When I became a mother, I felt an urgent need to learn my mother tongue

It’s hard to learn Ojibway and teach it to my son at the same time. But, like countless other Indigenous parents, I’m determined to keep my language alive.

Photo: Courtesy of Martha Troian

Not hearing Ojibway as a kid was something I didn’t give much thought to—probably because I didn’t know any different. No one spoke the language in my home.

My mother, a former student of several residential schools, was ashamed of being Indigenous. In fact, she would sometimes tell people she was French. I grew up unsure of my identity, too—not because it wasn’t talked about in our home but because of the negative interactions I had with mainstream society. Being called a “dirty Indian” is something I’ll never forget. I had Indigenous friends growing up and we stuck together, but it was all about having sleepovers, listening to Prince and playing outdoors until sunset.

It wasn’t until I took my first Ojibway class in high school that I realized what I was missing. I wasn’t alone: The class was full of young Indigenous students clumsily learning their mother tongue. We were a bunch of insecure kids all lumped together—it was a clash of rez meets urban kids—but we all had a common goal: learning Ojibway. On some days I felt awkward, but it was also a lot of fun and we had many laughs together. The class made me feel at home—I felt like I belonged.

And so, from that day forward, I sought out language classes whenever I could and in whatever city I found myself. During my 20s and onward, I also started to attend cultural ceremonies, which helped me immerse myself in the language. That thirst to speak my mother tongue only intensified when I became a mother. I suddenly felt an urgent need to learn my language so I could pass it down to the next generation.

The language problem
One of the residential schools my mother was sent to was notorious for doling out severe punishments to its students, and student-on-student abuse was common as well. Once inside this system, my mother, her classmates and thousands of other Indigenous kids were forbidden to speak their language and practise their culture. If caught doing so, they were punished. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse were rampant in these schools, leaving many of these children ashamed of speaking their language and practising their culture. Language and culture were torn not only from these children but also from their children and grandchildren.

The legacy of the residential school system continues today through the child welfare system. There are now more Indigenous kids in the child welfare system—away from their culture and language—than there were at the height of the residential school system. It’s not surprising, then, that fluency in Indigenous languages has diminished over the past three generations.

According to census data from 2016, only one in five Indigenous people in this country can speak an Indigenous language well enough to have a conversation. While Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut have tens of thousands of speakers—a healthy and sustainable number—there are some languages, such as Kutenai and Chilcotin, that are spoken by less than 200 people.

collage of different indigenous book covers 39 great Indigenous stories to read and share with your kidsBut change is underway. Across Turtle Island—the name that many Indigenous people use for “North America”—there has been a resurgence of families reclaiming their language and culture. Of the 1.6 million First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples who live in this country, most are in their 40s and younger and many of them are, like me, parents with small children. The 2016 census showed that the number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples who are able to speak an Indigenous language exceeded the number who reported having an Indigenous mother tongue by almost 50,000. This shows that many people in this country are learning it as a second language. Every year, we’re seeing more Indigenous language immersion programs offered through school divisions and summer language camps, as well as more language resources hitting the bookshelves.

We are determined to keep these languages alive.

Language immersion
It is difficult to be both a student and a teacher, especially given the complexities of Ojibway. Known to its speakers as the “Anishinaabe language,” Ojibway is primarily spoken in Ontario, southern Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan and throughout the American Midwest. It’s also referred to as Anishinaabemowin, Ojibwa, Ojibwe and Chippewa, and there are several different dialects. These different dialects have caused me much frustration over the years.

Because my partner and I have relocated several times for work, I’ve had to take classes in whatever dialect was available to me. I’ve tried to supplement those with whatever language books and CDs in various dialects I could find. Being teased about my pronunciation from a fluent speaker didn’t help my confidence. But as someone who is learning a second language, I’ve come to accept that I can’t worry too much about making mistakes or being teased. As one member of Lac Seul First Nation told me, “Just keep learning.” I’m trying to pass that message on to my son. If we know how to say something in Ojibway, we should say it whenever we can.

Like me, 34-year-old Waapbiginew Ikwe didn’t grow up speaking Anishinaabemowin. Both of her parents attended residential schools and she grew up in cities, having little contact with fluent speakers. Now that she lives in Kenora, Ontario, she is learning Anishinaabemowin, along with her four kids.

It’s a big undertaking. Her father doesn’t speak it at all, and her mother can only carry short, simple conversations in Ojibway. “I know that my kids have to function in today’s society, but it’s just as important that they know the teachings of their ancestors,” says Ikwe. “One of the major things is the language.”

Kids in class at the Kiizhik School

Two of Waapbiginew Ikwe’s children are learning Anishinaabe at Kiizhik School, an immersion elementary school based in Kenora, Ontario. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan White

It helps that her kids are learning it at school. Two of Ikwe’s children attend Kiizhik School, an Anishinaabe immersion elementary school based in town, and her eldest takes Anishinaabemowin language classes at a local high school. Her nine-year-old daughter, Kaylee, who is currently in grade four at Kiizhik School, is learning the language so quickly that she is helping the rest of her family. One day, while working on a colouring sheet in Anishinaabemowin, Kaylee told her mom not to worry how long a word is but to look at the vowels and sound it out instead. Once Ikwe figured out that the vowel system is learned, pronouncing the words became much easier. They often help each other remember certain words, prefixes and suffixes. To help grow their vocabulary, Ikwe bought a label maker and started sticking Anishinaabemowin words onto household objects.

