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Teachings From the Tree of Life, part 29: The Truth of Decolonization - Why We Must Nurture Our Language Roots

Updated: Jun 3

Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) - May 30, 2024


Nurturing the Indigenous Language Tree painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Nurturing the Indigenous Language Tree," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

“Christianity is the sword that severed the Indigenous pathway. We fell into the open wound, and this is what happened to many of our harmed and broken elders to adopt into the 'new' way...Many believe that our elders suffered, it’s true, but the fact remains to this day that it is our children that are the sacrifice.” – Michel Sutherland, Maskiki Wi Iniwak elder, 2024



For many centuries, US and Canadian mainstream societies have thoroughly disrupted Indigenous culture and tribal social relations; a deeply rooted sense of disorientation and alienation, diseases, alcohol, and child abuse have done the rest. Anishinaabeg were known as Zhawenjigewininiwag (“The Kind-hearted People”) but that has changed because the colonizers taught their language to our young, took them away from our families, and taught them to be judgmental, cruel, and intolerant. They took our innate compassion and empathy away. But there is also a positive narrative be told. We are in a time of finding new balance. Storytelling and art, political and sociological awareness, and self-education are the key to healing the complex intergenerational trauma. Indigenous educators, scholars, and storytellers/artists must increase the awareness and understanding of the history, cultures, world views, and contributions of First Nations peoples of Turtle Island.

If we don't do this, who will?


Decolonization begins in the mind. It starts with aabanaabam, literally.: “turn and look back.” Used in a traditional context, abanaabam signifies a time to stop, pause, and take a look back in the past from which the People (our ancestors) have emerged.


"Return of the Kind-hearted People"  painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Return of the Kind-hearted People" ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

Looking back means re-educating ourselves. It starts with re-indigenizing the way we think. It starts with healing, a land-based healing through ceremony and traditional-storytelling, reaffirming our relationship with one another and our ancestors and the lands they lived on. If we truly want to heal the deeply felt trauma that is strangling and haunting us for generations in a row, we must replace the system that oppresses and distresses our Peoples since the first Wemitigoozhiiwag (“Stick Wavers”; the French Jesuits) descended our rivers and uninvitedly landed on our lake shores. The first thing we must do is break free of the mental and behavioral stranglehold that system is keeping us in, as a People and as individuals. The first thing we need to do is decolonize our behavior toward each other. Too much of our behavior is deeply toxic, like a once healthy tree affected at the root. Now a sick tree, it once grew tall and proud, its heartbeat one with ours, its roots firmly anchored in the earth that was still healthy and in balance, its mighty branches sheltering us from the rain and stretching out to the four directions and its crown, rustling in the wind and teeming with birdsong, reaching high above the clouds, all the way into giizhigong - where our ancestors dwell. Are we so colonized, so traumatized, that we forget we were once that tall, indigenous tree? Are we so defeated that we forgot who we are, that once our heartbeats were one? That we oppress one another, display toxic behavior toward one another, because we are oppressed by the oppressors or feel we must meet the requirements of an oppressed people ourselves?


Besides stopping to think, act, and talk like the colonizers, we must breathe new life in the once healthy tree called gidinwewininaan (our language). We must return to the tree and nurture its roots. Revaluing and reempowering the language our ancestors spoke is an essential tool when we want to re-indigenize our minds. Gidinwewininaan is the beating heart of the tree, of our identity, and crucial in the healing process that we are in such dire need of today. One-sidely centering on the intergenerational trauma is not helping because by doing so, we continue to center the colonizer and the colonizing process. All it does is keep us going in circles. Instead, it is better if we focus on gidinwewininaan, our language, the way we used to express ourselves before colonization. We must understand that power lies in our tongue. Geget sa go, gichi-apitendaagwadoon ikidowinan - words do matter!


"Gete-gagiitaawi-giigiizhwewininiwag" Painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Gete-gagiitaawi-giigiizhwewininiwag (The Old Ones Who Spoke the Language Wisely)" ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


A long time ago, when the land, in the form of a turtle shell, had returned after a great deluge, Wenabozho, the benevolent androgynous spirit-human walked the land and named everything that exists in nature. As he/she walked, he/she 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 he/she jumped into each new creation, he/she was fully immersed in its existence - even multiple existences at a time. He/she could do so because he/she is a shapeshifter who, because of his/her supernatural abilities, is 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 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; nearly two-thirds of Ojibwe words are verbs.

