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The Partridge’s Butthole Is Closing

This regular feature highlights a word or phrase in an indigenous language that has no easy translation to English, such as this month's phrase in Ojibwe that means, 'the partridge's butthole is closing.'

Sometimes speaking in English is like using a hoe rather than a scalpel for brain surgery; it cuts roughly and makes a mess. 

In this regular feature, we will highlight a word or phrase in an indigenous language that is akin to a scalpel in describing a situation, person, place or thing that is usually poorly elucidated in English. An example is the term “paaro ko aago,” or staw fire in Nepali. Although not truly an indigenous language, it is spoken by many tribal groups in Nepal.

Years ago I joined my husband, a geographer, on expedition in Nepal. We spent many days in constant contact with each other and our Nepali colleagues camping in a high-elevation jungle. After one especially tiring day, we began to quarrel bitterly over something I’ve long since forgotten. Much to the delight of our Nepali friends, I stomped out of the camp, vowing never to return. I’d forgotten that we were out in the jungle, plus I was pretty sure I’d heard something growl out in the darkness, so I quickly returned to camp. I sat down in a huff, but managed to smile weakly at my long-suffering husband. Our Nepali friends chuckled and said, “paaro ko aago.” They explained that straw fire is a term to describe a fight between a man and a woman; it catches quickly, burns fast and hot, but is extinguished as fast as it began.

Our first straw fire example comes to us via Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. According to Treuer, “The phrase ‘Bine ojiid ani-zipokaani’ is sometimes used to indicate, Hey, we’ve overstayed our welcome and now it’s time to leave. The literal translation is ‘the partridge’s butthole is closing.’”

The phrase comes from one of the Ojibwe Waynaboozhoo teaching stories. Half man, half spirit, Waynaboozhoo is often defeated or hurt by his selfishness or plots to hurt others.

One day Waynaboozhoo began to tease a little group of baby partridges who were gathered on the ground. He threatened to poop all over them. The partridges objected but Waynaboozhoo responded, “Oh, who is your mother?” as in, Who’s going to prevent me?

“Our mother is goshko’iweshiinh, the one who scares people,” they said. Unimpressed, Waynoboozhoo let loose all over the little birds and walked away.

Suddenly, goshko’iweshiinh, the partridge’s mother flew up into a tree, making the distinctive sound partridge wings make when flying. Startled, Waynaboozhoo fell backwards, down a cliff alongside the path, getting badly cut and bruised along the way. When he finally came to rest at the bottom, he noticed he was covered with something wet and he looked up just in time to see the butthole of the goshko’iweshiinh closing.

Treuer, author of several books about Ojibwe language, history and culture has recently written, Warrior Nation, A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe, that tells the important history of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota, a tribe that still holds its entire land base in common. 

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