I do something similar in our home with sticky notes. In my son’s bedroom, we have bedtime words like waaboowaan, which means “blanket.” I also make sure that our language books and supplies are in the primary living space, and I take screenshots of my language notes so that I can have them on my cellphone. Writing new words on sticky notes or in our language book at home is a rush for me. Recently, we learned how to say “Giziininjiin,” which means “Wash your hands,” and “Amii izhi gawishimon,” which means “It’s time for bed now.”

Rising above
For Itoah Scott-Enns, the desire to learn Tlicho, her ancestral tongue, is even more urgent. The Tlicho language is considered endangered, with only about 2,640 speakers left. Scott-Enns is keenly aware of the lack of Tlicho speakers around her. She knows Tlicho elders are slowly dying off, too. “When I had a daughter, it became really important to me to spend time learning and teaching at the same time,” says Scott-Enns.

Three years ago, Scott-Enns, who lives in Yellowknife with her three-year-old daughter, Setiya, started an online language campaign called Speak Tlicho To Me. The campaign is an online depository where participants upload videos and posts using the Tlicho language. She says that the community response has been overwhelming. So far, Scott-Enns has uploaded 60 videos, as well as posts that highlight language classes offered at nearby colleges and universities.

Itoah Scott-Enns with her daughter out in nature

Itoah Scott-Enns is learning her ancestral tongue, Tlicho, alongside her daughter. Photo: Courtesy of Itoah Scott-Enns

“The idea is to share our learning journey because I’m trying to learn Tlicho and teach my daughter, and I’m really trying to encourage others to learn the language,” says Scott-Enns. Since starting Speak Tlicho To Me, Scott-Enns says that people from her mother’s generation have come up to her to speak Tlicho. The conversation may be small talk, but for her, it’s much more than that. “Two years ago, I couldn’t even introduce myself or have a basic conversation in the language,” she says.

Scott-Enns says she is excited to see more people using the language, and it motivates her to think of more ways that she can make the language more visible in urban spaces, such as grocery stores. “Sometimes it seems a bit hopeless, like it’s too little, too slow or too late,” she says, admitting that she worries if she will ever be fluent or know enough of the Tlicho language to pass it on to her daughter. “But I try not to think that way because every time I use the language with someone new or learn a new word or phrase, it’s such a rewarding feeling,” says Scott-Enns.

It brings me hope when I see and hear about the language and culture resurgence taking place across Turtle Island. It’s a reminder that, as Indigenous and Inuit peoples, we will never again be stripped of our identity, culture and practices. And in my own home, speaking our native language takes place every day.

Now seven, my son will speak to me using simple phrases like “Eha, nimama” (“Yes, mother”) and “Haaw sa, nimama” (“OK, mother”). At bedtime, he’ll say “Gizaagi’in nimama,” which means “I love you, mother.” The other day, he asked me if he can start his own language book, where he can write new Anishinaabemowin words and phrases. Slowly but surely, we’re reclaiming our mother tongue, one phrase at a time.

Language immersion across Turtle Island
Across Canada, there are a number of organizations and institutions that help Indigenous families reclaim their language and culture. Below are just a few of those schools and institutions. Send us your recommendations to add if you notice that we’ve missed something or if a new one pops up!

Name: Sacred Wolf Friendship Centre
Location: Cluxewe Resort, Kwakiutl First Nation (Port McNeill, BC, located on the northeastern part of Vancouver Island)
Language: Kwak’wala
Suitable for: Young families
Type: A land-based family immersion camp where families can stay in cabins for four days on the waterfront
Other programming: Cultural development activities such as regalia making, drumming, traditional singing and rattle making. “The language and family camp programs are crucial because the Kwak’wala language is on the verge of extinction in the Kwa’kwakawa’kw Territories,” says Janet Hanuse, executive director of the Sacred Wolf Friendship Centre.

Name: Tota Tanon Ohkwa:ri
Location: Kahnawake, Quebec
Language: Mohawk
Suitable for: Children and families
Type: Tota Tanon Ohkwa:ri is a puppet show aired weekly on a local television station in Kahnawake and spoken entirely in the Kanien’kéha language
Other programming: The Mohawk language can also be heard on a weekly local radio show called Tewawennakará:tats

Name: Ojibwa and Cree immersion program
Location: Winnipeg
Languages: Ojibwa and Cree
Suitable for: Kindergarten to grade six
Type: A Cree and Ojibwa immersion program offered at the kindergarten level and a bilingual language program in Ojibwa/Cree and English for grades one to six at Isaac Brock School
Other programming: The Winnipeg School Division also offers a Spanish bilingual program and a number of different language programs

Name: Indigenous Ensemble
Location: Saskatoon Public Schools
Languages: Open to all Indigenous languages
Suitable for: Grades seven to 12
Type: An after-school program where students can learn about Indigenous music, song and dance and take part in the ensemble, which combines theatre and performance and performs frequently in the community
Other programming: Saskatoon Public Schools also offers the Métis Cultural Program for students from kindergarten to grade eight at Westmount Community School and a Cree and language program for students from pre-kindergarten to grade eight at Confederation Park Community School

Martha Troian is Anishinaabe, originally from Obishikokanng (Lac Seul First Nation) in northern Ontario. She is a journalist and writer who contributes to media outlets across the country.

Read more:
How adopting my daughter helped me reconnect with my roots
Raising our daughters in a (mostly) Inuktitut household

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