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-crated 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 word, 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 week days. Naano-giizhigad noongom (“Today is Friday”) literally means, “Today it is Five-daying." Action is not only expressed in verbs; Ojibwe nouns are also action-based. For example, zaagi’idiwin, the word for mutual love, is a verb-derived noun (zaagi'idi means “he or she loves”) that is not “inward feeling”-based but “outward action”-based. [1]


Gego binajtoke ezhibimaadziin nyaab g’daa biidonaa gidinwewininaan. (“Don’t break the circle of life; we need to bring it back, the Anishinaabe language.”)


Never underestimate how language and culture are inherently tied together! Never underestimate what happens when we tie a culture and its language to a foreign culture and its language! Second-language students will never truly master Anishinaabemowin until they have also mastered the cultural contexts of the language. Geget, grammar and vocabulary are essential tools for communication, but only the ability to communicate in meaningful, culturally relevant, context-related ways with other fluent speakers will keep gidinwewininaan alive. We need to take a long, hard look at the way zhaaganaashiimowin (the English language) has colonized our  language, our thinking. We also need to take a long, hard look at the roles of our own educators, the way they teach gidinwewininaan. The development in the early 1970’s of of scholarship programs, particularly in Minnesota, gave a boost to higher education, language, and academic support programs in public schools, tribal schools, and tribal colleges. A new generation of academically trained textbook teachers arose, introducing a grammar based on the English language and a syntax that follows the English way of structuring a sentence. For the past 50 years, using artificial grammar rules and distinctions (animate versus inanimate) have hollowed out the spirit and expressiveness of gete-inwewinin (the old language). Now, half a century later, it’s becoming obvious that the spiritual core of Anishinaabemowin has gradually diminished to a point of almost no return.

It’s time for a new generation of language instructors and educators to rise and take the lead. Instructors and educators who distance themselves from the textbook approach of their predecessors and move away from tying Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) to English. Instructors and educators who understand that Anishinaabemowin will never really fit the narrow template of the English language, let alone the mold of the dominant culture that second-language learners grew up in. It is time we acknowledge that funds and formats are often traps, and that squeezing our languages into western education system was, after all, not such a good idea. Rigid, European-based syntax rules and linguistic dichotomies have imprisoned our understanding of our own linguistic concepts, and, as a result, our understanding of ourselves as a People.




Besides reviving gidinwewininaan, focus must be on reconstructing Anishinaabe identity and healing traumas by reinvigorating ceremonial life and rewriting the dominant society's narrative through reorienting and revitalizing Anishinaabe oral history. I believe that spiritual leaders and healers, artists, and storytellers (even content makers and influencers) can play a key role in achieving this .Judgement, guilt, and rules are things outsiders forced upon us. But it has never been the Anishinaabe way. To realize that is to realize how the ancestors walked, how they saw life. To not judge others, to not try to invade another person's spiritual domain; it is that what makes the Anishinaabe way so unique and beautiful. Next, the decolonization process must move to more substantive actions like recognizing sovereignty, returning land, and hunting and fishing rights, resisting fracking and oil pipelines on our lands, banning drugs and human trafficking from our reservations and reserves, etc. This is where the ogimaag (chiefs), political activists, and lawyers among us but only those who are genuinely honest and selfless come in.


"Healing the Trauma," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Healing the Trauma," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


“The United States called itself the 'Great White Father' because they thought they were God, and God was a white man. In the boarding schools, Native children were taught that "God" was the "Great White Spirit," and and then their next sentence was, "you are the Vanishing American, and you will go.” – Wub-e-keniew, Ojibwe columnist, 1992

When and where did the Christianization of the Anishinaabe Peoples begin? The Ojibweg adopted influences both from other Indigenous groups and from Euro-Americans. Ojibwe spirituality thus no longer exists in the form practiced by the Ojibweg when they were a hunter-gatherer society prior to European contact. Over the centuries, many Ojibweg have converted to Christianity - or mixed their old practices and beliefs with Judeo-Christian practices and beliefs, resulting in the Midewiwin as we know it today.

Since the 1850s, American settlement in the US increased dramatically. The Ojibweg, not in the least through efforts of Ojibwe authors and members of the Midewiwin Lodges, resisted this invasion not through battle, but through rhetoric. Through the cunning leadership of Ojibwe ogimaag (chiefs), the Ojibweg were largely able to avoid removal from their homelands — the fate of so many of the surrounding tribes and nations. Yet, by the end of the nineteenth century, the once vast territories of the Ojibweg were reduced to small holdings scattered throughout the Gichigamiin region. By the 1870s, Ojibweg in both the United States and Canada were predominantly living on reservations, with government policies dedicated to transforming them from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. In the 1870s, missionaries were placed in charge of Native American reservations, resulting in widespread conversion to Christianity.

