Program Particulars: Language and Meaning

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to web version of audio

(1:30) Origins of "Ojibwe"

There are several theories for the origin of the name Ojibwe. The Ojibwe also call themselves and other Native Americans Anishinaabe, which means "first people" or "original people." Ojibwe was originally the term used by others to describe them. The Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich has written that "Oijibwe" comes from a word meaning "Those who keep records [of a Vision]," referring to their form of pictorial writing. The Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston has written that the name comes from a word meaning "Those who speak-stiffly"\"Those who stammer," referring to how the Ojibwe sounded to the Cree. Two related theories are examined in The Land of the Ojibwe, a booklet published by the Minnesota Historical Society:

One theory has it translating from the Ojibway word for "puckered up," referring to the puckered style of their moccasins. The other theory suggests that the translation stems from the early history of warfare between the Anishinabe and their enemies such as the Eastern Dakota. The Ojibway allegedly had a reputation for roasting their enemy captives until they "puckered up." Since European contact many spellings of "Ojibway" have occurred. Depending on how it sounded to the ears of French and English speaking people, it has been written as "Otchipwe," "Ojibewa," "Ojibwe," "Chippeway," or "Chippewa."

According to their own oral history, the Ojibwe originally lived on the Eastern coast of what became North America, and they began migrating to the Great Lakes region about 500 years ago. They fought wars over the land and the fur trade with the Iroquois, Dakota, and Lakota tribes, expanding their territory around the Great Lakes and becoming one of the most populous tribes in North America. Today, they are still one of the largest tribes in the U.S, numbering about 200,000 people.

(2:07) Audio of Father and Son Speaking Ojibwe

This is a recording of Ojibwe immersion school teacher Keller Paap speaking to his son, who was three years old at the time. They are talking about the creek near by. Paap asks his son what he sees and his son responds, "I see water."

"Where?" "There." "What do you call that?" "That is a creek." "Who do you suppose dwells there?" "The frog, little crayfish, and minnows."

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(2:21–4:34) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale


(2:37) Up to 90 Percent of Languages Dying

Krista takes this statistical worst case scenario from Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, who was an early advocate for the preservation of endangered languages. He wrote about the issue in Discover Magazine in 1993:

As an illustration of their fates, consider Alaska's 20 native Eskimo and Indian languages. The Eyak language, formerly spoken by a few hundred Indians on Alaska's south coast, had declined by 1982 to two native speakers, Marie Smith (age 72) and her sister Sophie Borodkin. Their children speak only English. With Sophie Borodkin's death last year at the age of 80, the language world of the Eyak people reached its final silence — except when Marie Smith speaks Eyak with Michael Krauss. Seventeen other native Alaskan languages are moribund, in that not a single child is learning them.

The New York Times Magazine published an article about the phenomenon of last speakers called Say No More, which also mentioned Marie Smith.

Among linguists, the sorrowful story of the "last speaker" is practically a literary genre. The names ring out, like a Homeric catalog. Ned Maddrell, the last speaker of Manx, died in the village of Cregneash on the Isle of Man in 1974. Tevfik Esenc, the last speaker of Ubykh, died in Turkey in 1992. Red Thunder Cloud, the last speaker of Catawba, died in 1996. More are coming. Marie Smith-Jones in Alaska, the last speaker of Eyak, is 83 years old.

Marie Smith died on January 21, 2008.

(3:02) David Harrison of the Living Tongues Institute

Krista quotes David Harrison, Director of Research for the Living Tongues Institute a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation, revitalization, and maintenance of endangered languages. Harrison spoke to the Associated Press about the issue of endangered languages in the article "Researchers Say Many Languages Are Dying." After that article appeared, Harrison was called to account for his concern about endangered languages on The Colbert Report.

The director of the Living Tongues Institute, Greg Anderson, was interviewed about the issue on the public radio program On the Media.

(3:28) Indian Boarding Schools

In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant instituted a policy of forced assimilation of Native Americans by requiring their children to attend mostly Christian boarding schools, where the students had to give up their clothes, religious practices, and language. Tens of thousands of these children were forced by law to attend these schools well into the second half of the 20th century. Native communities weren't allowed to run their own schools until the late 1960s. NPR recently produced a two-part story about the legacy of these boarding schools, some of which are still in operation.

