Books and islands in oji.., p.6
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.6

           Louise Erdrich
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  On our way to visit the island and the Eternal Sands, we experience a confluence of shifting winds and waves. Tobasonakwut shows me how the waves are creating underwaves and counterwaves. The rough swells from the southeast are bouncing against the rocky shores, which he avoids. The wooded lands and shores will absorb the force of the waves and not send them back out to create confusion. Heading toward open water, we travel behind the farthest island, also a wave cutter. We slice right into the waves when possible. But we are dealing with yesterday’s wind, a strong north wind, and swells underneath the waves now proceeding from the wind that shifted, fresh, to the south. I think of what Tobasonakwut’s father said, “The creator is the lake and we are the waves on the lake.” The image of complexity and shifting mutability of human nature is very clear today. Eventually, we beach our boat at the first little bay. Tobasonakwut starts out, at once, to comb for treasures.

  I have the same feeling when I come upon a deserted beach as I do when entering a used bookstore with promisingly messy shelves bearing handwritten signs and directions, or a rummage sale run by beaming white haired people who are handing out free coffee and look like they kept all of their forties soapbox glass dishes and their flowered tablecloths in the original plastic. As I look at the beach, strewn with driftwood and interesting rocks, I have the slightly guilty feeling that I get when I visit the gift shop before the museum. Sure enough, as baby and I beachcomb in the opposite direction from Tobasonakwut, we come across three magnificent eagle spikes, those feathers at the ends of wings, the ones used by sun dancers in their sage crowns. But the wind dies suddenly at the margin of the beach and we are edged from the fabulous pickings by biting blackflies and the big droning horseflies that drive moose insane. To avoid the flies, the baby and I take to water just like the moose do.

  I plop down and let the waves crash into me at waist height while I nurse the baby. Occasionally her head is spritzed and refreshed. I am wearing a hat, lots of sunblock, dark glasses. The amber-colored water is too rough for leeches to grab onto my legs. I could sit here forever. The pelicans, zhegeg, pass over, twenty or thirty at a time, wheeling in strict formation when up high. Sometimes more casual, they sail down low and I see the boatlike prows of their breasts and drooping gullets. Crowds of black ducks veer over, too. There is a curtain of birds along this beach. Rising and falling, the flocks constantly change and shift. Then, just before me, about seventy feet out, the great fish rears again. This time it hangs even longer in the air, catching sun on its belly, somehow joyous.

  “It’s all there,” Tobasonakwut says upon returning, pointing behind me and then out to the open water.



  The paint that is eternal comes from the Eternal Sands. Just down the beach the waves have dragged the sand off the tough roots of a low beach plant. The roots are such a brilliant red that from a short distance it looks as though the leaves are bleeding into the water. This is a component of the sacred paint used in the rock paintings. And the fish who showed itself to me is a part of the atisikan too. Sturgeon’s oil is one of the bonding agents that will not let go, one of the substances that makes the paint eternal.


  I am almost asleep when I realize that I have seen all that is depicted in the first rock painting, the one that I marveled over, the one that glowed from the rock in all of its complexity. I saw the wild rice, which is the spirit of the wild rice, I saw the bear, I saw the deer, and I saw the nameh. The next morning, we go back to the painting. Tobasonakwut ties up at the base of the rock. I bring a dish of food, including asema, up to the top of the rock. I also leave my favorite ribbon shirt.

  It is a leave-taking. I have to tell myself not to look back as we travel away from the rock. It is as though I’ve left behind something intangible—not the shirt, the tobacco, or the food. It is as though I’ve written a poem and burned it. Given up a piece of my own spirit. I don’t understand the feeling that closes in on me. And even now, as I am writing in my study, and as I am looking at photographs I took of the paintings, I am afflicted with a confusing nostalgia. It is a place that has gripped me. I feel a growing love. Partly, it is that I know it through my baby and through her namesake, but I also had ancestors who lived here generations ago.

