I wrote a half-hour television show for Canadian TV not long ago, loosely based on my home reserve at Curve Lake - and it was all in Ojibway. Before you get congratulatory, understand that while I penned the piece, called The Strange Case Of Bunny Weequod, on my own, I couldn't possibly have scripted it in my ancestral tongue. That's because I don't speak my mother's language. While she thinks and dreams in Ojibway, I represent part of a growing population of aboriginals cut off from our verbal roots.
To add insult to injury, I'm a teller of stories. In order to sprinkle a little Ojibway into a tale, I have to ask my aunt back home for help. For all my efforts to document the humour and drama of being native in Canada, something is always missing: the very language from which these stories are born.
When I decided to translate Bunny Weequod, I contacted Isadore Toulouse, a fabulous Ojibway language instructor. First thing to note in this exercise is that Ojibway is inherently a longer language than English. What started as a 20-page script quickly ballooned to 42 pages after translation. Whoever said the Ojibway were a verbose people knew what they were talking about.
When the show aired, I was told by several Ojibway speakers that what was coming from the mouths of the two Cree leads (who had learned their Ojibway phonetically) wasn't the Ojibway of my reserve but a dialect called Odawa from several hundred miles away. Isadore's home community.
If I can't speak my mother's tongue, I can at least listen in it. It's what I call the "dog syndrome." You have a cocker spaniel; you tell him to roll over. He hears you; he obeys. My mother tells me in Ojibway to turn the kettle on. I hear her say the words; I understand; I turn the kettle on. But I can't respond in the manner in which I heard it. "Dog," by the way, in Ojibway is "nemush."
Such is the price of colonization. As James Joyce put it, "I am forced to write in a conqueror's tongue." Canada decided somewhere back that it has two official languages: French and English. I don't remember voting on that. I must have been in the bathroom or something. But these two tongues are merely the most recent and trendy - they've only have been on this continent for 500 years, the lifespan of a good-sized tree. Five hundred years. That's 3,500 in nemush years.
Prior to colonization, over 50 languages and dialects were spoken here. But a study predicted that in 20 years only three would still be spoken: Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway.
It's said that when a tribal elder dies, a library dies with him or her. As the first in the long chain not to speak my ancestors' tongue, I carry that guilt.