(3:49) "The Complicated Role Native Americans Play in the American Imagination"

In his book Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, David Treuer writes:

Indians make up 1 percent of the population of the United States — two million out of two hundred million. Yet we Indians overpopulate the modern imagination — from the first Thanksgiving to the Boston Tea Party to Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha to the Battle of the Little Big Horn to Dances with Wolves. The Indians people imagine, and the Indians that are created on the page, are much more active, much more present, than the Indians in life. The result is a very loud silence. Ours is a ghostly presence. The problem is that ghosts don't express themselves well — they throw things and move furniture, they speak through mediums, and despite the awe that their visitations instill, they can be manipulated and misinterpreted.

(3:57) Anton Treuer

David Treuer's older brother, Anton Treuer, is a linguist and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. He is also the editor of Living our Language: Ojibwe Tales & Oral Histories.

(4:09) Leech Lake Reservation

The Leech Lake Reservation, where David Treuer grew up, is the home of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, one of several bands of Ojibwe (Chippewa) in Minnesota, including the Bois Forte Band, the Fond du Lac Band, the Grand Portage Band, the Mille Lacs Band, the White Earth Band, and the Red Lake Band.

(8:05) "No Language Contains a Special Way of Knowing Something"

Treuer acknowledges a debate among linguists and psychologists about whether different languages embody distinctly different worldviews. The early 20th century linguist Edward Sapir studied the languages of several tribes in the Americas, and he wrote in 1921, "[language] varies as all creative effort varies—not as consciously, perhaps, but nonetheless as truly as do the religions, the beliefs, the customs, and the arts of different peoples." But since the publication of Noam Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures (1957) many linguists have come to believe that all languages share what Chomsky calls "deep structures" and that their differences in sound and grammar are more or less arbitrary.

The experimental and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has become a leading scientific proponent of some of Chomsky's ideas. Pinker has spent much of his career at MIT (1982-2003) and Harvard (2003-present), testing Chomsky's theories on language acquisition and writing about the universal structures of language in books such as The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

A recent critic of Chomsky's ideas, the linguist Dan Everett, wrote a paper in 2005 describing the Amazonian Pirahã tribe whose language, he claims, does not share many of the supposedly universal aspects of all languages. He says their language lacks numbers, fixed color terms, the perfect tense, and the words for "all," "each," "every," "most," or "few." He also claims that these aspects of the Pirahã language are expressions of the larger Pirahã culture, which includes no deep memory and no tradition of art or drawing. Steven Pinker referred to Everett's 2005 paper as "a bomb thrown into a party" and he wrote an evaluation of Everett's claims:

One of the great findings of linguistics, vastly underappreciated by the rest of the intellectual world (and probably not highlighted enough by linguists themselves) is that the non-universal, learned, variable aspects of language don't fit into any meaningful, purposive narrative about the surrounding culture…And this is the discovery that Everett is trying to overturn in his claim that the linguistic properties of Pirahã are meaningfully explained by an overarching theme in their culture, namely their alleged unwillingness to think about concepts that lie outside their immediate experience… the connection between his claims about their culture and the details of their language is tenuous at best.

Everett responded to Pinker's criticism.

My claim is that there is no such thing as 'just a language' and that the homogenizing efforts of Pinker and others, focusing principally on theories that stretch and chop grammars to fit preconceived notions of what a language should look like do the science of linguistics a serious disservice. Each language in this sense, while sharing cognitive and communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies — we don't just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.

(9:27) Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) was an American explorer and ethnologist, and superintendent of Indian affairs for what became the state of Michigan. He was also the first non-Native person to trace the Mississippi River to its source. He married a woman who has half Ojibwe, and it was her knowledge of Ojibwe language and mythology that helped him write several books about Ojibwe culture, including Algic Researches (1839), which became the main source of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855).

(9:33) Reference to The Song of Hiawatha

Longfellow published his poem about the Indian hero Hiawatha and his lover Minnehaha in 1855. Though the poem is based partly on Ojibwe myths and stories, Longfellow borrowed the name Hiawatha from a legendary Iroquois hero. The Song of Hiawatha tells the story of the son of a wind god and a young virgin who grows up to become a great leader and peacemaker, teaching his people to cultivate corn and to fish and how to use picture writing. The poem ends with the arrival of Europeans, and just before his death, Hiawatha instructs his people to welcome the newcomers and accept their message of Christianity.

