Missing the Laughter in the Language—A People’s Voice Silenced

Sault Tribe Nishinaabemowin language instructor Phyllis Kimewon Williams is trying to save her Native American Ojibwe language by teaching language immersion courses.

Imagine waking up each morning to the sound of your nine brothers and sisters getting ready for the day. Just like any other family, they would be rushing to get ready for school and work and their parents would make sure all the children had something in their bellies to sustain them until their next meal before heading out the door. The family I am describing could be any family, but this one had a small home on a reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. The early morning voices that bounced back and forth before heading out the door were speaking the only language they knew—Ojibwe.

Sault Tribe Nishinaabemowin language instructor Phyllis Kimewon Williams was one of those young children and said the language was very vibrant when she was a child. She said when it came time for her to attend school she didn’t speak or understand a word of English. She attended a Catholic school where the nuns discouraged young Native students from speaking their language.

“They used a strap back then for discipline that reminded me of the tail of a beaver because it was thick, rectangular and long. And, when it came down, you could feel that sting for a long time,” she said. “Not understanding what the nuns were saying, I got the strap one time because I spoke in my language. That was the only time I ever got the strap.”

Williams has been teaching the language for many years throughout Ontario and Michigan and said she has noticed that Native people in Michigan seem to really hunger for their traditional language. She also said she is fearful that the language is dying. “It’s almost like we are at the 11th hour of the language,” she said. “But there is hope in keeping it alive by teaching our little babies and young children.”

About 15 years ago, Williams noticed a change in her community but didn’t at first realize what it was. Then it hit her. “I felt such a sense of loneliness because I wasn’t hearing the language of my people anymore. It made me think, ‘Where are my people? Where is the laughter that is in the language?’ So I thought of the time that I got the strap and thought the Creator gave me this language and so I should use it,” she said. “From that time on, I turned things around for myself and those in my community.”

She said she has also seen a change in young people on the reserve. “They were dressing so differently,” she said, wondering if it was because of the movies and music they were exposed to.

“I thought, ‘What is happening to my people?’ From that time on, I made that effort and I had to think before I spoke to stay in the language each time I opened my mouth,” she said. “The Creator gave us humor and laughter in our language because He saw what the Anishinaabe people would go through in their time here on Earth.”

When translating the language into English, the humor is often lost. “Why or how that happens I’m not too sure, but I almost think that English has a more serious tone. The laughter was gone, the language started to disappear,” she said.

Williams said there are about 400 fluent speakers left in her community.

Another big difference she has seen over the years is the way people interact. “People used to visit each other after supper time and I would always tag along with my parents,” she said. “I wanted to hear the stories. We didn’t have books; everything was oral. I would sit there two or three hours at a time just listening.”

Respect is a very strong value that has also changed. “Today respect is going out the window. It is more visible among the young people. They have a lot coming at them every day—music, TV, computers and reading books. And everything is in English.”

She said the schools on the reserve are trying to teach the young children, but questions if it’s too little too late. “People in Michigan I have taught have said we are rich on the reserve because the language is still alive there, but for how long? The young people seem full of anger and don’t want the language.”

Williams said that when you speak the language, you live it, allowing the speaker to feel and see everything being talked about because it is so descriptive. “Because I love the language, I am in my glory teaching it. The more people I reach the more I can do to pass the language on to my people,” she said.

Because of the fast pace of today’s culture and the influence of drugs and alcohol, there have been other noticeable changes, Williams said. Among those are fewer young men sitting at the drum due to substance abuse issues. Another is people today talk faster. She said she often has difficulty understanding young people. “Young people are downsizing their words,” she said. “When they do that the word loses its original meaning, but perhaps among themselves they will understand. But they are not showing respect to the proper meaning of the words they are using.”

With more adults than young people showing an interest in learning the language, she keeps asking the question, “Where are my people?”

In a startling revelation, she said people don’t hear about the abuse that goes on today on the reserve because it isn’t written or talked about. “There has been a lot of abuse on the reserve at home,” she said. “The Catholic Church is now sitting empty because of the sexual and emotional abuse that occurred in the 60s and 70s—everyone has turned away from the church.”

She said that past abuse of alter boys in the four churches in their community was very prevalent. “The priests helped themselves to the little boys right at the altar. Then the Boy Scouts came along and their leaders did the same thing [in the ‘60s and early ‘70s]. Today I see many of these young men walking the streets of the reservation drunk or doing drugs. They too have since gone on to become parents—how are they going to raise their kids?”

The effects of residential schools are still being felt within the community as well. “People did not know how to deal with the things they went through at the residential schools, so they brought that home with them and passed it on as well,” she said.

Williams said children came home from the residential schools knowing only English and could no longer communicate with their families. “When those young children grew up and had their own babies the young mothers didn’t know how to raise and nurture a baby because they had been taken from their mothers at such a young age,” she said. “And so it continued. But someone somewhere along the way has to recognize that and work on him or herself; then they will be able to turn their life around for those that will be here in the future. Things like this we have never seen in books—nothing like this has ever been written.”

Williams holds out little hope for the future of the Anishinaabe language, saying it rests in the ability of one generation to pass it on to the next. In this case the generation of youth she sees has shown little interest. “There is no need for them to speak the language,” she said. “Everything today is in English.”

Williams teaches the Ojibwe language to about 55 people in the tribe’s service area. The Culture Department also offers language immersion camps at the Mary Murray Culture Camp on Sugar Island.

Williams currently resides in Brimley, Michigan.

Printed with permission from Win Awenen Nisitotung.