  The Ojibwe side of my family, who ended up with the surname Gourneau, roamed from Madeline Island in Lake Superior, along what is now the Canadian border, through Lake of the Woods and down to Red Lake, and then out onto the Great Plains and eventually the Turtle Mountains. Baupayakiingikwe, Striped Earth Woman, was one of those ancestors, as was Kwasenchiwin, Acts Like A Boy. Our family was of the Ajijauk or Crane dodem, and the Makwa or Bear dodem. I can’t help but imagine that these two women, whose names my mother and sister have searched out of old tribal histories, walked where I’ve walked, saw what I’ve seen, perhaps traced these rock paintings. Perhaps even painted them.


  My grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was the last person in our family who spoke his native language, Ojibwemowin, with any fluency. When he went off into the Turtle Mountain woods to pray with his pipe, I stood apart at a short distance, listening and wondering. Growing up in an ordinary small North Dakota town, I thought Ojibwemowin was a language for prayers, like the solemn Latin sung at High Mass. I had no idea that most Ojibwe people on reserves in Canada, and many in Minnesota and Wisconsin, still spoke English as a second language, Ojibwemowin as their first. And then, while visiting Manitoulin Island, Ontario, I sat among a group of laughing elders who spoke only their own language. I went to a café where people around me spoke Ojibwemowin and stood in line at a bank surrounded by Ojibwe speakers. I was hooked, and had to know more. I wanted to get the jokes, to understand the prayers and the adisookaanug, the sacred stories, and most of all, Ojibwe irony. As most speakers are now bilingual, the language is spiked with puns on both English and Ojibwemowin, most playing on the oddness of gichi-mookomaan, that is “big knife” or American, habits and behavior.

  As I was living in New Hampshire at the time, my only recourse was to use a set of Ojibwe language tapes made by Basil Johnson, the distinguished Canadian Ojibwe writer. Unknown to Basil Johnson, he became my friend. His patient Anishinaabe voice reminded me of my grandfather’s and of the kindest of elders. Basil and I conversed in the isolation of my car as I dropped off and picked up children, bought groceries, navigated tangled New England roads. I carried my tapes everywhere I went. The language bit deep into my heart, but I could only go so long talking with Basil on a tape. I longed for real community. At last, when I moved to Minnesota, I met fellow Ojibwe people who were embarked on what seems at times a quixotic enterprise—learning one of the toughest languages ever invented.

  Ojibwemowin is, in fact, entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most difficult languages to learn. The great hurdle to learning resides in the manifold use of verbs—a stammer-inducing complex. Ojibwemowin is a language of action, which makes sense to me. The Ojibwe have never been all that materialistic, and from the beginning they were always on the move. How many things, nouns, could anyone carry around? Ojibwemowin is also a language of human relationships. Two-thirds of the words are verbs, and for each verb, there can be as many as six thousand forms. This sounds impossible, until you realize that the verb forms not only have to do with the relationships among the people conducting the action, but the precise way the action is conducted and even under what physical conditions. The blizzard of verb forms makes it an adaptive and powerfully precise language. There are lots of verbs for exactly how people shift position. Miinoshin describes how someone turns this way and that until ready to make a determined move, iskwishin how a person behaves when tired of one position and looking for one more comfortable. The best speakers are the most inventive, and come up with new words all of the time. Mookegidaazo describes the way a baby looks when outrage is building and coming to the surface where it will result in a thund
erous squawl. There is a verb for the way a raven opens and shuts its claws in the cold and a verb for what would happen if a man fell off a motorcycle with a pipe in his mouth and drove the stem of it through the back of his head. There can be a verb for anything.

  Tobasonakwut delights in the language, his first language. He loves to delineate the sources and origins of words, keeps lists of new words, and creates them himself. Yet, as with many of his generation, he endured tremendous punishment for this love. He remembers singing his father’s song to comfort himself as he was driven to a residential school at age eleven. The priest who was driving stopped the car, made him get out, and savagely beat him. Tobasonakwut spoke no English when he first went to school and although he now speaks like an Ivy League professor if he wants to, he stubbornly kept his Ojibwemowin. Tobasonakwut says that the beatings and humiliations only made him the fiercer in loving and preserving his language. As he says this he clutches his heart, as if the language is lodged there. From the beginning, even as a child, he determined that he would speak it as often as he could.