The poem was an immediate success, even though it got some terrible reviews. A critic in The New York Times described the poem as, "embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and one may almost say, a justly exterminated race." (PDF of the NYT review)

In the passage about the firefly that Treuer refers to, Longfellow writes:

At the door on summer evenings Sat the little Hiawatha; Heard the whispering of the pine-trees, Heard the lapping of the waters, Sounds of music, words of wonder; 'Minne-wawa!" said the pine-trees, Mudway-aushka!" said the water. Saw the fire-fly, Wah-wah-taysee, Flitting through the dusk of evening, With the twinkle of its candle Lighting up the brakes and bushes, And he sang the song of children, Sang the song Nokomis taught him: "Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly, Little, flitting, white-fire insect, Little, dancing, white-fire creature, Light me with your little candle, Ere upon my bed I lay me, Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!"

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(11:00–12:00) Music Element

"Love Song" from Ojibwe Music from Minnesota: A Century of Song for Voice and Drum, performed by James Littlewolf


(13:37) Languages Lend Themselves to Memory

Krista quotes from a passage in David Treuer's novel The Translation of Dr. Apelles about a Native American translator who is translating a Native text that only he can read. At one point in the novel, he thinks about the Native American languages he has stored in the back of his head:

There is no point in keeping languages he cannot use – with the waiters at the restaurant, at the dry-cleaners, with the librarians or floor workers he works with — ready, on the tip of his tongue. It is better to keep the whole cushion of his brain between them and his everyday language. But when he occasionally meets with Indians from his tribe, or other tribes, he can bring those beautiful languages to the front of his mind. So special are they to him that he produces them with the clumsy flourish of a teenager presenting a bouquet of flowers to a date. And he is a different person when he speaks those languages. He is sly and can tell a good joke. The puns and play come naturally. He can flirt in those languages. And they lend themselves to memory. Or perhaps his memory borrows against his English because he can think about things like Victor's death and Annette's betrayal and the other scenes of his youth, both happy and sad, in those languages, but his English has no credit, can make no purchase on them.

(15:58) Ceremonial Life

Starting in the late 1800s, the U.S. government banned the ceremonial practices of Native American tribes, including the Ojibwe. In an 1882 letter, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price wrote, "There is no good reason why an Indian should be permitted to indulge in practices which are alike repugnant to common decency and morality. The preservation of good order on reservations demands of me active measures be taken to discourage — and if possible, put a stop — to the demoralizing influence of heathenish rites." (PDF of Price's letter)

By that time, many Native Americans had been forced onto reservations where they often depended on food rations from the government. The punishment for practicing their religion was the withholding of those rations. They were often required to convert to Christianity in order to receive social services from local Christian missionaries. If they continued to practice their religion, they could be jailed or have their children taken away. In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, removing all legal restrictions on Native American religious practices. (PDF of The American Indian Religious Freedom Act)

David Treuer's brother, Anton Treuer, was interviewed as part of a series on Minnesota Public Radio called Rekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality. Anton Treuer talked about the Ojibwe spiritual tradition, called Midewiwin, which is sometimes translated as Grand Medicine Society, and he described the initiation ritual.

It's a really elaborate ceremony, a legend that can take anywhere from two to six hours to tell. And if you miss a detail, it's a big no-no. So even for fluent speakers, learning the details of this elaborate ceremony is tough. And so as a result, there's just a small handful of people that can run a Midewiwin ceremony…. Midewiwin is somewhat more guarded and closed than some other religious customs of the world. There's sort of a ritual death and rebirth that goes on. There's a lot of religious instruction. The giving of legends and songs. But the substance of what is given is not divulged to someone until they actually go through the ceremony. And then they're told, 'You have to keep coming back here and helping out so that you can learn everything that we just gave to you."

