ecology, and more-than-human assemblages. In this regard, language is not the exclusive attribute of humankind but extends like a mycelial network, connecting all life. In her essay on the multifarious tonalities of Dutch, Sadiqa de Meijer speaks of the “[g]rammar of nettles and elderberry and the blue-grey shells of blackbird eggs” (195). For Hege Anita Jakobsen Lepri in “Holding My Tongue,” the anthology’s final essay, language reclamation is mediated by somatic memory activated through contact with nature: “As I push my tongue against the roof of my mouth, I remember things: the smell of salt on a windy day; the taste of cloudberry not quite ripe; the texture of longing for things long lost” (229).


Dadibaajim and Tongues offer valuable contributions to our understanding of linguistic diversity, Indigenous languages, and identity making in Canada. In particular, both texts mutually affirm the importance of body, land, community, and human-nature relations to the preservation of languages at home and elsewhere. Read in tandem, the two publications compellingly articulate the vital place of narrative knowledge in engendering and safeguarding linguistic sovereignty.


Works Cited

Atkinson, Petah, Marilyn Baird, and Karen Adams. “Are You Really Using Yarning Research? Mapping Social and Family Yarning to Strengthen Yarning Research Quality.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, vol. 17, no. 2, June 2021, pp. 191–201.

Barokka, Khairani. “The Case against Italicizing ‘Foreign’ Words.” Catapult, 11 Feb. 2020, Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.

Bromham, Lindell, et al. “Global Predictors of Language Endangerment and the Future of Linguistic Diversity.” Nature Ecology and Evolution, vol. 6, no. 2, Feb. 2022, pp. 163–73.

Datta, Ranjan. “Traditional Storytelling: An Effective Indigenous Research Methodology and Its Implications for Environmental Research.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, vol. 14, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 35–44.

Hughes, Margaret, and Stuart Barlo. “Yarning with Country: An Indigenist Research Methodology.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 27, nos. 3–4, 2021, pp. 353–63.

“Los Pinos Declaration: Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages.” UNESCO, 2020,

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, 1999.

Windchief, Sweeney, and Timothy San Pedro. “Reflection, Action, and Conscientization.” Applying Indigenous Research Methods: Storying with Peoples and Communities, edited by Windchief and San Pedro, Routledge, 2019, pp. xiv–xxv.

This review “Language, Land, and Body: An Indissoluble Nexus” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Jul. 2022. Web.

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