Putting Anishinaabemowin first

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WINDSOR, Ontario – An alliance of Anishinaabe tribal leaders and citizens from Canada has put forth a declaration asserting that Anishinaabemowin is their primary language.

The declaration, which was approved by the Walpole Island First Nation of the Bkejwanong Territory in August, says that immersion and fluency in the Anishinaabemowin language is a long-term goal for all of its citizens.

“We have put something really substantial in place,” said Chris Riley, an organizer of language initiatives with the tribe. “We have created awareness.”

The Walpole Island First Nation is Canada’s southernmost aboriginal territory and is made up of approximately 3,500 Ojibway, Potawatomi and Odawa members, collectively known as the Council of the Three Fires. The Walpole lands are composed of six islands covering 91 square miles between Ontario and Michigan at the mouth of the St. Clair River.

Walpole is already recognized as being one of the first Native communities in Canada to make strides in the field of environment and sustainable development. With the new declaration, Walpole is also playing a leadership role in revitalization indigenous languages.

The tribal statement of beliefs, formally known as the “Bkejwanong Anishinaabemowin Declaration,” directly links tribal loss of language knowledge to the widespread historical practice by the Canadian government of placing young Indians in residential boarding schools, which aimed to strip them of their culture.

“Walpole Island First Nation acknowledges the harm that residential school systems inflicted upon our people through the loss of our first language, Anishinaabemowin,” the declaration states.

“As a result of the impacts of residential schools, we believe that establishing the foundation of our language will help reunite our families, build strong community relationships and provide a means of restoring our cultural values.

“Our vision of the Bkejwanong community is where our people will once again speak and think in our language, Anishinaabemowin, now and in the future as a fundamental basis of our social and working lives.”

Several community members have said they don’t expect the Canadian government to take any action as a result of the declaration.

“At this point, it’s not about the Canadian government – it’s about us as a people,” Riley said. “We can’t depend on the government to save our language. Many of us have realized that it has to come from within.”

It was a long time coming to make the declaration happen. For about five years now, an informal grass-roots organization called the Anishinaabe Language Advisory Group has been working to have the tribe’s original language heard and spoken again as a first language.

The group is composed of several Anishinaabemowin-fluent speakers and learners from Bkejwanong Territory. Its vision is to “develop, promote and encourage language initiatives so that our community, our children and our children’s children will hear, learn and enjoy speaking our original language, as did our ancestors.”

Community members said that guidance from Walpole Chief Joseph Gilbert and the rest of the tribe’s 12-member council ultimately helped produce the declaration’s end result.

“The chief and council are our role models,” Riley said. “So, what this tells me is that they’re taking a stand to show that it’s not just a small number of community members who see the importance of this.”

With the advent of the declaration, the advisory group is now working to raise funds to increase language class offerings to help fluent elders better connect with youth. They also want to help area schools introduce widespread language programming at the elementary school level and beyond.

Riley said he knows it will be challenging to get all community members fluent in Anishinaabemowin, but he views the situation as a great opportunity.

“How long is it going to take? We don’t know. But little steps are being taken.”