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(17:22–18:06) Music Element

"Leech Lake Intertribal Singers" from Ojibwe Music from Minnesota: A Century of Song for Voice and Drum,


(23:22) Sounds of a Classroom

The audio clip is part of a story reported by Minnesota Public Radio reporter Tom Robertson, about the Ojibwe immersion program at the tribally run Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

(35:46) Reference to Abraham Joshua Heschel

Krista refers to our recent program The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel. In that interview, Arnold Eisen says that by saying "Words create worlds," Heschel is paraphrasing one of the most important daily Jewish prayers, "Blessed be He who spoke and the world came in to being."

Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being; blessed be He. Blessed be He who maintains the creation. Blessed be He who speaks and performs. Blessed be He who decrees and fulfils. Blessed be He who has mercy upon the earth. Blessed be He who has mercy on his creatures. Blessed be He who pays a good reward to those who fear Him. Blessed be He who lives for ever, and endures to eternity. Blessed be He who redeems and saves; blessed be his name.…

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(23:45–27:11) Music Element

"Red River Valley" from Roots Run Deep, performed by the New Roots Duo


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(37:31–38:12) Music Element

"White Fish Bay Singers" from Ojibwe Music from Minnesota: A Century of Song for Voice and Drum,


(41:00) Esperanto

In 1887, the oculist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof invented a language based on various European languages, which he intended as a universal second language that everyone could learn in order to communicate across cultures and nationalities. He designed the language to be especially easy to learn: all words are spelled phonetically, all nouns end with the letter "o," all adjectives end in the letter "a," and all verbs take only one form for each tense or mood. Zamenhof wrote about the language under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto ("Doctor Hopeful"), and his assumed last name became the name of his invented language.

The first Esperanto magazine came out in 1889, and Zamenhof went on to have many works of literature translated into the language, including the Old Testament, Hamlet, and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. Today, more than 30,000 books have been published in Esperanto; there are about 100 Esperanto magazines; and it's estimated that about 100,000 people speak the language worldwide.

(41:43) Article in the L.A. Times

Krista refers to David Treuer's essay "A language too beautiful to lose."

If the language dies, we will lose something personal, a degree of understanding that resides, for most fluent speakers, on some unconscious level. We will lose our sense of ourselves and our culture. There are many aspects of culture that are extralingual — that is, they exist outside or in spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance, history, personal identity. But there is very little that is "extralingual" about story, about language itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we will lose beauty — the beauty of the particular, the beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language tailored for our space in the world.

(42:25) Treaty Rights

David Treuer refers to the legal battle in Wisconsin over off-reservation hunting and fishing rights for members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe. The battle started in 1974 when two Ojibwe brothers were arrested for ice fishing on a lake that was not part of their reservation. They took the state to court, arguing that the tribe may have forfeited portions of the tribe's land in treaties signed in 1837, 1842, and 1854, but that those treaties had retained tribal members' rights to hunt and fish on the ceded territory. They lost their case in state court, but took the case to the U.S. court of appeals, which ruled in the tribe's favor in 1983.

The state of Wisconsin continued to fight the ruling for the next eight years, and there were incidents of intimidation and even violence against Ojibwe members who attempted to exercise their fishing rights. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Some anti-treaty protesters went so far as to deploy concrete walleye decoys on the bottom of lake beds to damage Ojibwe spears and disrupt off-reservation spearfishing. The tribes also faced a stream of racist abuse that often turned violent and led to media depictions of Wisconsin as the "Mississippi of the North."

But in 1991 the state of Wisconsin declared that it would no longer attempt to appeal the court ruling in the tribe's favor.

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(46:15–47:41) Music Element

"Err" from Music for Films, Vol. 3, performed by Michael Brook


(47:31) Ojibwe Immersion School

The Ojibwe immersion school is called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other), in Hayward, Wisconsin where children from preschool through third grade learn all their subjects except English in Ojibwe. The school was profiled in the Wisconsin State Journal, and one of the teachers, Keller Paap talked about what it was like to pass the language on to another generation:

It's like this journey back to ourselves. It's a journey back to who we are. We want [the language] to be second nature so students don't even think about it in a way… It's just there for them.

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(49:51–52:59) Music Element

"Giishpin Wii-agoodooyaan"

written by Keller Paap


This song was written by Keller Paap, a teacher at the Waadookodaading Ojibwe immersion school. The song is about snaring rabbits, and is performed by Paap's students while he accompanies on guitar.

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Voices on the Radio

is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota, a novelist, and translator. He divides his time between the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis.

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