One Generation From Extinction

V V”ITHIN THE PAST FEW YEARS Gregor Keeshig, Henry Johnston, Resime Akiwenzie, Norman McLeod, and Belva Pitwaniquot died. They all spoke their tribal language, Anishinaubae (Ojibwa). When these elders passed away, so did a portion of the tribal language come to an end as a tree disintegrates by degrees and in stages until it is no more ; and, though infants were born to replen- ish the loss of life, not any one of them will learn the language of their grandfathers or grandmothers to keep it alive and to pass it on to their descendants. Thus
language dies.
In some communities there are no more Gregor Keeshigs, Henry Johnstons,
Resime Akiwenzies, Norman McLeods, Belva Pitwaniquots; those remaining have no more affinity to their ancestral language than they do to Swahili or Sanskrit ; in other communities the languages may not survive beyond a generation. Some tribal languages are at the edge of extinction, not expected to survive for more than a few years. There remain but three aboriginal languages out of the original fifty- three found in Canada that may survive several more generations.
There is cause to lament but it is the native peoples who have the most cause to lament the passing of their languages. They lose not only the ability to express the simplest of daily sentiments and needs but they can no longer understand the ideas, concepts, insights, attitudes, rituals, ceremonies, institutions brought into being by their ancestors ; and, having lost the power to understand, cannot sustain, enrich, or pass on their heritage. No longer will they think Indian or feel Indian. And though they may wear “Indian” jewellery and take part in pow-wows, they can never capture that kinship with and reverence for the sun and the moon, the sky and the water, or feel the lifebeat of Mother Earth or sense the change in her moods ; no longer are the wolf, the bear and the caribou elder brothers but beasts, resources to be killed and sold. They will have lost their identity which no amount of reading can ever restore. Only language and literature can restore the “Indian- ness.”
Now if Canadians of West European or other origin have less cause than “Indians” to lament the passing of tribal languages and cultures it is because they
may not realize that there is more to tribal languages than “ugh” or “how” or “kimu sabi.” At most and at best Euro-Canadians might have read or heard about Raven and Nanabush and Thunderbirds and other “tricksters”; some may have even studied “Culture Myths,” “Hero Tales,” “Transformation Tales,” or “Nature Myths and Beast Fables,” but these accounts were never regarded as bearing any more sense than “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs.” Neither language nor literature were ever considered in their natural kinship, which is the only way in which language ought to be considered were its range, depth, force and beauty to be appreciated.
Perhaps our Canadian compatriots of West European origin have more cause to lament the passing of an Indian language than they realize or care to admit. Scholars mourn that there is no one who can speak the Huron language and thus assist scholars in their pursuit of further knowledge about the tribe; scholars mourn that had the Beothuk language survived, so much more would be known about the Beothuk peoples. In mourning the extinction of the language, scholars are implicitly declaring that the knowledge derived from a study of snowshoes, shards, arrowheads, old pipes, shrunken heads and old bones, hunting, fishing, transpor- tation, food preparation, ornamentation and sometimes ritual is limited. And so it is; material culture can yield only so much.
Language is crucial. If scholars are to increase their knowledge and if they are to add depth and width to their studies, they must study a native language and literature. It is not enough to know linguistics or to know a few words or even some phrases or to have access to the Jesuit Relations, Chippewa Exercises, Ojibwa Texts, or a Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language. Without a knowledge of the language scholars can never take for granted the accuracy of an interpretation or translation of a passage, let alone a single word ; nor can they presume that their articles, tracts, treatises, essays bear the kind of accuracy that scholarship and integrity demand. They would continue to labour under the impression that the word “manitou” means spirit and that it has no other meaning. Superstitious non- sense, according to the white man. They do not know that the word bears other meanings even more fundamental than “spirit,” such as, and/or pertaining to the deities; of a substance, character, nature, essence, quiddity beyond comprehension and therefore beyond explanation, a mystery; supernatural; potency, potential. What a difference such knowledge might have made in the studies conducted by Ruth Landes or Thomas B. Leekley, and others on the Anishinaubae tribe. Perhaps, instead of regarding “Indians” as superstitious for positing “spirits” in trees or in other inanimate or insensate objects, they might have credited them with insight for having perceived a vital substance or essence that imparted life, form, growth, healing, and strength in all things, beings, and places. They might have understood that the expression “manitouwan” meant that an object possessed or was infused with an element or a feature that was beyond human ken ; they might have under-
stood that “w’manitouwih” meant that he or she was endowed with extraordinary talents, and that it did not mean that he or she was a spirit.