North of the border, by the late 19th century, the Ojibweg in southeast Ontario were largely Christian. Christian organizations in both the United States and Canada established boarding schools (called Residential Schools in Canada) founded to eliminate traditional Indigenous ways of life and replace them with mainstream culture. Children were strictly forbidden to speak their languages. Between 1869 and the 1970s, government agents forcibly abducted consecutive generations of children who were systematically brainwashed, beaten, starved, and sexually abused within the walls of these cruel institutions. By the mid-20th century, Christianity the great whitewash had reached all areas of Anishinaabe Aki across the United States and Canada.

Since, historically, the Ojibweg are the keepers of faith and thus form the spiritual cornerstone of the greater Anishinaabe nation, when their belief system changed from pre-contact belief to Christian (or to a “hybrid” religion in the form of Midewiwin), they more or less led other Algonquian speaking peoples down the same path.

Since, historically, the Ojibweg are the keepers of faith and thus form the spiritual cornerstone of the greater Anishinaabe nation, when their belief system changed from pre-contact belief to Christian (or to a “hybrid” religion in the form of Midewiwin), they more or less led other Algonquian speaking peoples – such as the Omàmiwininiwak (Algonquins), Odaawaag (Odawa), and Bodewadmig (Potawatomi) – down the same path.


"Healing the Trauma" (Detail)  Zhaawano Giizhik
"Healing the Trauma" (Detail) ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


Let’s have a closer look at the dramatic shift in Anishinaabe worldview caused by the invasion of Anishinaabe Aki by the Europeans intruders and how it influenced the way we nowadays look upon natural phenomena and important spiritual matters – and how it changed our language. Do the words we nowadays use to describe spiritual matters and, for example our lunar calendar, reflect the disastrous culture clash that resulted from contact with European values and thinking? Several names that are presently in use for the moons (months) stem from intercultural crossing between Anishinaabeg and the Wemitigoozhiwag and Gichi-mookomaanag (Europeans and Americans). They are neologisms: newly coined words or hybrid expressions stemming from intercultural contact between Anishinaabeg and the European settlers. The land-rooted relationships that in pre-contact times used to be unquestionable became chaotic and often meaningless, and some moon names became replaced by names that reflect the cultural views of the Anglo invaders. An example of such a Westernized name is Animikadaadiiwi-giizis, which means "Welcoming Each Other Moon," referring to the settlers' habit of wishing each other Happy New Year in the month of January. The influence of Christianity on Ojibwe culture is also evident in a name used by Ojibweg from Northwest Ontario to denote the Month of December: Gichi-anama'e-giizhigani-giizis, or "Big Church Days Moon." Another example of Western influence is Joolay-biisim, which, of course, is an "Ojibwenized" version of the Anglo word for the moon that precedes the month of August.


And then there are examples of improper use of words and expressions: formalities like miigwech (“thank you”), daga (“please”), and nimaanendan (“I am sorry”), as odd as they would have sounded to Ojibwe people back in the day, reflect the cultural norms in today’s dominant society with its large multicultural and multiracial population, where complying with certain levels of formality is a necessity to enable all those people to share the same space. Our ancestors,however, when they encountered Europeans and Americans they found them to constantly pleading, begging, complaining, and looking for excuses. What used to be a recurring source of irritation was that, in their perception, white traders bartered words for goods they desired. In their world, cooperation and mutual respect were taken for granted so there was no need to exchange formalities other than through verbs. Respect was inherently ingrained in the language, the use of verbs, itself. Anishinaabemowin is a verb-based language. Formalities reflecting politeness and gratefulness weren’t expressed through discourse particles but in the verbs themselves.




In the old days, cooperation and mutual generosity were taken for granted so there was no need to say thank you when someone gave you something. A gift given was always part of an ongoing cycle of exchange. This is why there was no word for “thank you.” The word miigwech is a relatively new hybrid word that took form during the fur trade era.  It‘s a combination of the words “Mii”, which means “it is thus” and “Gwech” meaning “Enough.” These words would commonly be used together at the end of transactions at the trading post between Ojibweg and European traders as to signify the completion of a transaction. In the broken conversations between Ojibweg and European traders, “mii gwech” – “that’s sufficient” – was mistaken by the latter to mean “thank you” and so they began to use it as such. Over time the Ojibweg merged the two words into one, which, eventually, they started to use in the same sense the European used it. Thus, the meaning of Mii Gwech (it is enough) changed into Miigwech, “Thank you. "




“Daga” originally means “come on!” or “by all means!” Some elder Anishinaabe people would consider "daga" to be rude since, in their ears, it has an imperative connotation. It’s a phrase expressing exasperation.. For example, back in the day, a younger person would never say to an Elder “ambe daga wiisinidaa,” “come on let's eat!” To say “please” is not something the old ones were familiar with, either. Our ancestors were not accustomed to - what they would consider - begging.  “Miizhishin zhooniyaa, daga,”  “give me some money, please,” may be common use nowadays but it would be considered highly amusing by our ancestors.


