The Way of the Heartbeat, Part 7: The True Meaning of the Word Debwewin
Updated: Jul 23
Ode'miini-giizis (Strawberry Moon)/Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon), June 16, 2021.
Boozhoo, aaniin, biindigen miinawaa! Hello, and welcome back to my storytelling lodge!
In today's episode I want to share with you a brief story about a simple truth. It is illustrated with a powerful acrylic on canvas -- one of my all-time favorite paintings -- done by Manitoulin Island based painter John Laford, titled Drummer, and a detail of a digital artwork by myself, titled Gaagige-giizhig ("The Everlasting Sky.")
We as Anishinaabeg have an expression that bears a typical simple Native wisdom and as such speaks for itself: Debwen maadash ge gwaya da wiindmaage. This translates to, "tell the truth or someone is telling." Another saying, when translated into English, goes like this: "Speak the truth and do not gossip: the wind hears everything and what is said travels."
Debwewin, or Truth(fulness), is one of the Nizhwaaswi Gagiikwewinan (Seven Grandfather Teachings) of the Anishinaabeg Peoples. It is sometimes also called Gwayakwaadiziwin, or Gwayako-bimaadiziwin, which literally means "Straight Conduct for Living." This virtue is expressed in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, by means of the verbs debwetaagozi, or debwe, - "speak the truth" (both verbs bimaadizi intransitive) and debwewini - "be of truth" (verb bimaadad intransitive).* Another verb meaning "speak the truth" is gwayakwaajimo (verb bimaadizi intransitive);* the literal meaning of "gwayak" is "straight." Gwayak-waajimo: (s)he tells a story straight. When you break down the verb debwe, you get deb (enough, adequate, reach) and -we (s/he acts on someone/thing).
Also noteworthy in this context is that the verb debwewidam (verb bimaadizi intransitive)* translates as "s/he is heard speaking or making vocal sounds at a distance." When you break down the stem of this verb, you get deb (enough, adequate, reach) and -wewid (s/he makes sounds). Now, since the Ojibwe word for drum is dewe'igan, which is -- as I understand it -- a contraction of a word that literally means "instrument that makes the circular (returning) sound of the heart," there is reason to believe that there is a direct correlation between our sacred drum that sits at the heart of our culture, sound-making, and truth-speaking. Debwe-ode'-wewe-igan: speaks truth-her/his heart-sound-instrument.
To the Anishinaabeg, to always speak the truth is traditionally a sacred duty. Mikinaak, the Snapping Turtle, teaches us this. (S)he must know since (s)he is one of the oldest animals on aki, our planet, and is said to have witnessed Gichi-dibaakoniwewin, the Laws of Creation, many strings of life ago proclaimed by Gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit of our Universe....
In conclusion, here is what two prominent Ojibwe Anishinaabeg once said about the concept of debwewin:
"Let’s take another word, the word for truth. When we say “w’daeb-awae” (wii-debwe) we mean he or she is telling the truth, is correct, is right. But the expression is not merely an affirmation of a speaker’s veracity. It is as well a philosophical proposition that in saying a speaker casts his words and his voice as far as his perception and his vocabulary will enable him or her, it is a denial that there is
such a thing as absolute truth; that the best and most the speaker can achieve and a listener expect is the highest degree of accuracy. Somehow that one expression, “w’daebawae,” sets the limits to
a single statement as well as setting limits to truth and the scope and exercise of speech."
"An Aboriginal person would necessarily be unwilling or unable to insist that his or her version of events is the complete and only true version. According to the Aboriginal world view, truth is
relative and always incomplete. When taken literally, therefore, the standard courtroom oath-to-tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth-is illogical and meaningless, not only to
Aboriginal persons but, from the Aboriginal perspective, to all people. The Aboriginal viewpoint would require the individual to speak the truth “as you know it” and not to dispute the validity of
another viewpoint of the same event or issue. No one can claim to know the whole truth of any situation; every witness or believer will have perceived an event or understood a situation
- Mizanay Gheezhik (Murray Sinclair)
Haw sa! Geget sa naa debwe igiw ininiwag! Yes, these men certainly spoke the truth!
Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw mikinaakogikinoo'igewin. Mino bimaadizin! Debwen apane! Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to relate to you this turtle teaching. Live well! Speak the truth always!
NOTE: * Bimaadizi and bimaadad, two ways of being, often wrongly translated by language scholars as “animate” and “inanimate." See: Teaching stories, part 12, The Cycle of Life by Zhaawano Giizhik.
"Gaagige Giizhig - Everlasting Sky", detail of a digital artwork featuring a silver-and-turquoise hair barrette of Mikinaak the Turtle, representing Mother Earth and the virtue of Truthfulness. See the website for details of the turtle barrette.