“Our native languages are of the land. The land gives us an identity; we also give it an identity with the naming of places.” - Basil Johnston, Anishinaabe writer & storyteller
Naming is one of the most difficult tasks I experience as a writer. Names speak volumes about our characters, about who they are and how they connect with their environments in our stories. What’s in a name? Shakespeare’s Juliet asked this question when she found out that she couldn’t be with Romeo on account of his. I agree with Juliet. It’s certainly not the sole basis upon which to prejudice a relationship. But for me, what Basil is saying is actually more important, it goes deeper - names denote relationships.
This reciprocity, this mutual locating of identity between us and the land is essential.
I’ve met so many different people who talk or understand a different aspect of it. Those who are savvy about the historical experiences of Indigenous Peoples know legal aspects of it. They understand how the Papal Bulls were utilized as a malicious tool to lay claim to the lands of Indigenous Peoples. Scholars of this ilk have been trained to recognize the patterns of extinguishment at work in the everyday. They see how the renaming of places became part of the settler colonial narrative, a means to erase and subvert the relationships that Indigenous Peoples have with the land by calling them something different altogether. They’ve also started numerous projects to reclaim those relationships and discover those places anew.
But political and legal knowledge notwithstanding, many of them also know it in a spiritual way as well, as a truth. My ancestors knew that we are in an interdependent relationship with Creation. That what we do to the lands, we do to ourselves. That it’s important that we continue to make offerings of gratitude to the earth, that we continue to say kind things to the water even when it looks murky. They passed this knowledge and understanding forward because they realized it was important that I understand that they were saying real and true things. It’s not a gimmick, a logo, or a marketing ploy. It’s insight about a relationship, and like any other relationship – it requires maintenance.
The language to express these relationships are (at least to me & many other people I know, both younger and older) just as Basil explains them to be - “a precious heritage”. Those who know the language intimately get to experience something, something that can’t be known by reading about a First Nation or our culture on a Wikipedia page. Intuitively, I know that learning the language and speaking it as often as I can will enrich the whole of me: as an individual, a spirit, a writer, an educator - even a parent.
Basil writes about this in “One Generation From Extinction”, found in a collection of his essays called Think Indian: Languages are Beyond Price. Here he urges scholars, teachers, and writers to learn the language as well.
“Without language scholars, writers and teachers will have no access to the depth and width of tribal 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 folk lore, 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...
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 Manaboozho by T.B. Leekly 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 infusion.”
This is a particularly beautiful set of paintings by Bruce Beardy which were made to accompany an Anishnaabe language teaching document. Bruce coordinates a Native Language Teacher Progam at Lakehead University. I met him only once but was very inspired by these paintings and the entire project these paintings were for.
Perhaps this is why I struggle to name characters and places too, for that matter. Even in writing, I’m conscious of how important these relationships are and how important language is - even when I’m at my computer making up stories, this awareness is within me. It matters for some reason I can’t explain and I kind of shudder when people get it wrong, when they write things that disregard this relationship so absolutely that I wonder if they even realizing they are doing it. I had this experience lately where a book I was reading suddenly and completely trampled on my world-view and it was just such a turn off. It might have been unintentional (it seemed unintentional), but it still rankled and that’s okay. If anything, it made me happy that I’m writing my own stories, that I’m learning a language and that I’m trying to connect my truth to the page. And once I do, I’ll return to the example I mentioned and talk about it more. But first, I need to write. And yes, I just might get it wrong too and that will be okay as well. It’s a risk I’m willing to take with a creative project. It’s a risk I’m willing to take to let my daughter and other kids know that our worldview is exciting and sophisticated and epic and respectful. Ganohonyohk. It’s all real, yo.