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Linguistics students help to create a website to share Ojibwe stories

Photo of: Robin McLeod and Annita Chow with Alan Corbiere

Students Robin McLeod and Annita Chow with Alan Corbiere. Photo: Alana Johns.

Initiative will assist in preserving an important First Nations language

A new website created with the help of a team of University of Toronto students in partnership with the M’Chigeeng First Nation, will share Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) stories and aid in preserving an important First Nations language.

“Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe people, is one of the strongest of the Indigenous languages in Canada, yet even it is struggling to survive in too many communities,” said Alana Johns, a linguistics professor and director of U of T’s Aboriginal studies program and Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. “A language can disappear in one generation.”

Anishinaabemowin is vulnerable, in part, because it has principally been transmitted orally for years, explained Alan Corbiere, the Anishinaabemowin Revival Program Coordinator at Lakeview School, M’Chigeeng First Nation in the Manitoulin district of Ontario. The new website, entitled Baadwewedamojig, which translates roughly to “Those that come sounding,” aims to help fill that gap.

The site consists mainly of stories from the first volume of the Ojibwe Texts, collected by ethnographer William Jones between 1903 and 1905. Jones transcribed several volumes of traditional stories in the Western Ojibwe dialect, using a highly detailed phonetic alphabet that is no longer recognized or used in linguistics and cannot be used by Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) communities.

“The Ojibwe Texts of 1906 represent a phenomenal feat in Ojibwe transcription and translation,” said Corbiere. “The stories preserve archaic forms of language use and also represent a more authentic rendition of the stories because they are told in Ojibwe and recorded in the field, not paraphrased later like many of the published versions out there now. By and large these stories have not been told to young people in Anishinaabemowin in formal education settings, especially after the residential school system and the mandatory day schools on reserves banned such cultural stories.”

“A cultural revitalization is occurring and these texts are an opportunity for students and teachers to interact and engage with our traditional stories as they were told in Anishinaabemowin more than 100 years ago,” said Corbiere. “This collection is analogous to an English department’s collection of great literature Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc. It is the base or foundation from which we derive our values, principles, cultural precepts and manifest it in our artistic expression, orally and visually.”

The U of T linguistics students worked on the project as part of a fourth-year language revitalization course taught by Johns. They converted some of the stories into the current written form. Some of the stories include audio files and some have been converted into the Manitoulin dialect so more people will understand them.

“The University of Toronto students helped immensely,” said Corbiere. Students and teachers can now visit the website to read the legends and use them as a language learning tool, to investigate cultural stories and to investigate the worldviews expressed in stories. “We hope that more teachers will use it with their primary and secondary students,” said Corbiere.

Connor Pion of Ciimaan, Kahuwe’yá, Qajaq, an Indigenous language program at The Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives, has integrated the resource into his curriculum for an “Introduction to Anishinaabemowin” class he teaches at the Native Learning Centre. “What I appreciate most about this resource is its flexibility as a teaching tool. It can be used to teach the relationship between various ways of speaking and writing Anishinaabemowin, and the aatisoohkaanan (traditional stories) can be presented in a variety of formats: line by line, column by column, and Anishinaabemowin only,” said Pion. Pion learned to speak and teach Anishinaabemowin in U of T’s Aboriginal Studies program, which offers beginner through advanced levels of language instruction.

Paulina Lyskawa, one of the undergraduates who helped convert the phonetic script into more regular writing, said “It was a great learning experience, which, I believe, made everyone sensitive to the problem of endangered languages.”

“But what made it really cool was that we got to apply different concepts from what we read into this final project. For example, the idea that revitalizing a language should not only be an academic endeavour but a close cooperation, and ideally an initiative of a community who speaks this language,” said Lyskawa, who is now pursuing graduate studies in linguistics at U of T. Robin McLeod and Annita Chow were the other students who took part in the project as well as Patricia Thaine, a graduate student in computer science.

“It’s crucial that if we linguists study languages to develop our own field, at the same time we give back to the people behind these languages,” said Lyskawa.