  For Tobasonakwut, Ojibwemowin is the primary language of philosophy, and also of emotions. Shades of feeling can be mixed like paints. Kawiin gego omaa ayasinoon, a phrase used when describing loneliness, carries the additional meaning of missing a part of one’s own being. Ojibwe is especially good at describing intellectual and dream states. One of Tobasonakwut’s favorite phrases is andopawatchigan, which means “seek your dream,” but is lots more complicated. It means that first you have to find and identify your dream, often through fasting, and then that you also must carry out exactly what your dream tells you to do in each detail. And then the philosophy comes in, for by doing this repeatedly you will gradually come into a balanced relationship with all of life.

  My experience with the language is of course very different. Instead of the language being beaten out of me, I’ve tried for years to acquire it. But how do I go back to a language I never had? I love my first language—why complicate my life with another? I will never have the facility to really use the flexible descriptive power of this language. Still, I love it. The sound comforts me. I feel as though all along this language was waiting for me with kindness. I imagine God hears this language. Perhaps my grandfather’s use of the language penetrated. What the Ojibwe call the Gizhe Manidoo, the ineffable and compassionate spirit residing in all that lives, is associated for me with the flow of Ojibwemowin. My Catholic training touched me intellectually and symbolically, but apparently never engaged my heart.

  Ojibwemowin is one of the few surviving languages that evolved to the present here in North America. For an American writer, it seems crucial to at least have a passing familiarity with the language, which is adapted to the land as no other language can possibly be. Its philosophy is bound up in northern earth, lakes, rivers, forests, and plains. Its origins pertain to the animals and their particular habits, to the shades of meaning in the very placement of stones. Many of the names and songs associated with these places were revealed to people in dreams and songs—it is a language that most directly reflects a human involvement with the spirit of the land itself. It is the language of the paintings that seem to glow from within the rocks.

  That is not to say Ojibwemowin is an elevated language of vanished spirituality. One of my favorite words is wiindibaanens or computer. It means “little brain machine.” Ojibwe people have words for animals from other continents. Genwaabiigigwed, the long-necked horse, is a giraffe. Ojaanzhingwedeyshkanaad, rhinoceros, the one with the horn sticking out of his nose. Nandookomeshiinh is the lice hunter, the monkey. There are words for the serenity prayer used in twelve-step programs and translations of nursery rhymes. The varieties of people other than Ojibwe or Anishinabe are also named: Aniibiishaabookewininiwag, the tea people, are Asian. All Europeans are Omakakiiininiwag, or frog people, but the French are Wemitigoozhiwag, the wooden-cross people. Catholics, who included the Jesuit priests, are Mekadewikonayewininiwag, the black-robe men. Agongosininiwag, the chipmunk people, are Scandinavian. I’m still trying to find out why.

  When it comes to nouns, there are blessedly fewer of them and no designations of gender, no feminine or masculine possessives or articles. Nouns are mainly designated as animate or inanimate, though what is alive and dead doesn’t correspond at all to what an English speaker might imagine. For instance, the word for stone, asin, is animate. After all, the preexistence of the world according to Ojibwe religion consisted of a conversation between stones. People speak to and thank the stones in the sweat lodge, where the asiniig are superheated and used for healing. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. Once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself into my hand. Stones are no longer the same as they were to me in English.