"Lover's Dance," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Lover's Dance," ©2020-24 Zhaawano Giizhik



In traditional Anishinaabe culture, love (zaagi’) was meant to be an outward expression. But nowadays we have turned love into an inward, self-centered act; it’s all about me and what I love...I love money, I love food, I love pleasure, I want you, et cetera. And we need it NOW. In the old days, gi-zaagi’in, “I love you,” still had the selfless, outward expression of love that our language teaches us, to give our love out to others, our relatives, all earth's and water's and sky's creatures. Below we see a few examples of the outward expression of zaagi’:


Zaagibagaa- leaves bud

Zaagidoode- crawl out

Zaagigi- sprout, grow out

Zaagijiwan- flow out




The verb maanendam, which nowadays is often used to express regret (nimaanendan, "I am sorry"), essentially means "feel bad, or poorly, or depressed." Perhaps the expressions that come closest to “I am sorry” are gaawiin onjida – “not on purpose” – and niminjinawez - “I’m regretful” or “I’m disapponted.”


“Our ancestors took matters like cooperation and mutual respect for granted; there was no need to exchange formalities like ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ other than through verbs. Respect was inherently ingrained in the language, the use of verbs, itself.”




Also, in the old days there was no formal farewell; in other words, there are no words that translate to “Goodbye.” “Goodbye” implies a parting that is definite; in the Ojibwe mind, however, parting is never definite since we are all accompanied by “manidoowiwin” – a spirit that keeps us connected with each other, even in the afterlife.  


A closest phrase would be “Giga-waabamin naagaj”, meaning “See you again.” Or: "Giga-waabamin naagaj," “see you later.” Occasionally shortened into “nagaaj;” “later.” Other expressions used when parting are “baanimaa” (sometimes shortened into “baamaa”), or, depending on the dialect, baanimaa apii, or baamaapii.


Weweni (carefully, sincerely) can be used in the context of parting as well. ”Weweni izhichigen,” take care, literally: be diligent, do things in a good way is sometimes used, as is “Aangwaamizin”  take care! Good luck! (Aangwaamizi, or ayaangwaamizi, is a verb that literally means “be in a state of danger.”)

Although “boozhoo” is nowadays often used as a greeting when people meet, among oldtimers, you may hear “ahaaw boozhoo.” Boozhoo, in that sense, is actually a shortening of “wenaboozhoo,” as if in double-checking, “Are you Wenabozho?”





No, it doesn’t - although it can be argued that, in the days of the fur trade, the similar ways of greeting somewhat helped in forging a good relationship between the Anishinaabeg and Wemitigoozhiiwag ( French) traders.

“Boozhoo,” which is a bastardization of “Giin ina Wenabozho,” pre-dates contact with the Europeans. Wenabozho, the first human, benefactor and friend of the Anishinaabeg, was half human half spirit. In the many stories told about him/her he/she is often portrayed as a trickster. After he/she helped name the animals and plants, he/she left our world but promised to return – but because he/she was  a trickster, he/she would not say what he/she would look like on his return. Since he/she was also a shape-shifter, when you met another person on the road, you could never know for sure if he or she wasn’t Wenabozho in disguise. Hence the question “Giin ina Wenabozho?” (Are you perhaps Wenabozho?”) – a question that, be it in a shortened form, became a greeting during the Westward migration from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.


"Healing the Trauma" (Detail) painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Healing the Trauma" (Detail) ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


