Friday, February 8, 2008

Nature of the Land

Nature Watch
February 8, 2008

By Susan Benson
Director of Education
Cable Natural History Museum

It is finally snowing again, and I am reminded of something I once read that listed 10 Ojibwe words for types of snow. As I recall, the writer was basing his information on Frederic Baraga’s Dictionary of the Ojibway Language. Referring to my own copy of A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe by John Nichols and Earl Nyholm, I find at least seven different variations. Snow in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language) is goon, but crusty snow, or snow with a crust on it is onaabanad. Deep snow is ishpaagonagaamagad, and zhakipon means “there is a heavy wet snow falling.”

Naming things, at least in some native languages, seems to be a practice of describing something in one word. Not just naming it, but in some cases actually describing a thing in a particular moment and giving that thing in that moment a name. Native languages like Ojibwemowin also name things in a way that alludes to if not directly states the importance of something to the people. Ininaatig is the Ojibwe word for the maple tree, but the name translates more closely to “our tree.” Why is it “our tree”? Because that sap that is gathered from ininaatig each spring is an important source of food for the Ojibwe people (and for many non-native people as well!). The Ojibwe name for the maple tree alludes to a story; it is more than just an arbitrary name.

Another good example of the richness of Ojibwemowin is in place names. Many Wisconsin towns and water bodies have Ojibwemowin names. Here in our area, a good example is Lake Namekagon, or Namekaagong-zaaga’igan. The last part of the Ojibwe name, zaaga’igan, is the word for “lake.” The Ojibwe name Namekaagong, and the modern derivation “Namekagon,” mean “lake at the place of many sturgeon,” or “many sturgeons lake.” The root word of this name is Name, or sturgeon, an important species to the Ojibwe because Name is considered the “king of fish” and is the Chief of the Fish Clans. The cultural importance of sturgeon alludes to the importance of Lake Namekagon.

I am fascinated by Ojibwemowin, but I am in no way fluent. I know a few words, but I do not know the language. I would like to. If French is the native tongue of those living in France, Italian is what is spoken in Italy, and a mixture of tribal languages creates the cultures of Africa, then I think the native tongue of the United States, perhaps all of North America, is the various languages of the first people, the Anishinaabe. In northern Wisconsin, that is primarily Ojibwemowin. It is the language of this land. Unfortunately, the use of all native languages is declining in favor of the more cosmopolitan English. As a result, fewer young people are learning the language and there are increasingly fewer elders who are left to teach it. But this is changing. In parts of our area, Ojibwemowin is becoming a part of school curricula, and an ambitious grant-funded project at the University of Minnesota-Duluth called “Ojibwe Movies” ( is helping teach the Ojibwe language by embedding movies in a language learning software that will be available through a web site and/or on a DVD.

I mentioned two books above that are first steps towards learning, but there are a growing number of other sources. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has compiled an Anishinaabe atlas of the ceded territories in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Gidakiiminaan (“Our Earth”) is available in both print form and as a CD. A companion CD, Indinawemaaganidog, is an interactive dictionary/field guide to plants and animals in the ceded territories, giving the Ojibwe names for select species along with additional information such as recordings of individual bird songs. A third CD, Onjiakiing (“From the Earth!”) is a source of information about plants, fruits, and plant materials used by the Ojibwe. All are available through the GLIFWC website (

Another outstanding resource is the language section of the “Lac du Flambeau News” as well as their website; click on “Language.” There are also Ojibwe language classes taught at the Lac du Flambeau, LCO Community College, Northland College, and at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

Even if you are not Native American, knowing something about the native language of our shared place is important. It gives the land a richer context and makes us more knowledgeable about it and about our place in it. After all, gakina awiiya (“we are all related”).

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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