Language is essential. If scholars and writers are to know how “Indians” perceive and regard certain ideas they must study an “Indian” language. When an “Anishinaubae” says that someone is telling the truth, he says “w’daeb-awae.” But the expression is not just a mere confirmation of a speaker’s veracity. It is at the same time a philosophical proposition that, in saying, a speaker casts his words and his voice only as far as his vocabulary and his perception will enable him. In so doing the tribe was denying that there was absolute truth ; that the best a speaker could achieve and a listener expect was the highest degree of accuracy. Somehow that one expression “w’daeb-awae” set the limits of a single statement as well as setting limits on all speech.
There was a special regard almost akin to reverence for speech and for the truth. Perhaps it was because words bear the tone of the speaker and may therefore be regarded as belonging to that person ; perhaps it is because words have but a fleeting momentary existence in sound and are gone except in memory ; perhaps it is because words have not ceased to exist but survive in echo and continue on in infinity; perhaps it is because words are medicine that can heal or injure; perhaps it is because words possess an element of the manitou that enabled them to conjure images and ideas out of nothing, and are the means by which the autissokanuk
(muses) inspired men and women. It was not for nothing that the older generation did not solicit the autissokanuk to assist in the genesis of stories or in the composition of chants in seasons other than winter.
To instil respect for language the old counselled youth, “Don’t talk too much” (Kegon zaum-doongaen), for they saw a kinship between language and truth. The expression is not without its facetious aspect but in its broader application it was intended to convey to youth other notions implicit in the expression “Don’t talk too much,” for the injunction also meant “Don’t talk too often . . . Don’t talk too long . . . Don’t talk about those matters that you know nothing about.” Were a person to restrict his discourse, and measure his speech, and govern his talk by what he knew, he would earn the trust and respect of his (her) listeners. Of that man or woman they would say “w’daeb-awae.” Better still, people would want to hear the speaker again and by so doing bestow upon the speaker the opportunity to speak,
for ultimately it is the people who confer the right of speech by their audience.
L•ANGUAGE WAS A PRECIOUS HERITAGE; literature was no less precious. So precious did the tribe regard language and speech that it held those who abused language and speech and truth in contempt and ridicule and withheld from them their trust and confidence. To the tribe the man or woman who rambled
on and on, or who let his tongue range over every subject or warp the truth was said to talk in circles in a manner no different from that of a mongrel who, not knowing the source of alarm, barks in circles (w’geewi-animoh). Ever since words and sounds were reduced to written symbols and have been stripped of their mystery and magic, the regard and reverence for them have diminished in tribal life.
As rich and full of meaning as may be individual words and expression, they embody only a small portion of the entire stock and potential of tribal knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual attainment, the greater part is deposited in myths, legends, stories, and in the lyrics of chants that make up the tribe’s literature. Therein will be found the essence and the substance of tribal ideas, concepts, insights, attitudes, values, beliefs, theories, notions, sentiments, and accounts of their institutions and rituals and ceremonies. Without language scholars, writers, and teachers will have no access to the depth and width of tribal knowledge and understanding, but must continue to labour as they have done these many years under the impression that “Indian” stories are nothing more than fairy tales or folklore, fit only for juvenile minds. For scholars and academics Nanabush, Raven, Glooscap, Weesaukeechauk and other mythological figures will ever remain “tricksters,” culture heroes, deities whose misadventures were dreamed into being only for the amusement of children. Primitive and pagan and illiterate to boot, “Indians” could not possibly address or articulate abstract ideas or themes; neither their minds nor their languages could possibly express any idea more complex than taboos, superstitions and bodily needs.
But were ethnologists, anthropologists, linguists, teachers of native children and writers of native literature — yes, even archaeologists — to learn a native language, perhaps they might learn that Nanabush and Raven are not simply “tricksters” but the caricatured representations of human nature and character in their many facets; perhaps they might give thought to the meaning and sense to be found in Weessaukeetchauk, The Bitter Soul. There is no other way except through language for scholars to learn or to validate their studies, their theories, their theses about the values, ideals or institutions or any other aspect of tribal life ; there is no other way by which knowledge of native life can find increase. Not good enough is it to say in hushed tones after a revenential description of a totem pole or the lacing of a snowshoe, “My, weren’t they clever.”
Just consider the fate of “Indian” stories written by those who knew nothing of the language and never did hear any of the stories in their entirety or in their original version but derived everything that they knew of their subject from second, third and even fourth diluted sources. Is it any wonder then that the stories in Indian Legends of Canada by E. E. Clark or in Manabozho by T. B. Leekley are so bland and devoid of sense. Had the authors known the stories in their “Indian” sense and flavour, perhaps they might have infused their versions with more wit and substance. Had the authors known that the creation story as the Anishinaubae understood it to mean was intended to represent in the most dramatic way possible
the process of individual development from the smallest portion of talent to be retrieved from the depths of one’s being and then given growth by breath of life. Thus a man and woman are to develop themselves, create their own worlds, and shape their being and give meaning to life. Had the authors known this meaning of the Creation Story, perhaps they might have written their accounts in terms more in keeping with the sense and thrust of the story. But not knowing the language nor having heard the story in its original text or state, the authors could not, despite their intentions, impart to their accounts the due weight and perspective the story deserved. The stories were demeaned.