  Ojibwemowin was of course a language of memory, an oral language, passed on by community but not written. For most of the last two centuries, missionized students adapted the English alphabet and wrote phonetically. Ojibwe orthography has recently been standardized so that the language can be taught in schools and universities. In this book, I have tried to use mainly accepted spellings, although I’ve fudged a little with Ojibwe words that might be confused with English words, and done my best on words that aren’t in the Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe, by Nichols and Nyholm. I’ve mastered shamefully little of the language. I’m still working on its most basic forms. Even if I do occasionally get a sentence right, there are so many dialects of Ojibwe that, for many speakers, I’ll still have gotten it wrong. And yet, as ludicrous as my Ojibwe must sound to a fluent speaker, I have never, ever, been greeted with a moment of impatience or laughter. Perhaps people wait until I’ve left the room, but more likely, I think, there is an urgency about attempting to speak the language.

  To native speakers like Tobasonakwut, the language is a deeply loved entity. A spirit or an originating genius belongs to each word. Before attempting to speak this language, students petition these spirits with gifts of cloth, tobacco, and food. Anyone who attempts Ojibwemowin is engaged in something more than learning tongue twisters. However awkward my nouns, unstable my verbs, however stumbling my delivery, to engage in the language is to engage the spirit of the words. And as the words are everything around us, and all that we are, learning Ojibwemowin is a lifetime pursuit that might be described as living a religion.


  Ojibwe people don’t say good-bye, that’s too final. “I’ll see you” is as close to good-bye as the language goes for a common parting. Some habits of Ojibwe have filtered into my English and I find that I can’t say good-bye, or if I do, I have to soften it with see-you-laters and have-funs and always, to my children and Tobasonakwut, drive-carefully. Weweni, careful. Or, as others jokingly say, weweni babamanadis, which translates roughly as an admonition to be careful as you go around being ugly in your ugly life. Or gego anooj igo ezhichigeken. Don’t do any of the weird things that I would. Gigaa-waabamin means “I’ll see you again.” That’s just the way it is. He has a complicated life up north and I have a complicated life down in Minneapolis, so there is a lot of gigaa-waabamin.



  * * *

  The Skylark Motel

  Weary, Kiizhikok and I stop at a spot just off the highway, one of those square tubes of rooms facing the road. The line of identical brown doors and windows, like staring faces, has a sullen aspect. No skylarks. The texturized siding is a defeated looking tan color. There is a small office, dim but for a glowing television screen. The yard is dust, struggling weeds, trampled gravel. When looking for a small motel, I usually choose a place with window boxes, or at least a few flowers growing in a tractor tire filled with dirt, feeling hope rise at that small signal of care. But it’s late, Kiizhikok is hungry, and I’m disoriented, as one always is leaving some wild place on the Earth and returning to human disorder. The unattractive nature of the towns and buildings seems purpos
eful. There is a belligerent streak to the ugliness. Or maybe I’m just tired. Here is an island, but of a very different sort.

  The loneliness of roadside motels steals over me at once. Walking into my room, number 33, even with Kiizhikok’s presence to cushion me, the sadness soaks up through my feet. True, I might have dreams here, these places always inspire uneasy nights and sometimes spectacular and even numinous dreams. But they test my optimism. My thoughts go dreary. The door shows signs of having been forced open. I can still see the crowbar marks where a lock was jimmied. And oh dear, it is only replaced with a push-in knob that can be undone with a library card, or any stiff bit of plastic, I think, as I don’t suppose that someone intent on breaking into room 33 would use a library card. Or if they did, I wonder, dragging in one duffle and the diaper bag, plus Kiizhikok football-style, would it be a good sign or a bad sign? Would it be better to confront an ill-motived intruder who was well read, or one indifferent to literature?

  I rein my thoughts in, get my bearings. There are touches. Although the bed sags and the pickle-green coverlet is pilly and suspicious looking, the transparent sheets are tight and clean. A strangely evocative fall foliage scene is set above the bed—hand painted! Signed with a jerky black squiggle. The bathroom shower has a paper sanitary mat picturing a perky mermaid, breasts hidden by coils of green hair. The terrifying stain in the center of the carpet is almost covered with a woven rug. As always, on car trips where I will surely encounter questionable bedcovers, I’ve brought my own quilt. There is a bedside lamp with a sixty-watt bulb, and once Kiizhikok is asleep I can read.

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