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Stories and Teachings From the Earth, part 16: Who Was It Who Gave Us Our Language?

Updated: May 30

Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) - May 24, 2024


"The Gift of Life," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"The Gift of Life," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


Boozhoo! Hello! Biindigen miinawaa, welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, where there is love and learning!

What is happening with Anishinaabemowin, our beautiful language? From an oral language, based on sounds and the principle of onisidotaan – recognize through hearing – it has turned into a written language of formats, infused by European thinking and structured around English grammar rules.

Anishinaabemowin, before colonization forced many of us to become disconnected from our ceremonies and the land, used to be a language of manidoo, the spirit, and aki, the earth. Central to this used to be the notion of akinomaagewin: learning from the land. "Aki" is earth, "nomaage" is to take directions from her. In order to be able to converse with aki, we had to use the language of manidoog (spirits). The manidoo called Wenabozho gave us this language by naming everything as he was walking the land after recreation. But where is Wenabozho today?

Anishinaabemowin has become a format language because we forgot how to listen. I mean, truly listen.

Many strings of lives ago ago, when the land, in the form of a turtle shell, had returned after a great deluge, Wenabozho, the benevolent spirit-human, walked the turtle island and named everything that exists in nature. As he walked, he came to know all of it, including the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, the trees, the plants, and the animals, the insects, the birds, and the fish. As Wenabozho jumped into each new creation, he was fully immersed in their existences even multiple existences at a time. He could do so because he was a shapeshifter who, because of his supernatural abilities, was not bound by the material limitations of the human body. It was Wenabozho, by naming everything in nature, who gave us gidinwewininaan, our beautifully descriptive language. Because of Wenabozho, Ojibwemowin is a language of aki, the land. It is all about action, relationship, unity, and connection. Because of Wenabozho, Ojibwemowin, unlike the English language, is a verb-action based language, with over 4,000 verb forms; roughly 80% of Ojibwe words are verbs where 60% of English words are nouns.

For example, the Ojibwe word for fog is awan. The English word "fog" is a noun, but not so in the Ojibwe language. When Wenabozho walked the newly created land he noticed fog rising over the lake and he said, "This one is being foggy," so this is how we know the word for fog as "The one that is being foggy." So, the Ojibwe word for fog, which is an action-based verb, reminds us of the actions of Wenabozho when he was walking the land, naming what he observed. Even today, as we have taken over European customs like dividing time in years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, we use verb-based words for  for example weekdays. Niizho-giizhigad noongom (“Today is Tuesday”) refers to Tuesday being the second day of the week. It literally means, “Today it is Two-daying."

How Wenabozho's actions became reflected in the action-based language that is Anishinaabemowin is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the names that he gave to the four directions and the moons (months). Where Wenabozho walked, there was manidoo, or energy in motion. Like Wenabozho did when he walked the land, we see the world around us moving with manidoo and constantly changing, as is life itself. This manidoo that Wenabozho conjured up by walking the land still resonates in our language, our teachings, and our ceremonies. Our culture, our teachings and ceremonies, and our cosmic outlook on life are all organically and intrinsically built inside our language!

Because Wenabozho originally came from the Morning Star, it is not hard to imagine that he entered aki (the earth) through the eastern door. Since it was dawn when Wenabozho walked through the eastern door, he said,"gashkii giizhigad: 'day is enclosing the sky.'" It was his way of saying: "the sky is becoming light." Then darkness fell and a full moon rose, and Wenabozho noticed there was a hard crust on the snow. "Onaabanad," he said, "there is crusty snow. I will call this moon Onaabani-giizis: 'Crusty Snow Moon' (March)." Then, when the sky became light again, he said: "Waabanong will be how the East will be called: 'Where it is dawn.' Waabanong is the place where the spirit of spring lives, who, as, soon as the earth awakens and the snow on the land becomes crusty and the ice on the lakes and rivers thaw, pours the first warm weather over the land, the rivers, and the lakes. 'Waaban' and 'Ziigwan' are related spirits representing youth and generation; where the first sets each new day in motion, the second one has the power of a seed starting full life cycles from birth to death and regeneration. 'Ziigwan' is how this powerful spirit that lives in the East will be called, 'The One That Is Pouring.'"

Thus, Waaban, "The One That Is Dawn," was the first manidoo that he placed in the cardinal directions.

Next, as he followed the path of the sun, Wenabozho arrived in a warm place teeming with flowers and birdsong. The sun, perching high in the blue sky, was directly overhead. "This place, which I will name 'Zhaawanong' or 'In the South,' is where the spirit of summer lives," Wenabozho said, "and the name of this spirit, which represents mid-day and youth growing into maturity, will be 'niibin': 'The One That Is Summer.'" Then night fell over Zhaawanong, and a full moon rose, shedding her silver light on a vast prairie of flowers in full bloom. Wenabozho said: "Since I see flowers as far as the eye can see, I will call this moon Waabigonii-giizis: 'It Is Blooming Moon.'"

Thus, Niibin, "The One That Is Summer," was the second manidoo that he placed in the cardinal directions.

The next morning Wenabozho continued his way. As he followed the direction of the Sun's path across the southern sky, Wenabozho crossed many mountains. Along the way a full moon rose, and he noticed the leaves of the trees change color, and he said: "'waatebagaa': 'there are bright leaves. Waatebagaawi giizis will I name this moon (September)." Finally, he reached a big sea, and as he stood on the beach, he witnessed how the yellow sun had turned in a ball the color of fire that slowly sank behind the horizon. "This place, which I will name 'Bangishimog,' or 'Toward The One Who Sets,' is where the spirit of autumn lives," he said, "and the name of this spirit, which represents the end of the day and the final stage of all life, will be 'Binaakwii': The One That Has Its Leaves Fall.'"

Thus, Binaakwii, "The One That Has Its Leaves Fall," was the third manidoo that he placed in the cardinal directions.

As soon as the sun rose in the East, Wenabozho continued his way. After many days of walking Wenabozho arrived in a cold place where the plants were resting, and the spirits were hungry. "Hoowah," he said to himself, "Nigiiwe, 'I am coming home.'" It was his way of saying that his purpose, of placing and naming everything in Creation, was fulfilled. Then, noticing his feet were cold, he added: "Tayaa! Mishkwaakwadin! (Oh boy! It is freezing all the way through to the ground!)" Darkness fell and a full moon rose, and Wenabozho, still shivering, said "I will call this moon 'Baashkaakodin-Giizis': It Is Freezing Moon (November). This is where biboon, the spirit of winter lives. It is my wish that the great ice sheets that cover this land will return home to where they once came from. * I will call this direction, which represents remembrance, purification, and wisdom, Giiwedinong, 'Place of the Returning Home Wind'"

Thus, Giiwedin, "The Wind That Returns Home," was the fourth manidoo that Wenabozho placed in the cardinal directions...

So, this is how Wenabozho walked the land and named the four spirits and the four moons that govern our existence. It marked the beginning of our beautiful language and the way we used to see the world.

Giiwenh. So goes the teaching story... Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Thank you for listening today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! 


*"the great ice sheets that cover this land will return home to where they once came from" refers to the end of the last ice age, when the glaciers retreated toward the north, leaving the landscape of the Canadian Shield and Great Lakes relatively ice free.

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