LANGUAGE DEAD and literature demeaned, “Indian” institutions are beyond understanding and restoration. Let us turn back the calendar two and a half centuries, to that period when the “Indian” languages were spoken in every home, when native literature inspired thought and when native “Indian” institutions governed native “Indian” life. It was then that a native institution caught the imagination of the newcomers to this continent. The men and women who founded a new nation to be known as the United States of America took as their model for their constitution and government the principles of government and administration embodied in The Great Tree of Peace of the Five Nations Confederacy. The institution of The Great Tree of Peace was not then too primitive nor too alien for study or emulation to the founders of the United States. In more recent years even the architects of the United Nations regarded the “Indian” insti- tution of The Great Tree of Peace not as a primitive organization beneath their dignity and intellect, but rather as an institution of merit. There exist still “Indian” institutions that may well serve and benefit this society and this nation, not as dramatically as did The Great Tree of Peace the United States of America, but bestow some good as yet undreamed or unimagined. Just how much good such institutions may confer upon this or some future generation will not be known
unless the “Indian” languages survive.
And what is it that has undermined the vitality of some of the “Indian” languages
and deprived this generation and this society the promise and the benefit of the wisdom and the knowledge embodied in tribal literature?
In the case of the Beothuk and their language, the means used were simple and direct : it was the blade, the bludgeon, and the bullet that were plied in the destruc- tion of the Beothuk in their sleep, at their table, and in their quiet passage from home to place of work, until the tribe was no more. The speakers were annihilated; no more was the Beothuk language spoken; whatever their wisdom or whatever their institutions, the whole of the Beothuk heritage was destroyed.
In other instances, instead of bullets, bludgeons, and bayonets, other means were used to put an end to the speaking of an “Indian” language. A kick with a police riding boot administered by a 175-pound man upon the person of an eight-year-old boy for uttering the language of a savage left its pain for days and its bruise upon the spirit for life. A boy once kicked was not likely to risk a second or a third. A slap in the face or a punch to the back of the head delivered even by a small man upon the person of a small boy left its sting and a humiliation not soon forgotten. And if a boot or a fist were not administered, then a lash or a yardstick was plied until the “Indian” language was beaten out. To boot and fist and lash was added ridicule. Both speaker and his language were assailed. “What’s the use of that language? It isn’t polite to speak another language in the presence of other people. Learn English ! That’s the only way you’re going to get ahead. How can you learn two languages at the same time? No wonder kids can’t learn anything else. It’s a primitive language; hasn’t the vocabulary to express abstract ideas, poor. Say ‘ugh.’ Say something in your language ! . . . How can you get your tongue around those sounds?” On and on the comments were made, disparaging, until in too many the language was shamed into silence and disuse.
And how may the federal government assist in the restoration of the native languages to their former vigour and vitality and enable them to fulfil their promise? The Government of Canada must finance the establishment of either provincial or regional language institutes to be affiliated with a museum or a university or a provincial native educational organization. The function of the “institute,” to be headed by a native person who speaks, reads, and writes a native language, will be to foster research into language and to encourage the publication of lexicons, dictionaries, grammars, courses, guides, outlines, myths, stories, legends, genealo- gies, histories, religion, rituals, ceremonies, chants, prayers, and general articles; to tape stories, myths, legends, grammars, teaching guides and outlines and to build a collection of written and oral literature and to make same accessible to scholars, teachers and native institutions; and to duplicate and distribute written and oral literature to the native communities and learning institutions. The native languages deserve to be enshrined in this country’s heritage as much as do snowshoes, shards,
and arrowheads. Nay ! More.
But unless the writings, the essays, stories, plays, the papers of scholars, academics,
lexicographers, grammarians, etymologists, playwrights, poets, novelists, compos- ers, philosophers are published and distributed, they can never nurture growth in language or literature. Taking into account the market represented by each tribe, no commercial publisher would risk publication of an “Indian” book. Hence, only the federal government has the means to sponsor publication of an “Indian text,” either through a commercial publisher or through the Queen’s Printer. The pub- lication of an “Indian” book may not be a commercially profitable enterprise, but it would add to the nation’s intellectual and literary heritage.

This article “One Generation From Extinction” originally appeared in Native Writers & Canadian Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 124-125 (Spring/Summer 1990): 10-15.

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