In the spiritual domain, Western influences are evident in terms we nowadays use like “creator,” “great spirit,” and “prayer.” Part of an explanation can be found in the role and post-contact development of the Anishinaabe religious/medicinal institute called Midewiwin. It was under the influence of the Europeans, who introduced to Turtle Island the dualistic, patriarchal, and hierarchical mindset of Greco-western civilization, that the old Anishinaabe worldview shifted into a more “vertical” belief. At the same time, the relationship between the different beings and creatures of earth, underworld, sky, and water became characterized by a more dialectical nature. The modern-traditional Ojibwe and Anishinini (Oji-Cree) conception of a hierarchy of powers – where the Universe consists of three different levels, underworld, earth, and sky, with Gitchi-manidoo (The Great Spirit) sitting on top and presiding all three –, does not appear to have been part of early izhinamowin (worldview). Our remote ancestors did not draw such neat lines between the different spheres of the Universe. To them, the lines and borders between creatures and spheres were diffuse and continuously interchangeable, and certainly not conceived in a vertical orientation. All creatures of the sky, earth, and water, while different beings, were seen as interrelated and integrated in one inseparable cosmic whole. It should be noted in this context that, although the Ojibweg and Anishininiwag had resisted Christianity for a long time (at least until the mid-nineteenth century), many 19th century Mideg (members of the Midewiwin) were also members of Christian churches. Mide rituals became heavily borrowed from Scottish Freemasonry, which introduced into Midewiwin a more patriarchal outlook on society and the world at large. This paradigm shift, the changed spirituality of communities that have lived for centuries with Christian traditions, has been playing, and still plays, an essential role in the shaping of noongom-anishinaabe-izhinamowin (our modern-traditional worldview).



“When the waters are calm and the fog rises, I will now and then appear”
(Song of the Midewiwin)

The problem is, "pray" and "prayer" are essentially Christian concepts. At the same token there are no Ojibwe words synonymous with the English language term “religion.” There is no word for prayer in Ojibwemowin, other than post-contact neologisms denoting Christian influences (reflecting associations with concepts like "(Sun)day," 'asking for," "begging for," etcetera).

The most commonly used translation of “pray” is anama'aa, or anamitaagozi. The stem of the verb anama'aa (or anamitaagozi) is anami, which means “mumble.” The gerund form of anami is anami'ewin: “Mumbling.” You may wonder how anami from primarily meaning “mumble” has changed into to “pray”? And, as a consequence, how the Ojibwe word for Sunday, anami'e-giizhigad, means “Mumble Day”? The answer is as simple as it is sobering; when our ancestors first saw the missionaries pray, their prayers, to them, sounded like mumbling…

Other verbs that show the dramatic shift from the original Ojibwe culture to a Christianized culture are andojige (which literally means "s/he asks for, requests, orders things"), bagwisendam or bagosenjige, which essentially means "expect" or "beg" or "wish," gaganoodamaage ("intercede"), gaagiizimoke ("sermonize"), and nanaandomo ("seek help"). To the Anishinaabe, talking with the spirit world did not necessarily mean that a person was begging for help or mercy. Talking with the spirit world was in the first place a two-way communication meant to seek the sacred that is in ourselves and the (seen and unseen) world around us, rather than a one-way petition to a male God that dwells in heaven to ask for His redeeming grace and glory or beg for His mercy. Going to either Heaven or Hell and living in fear of Fire and Brimstone were not things our ancestors worried about before the Europeans invaded their land.


"Wenabozho and the Message from the Thunderbirds," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Wenabozho and the Message from the Thunderbirds," ©2022-2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


Personally, if someone would ask me to provide an equivalent of the English verb "pray," I would say "gagwe-gaganoozh manidoo," or “gagwe-biindaakoozh manidoo,” which both literally means, "try to speak to/with spirit." I doubt if my ancestors ever used those (somewhat artificially constructed) expressions but at least, to me, they do not have awkward connotations of a cruel and dominant system of religion that systematically tried to erase our spirituality by planting seeds of fear and shame in our hearts and minds.

In addition, since it literally means “make or gather spiritual power” and therefore describes an attitude and action associated with traditional Ojibwe spirituality, the word manidooke (which could be translated as “conduct a ceremony”) could be an acceptable equivalent of anama'aa. Then there is yet another option, suggested to me by my knowledgeable friend Charles Lippert. Since, in Anishinaabe tradition, opwaaganag (pipes) and biindaakoojigewin (tobacco offering) play a central role in the act of communicating with the spirit world, the verbs zagaswem and biindaakoozh (respectively zagaswengewin and biindaakoojigewin in noun (gerund) form) could also be considered acceptable equivalents of anama'aa/pray. Both words mean “offer smoke.”

Asemaa, tobacco
Pronounce:Ah-SAY-mah, or
“Ase” describes the placement of energy or “(s)he is placed.”
“Maa” is a derivative of “Omaa,” meaning “here.”

Even today our Peoples offer the sacred asemaa (tobacco) to bimaadiziwin manidoowiwin (the spiritual quality of life) in order to acknowledge and honor it. This is particularly done in places where its presence is felt the most intensely, such as a clearing in a dense forest, a remote cave near the edge of a lake, a whirlpool, on a small island, or the top of a steep hill or mountain. The acts of zagaswewin (sharing a smoke with someone, especially a pipe in a ceremony) and biindaakoojigewin (making a tobacco offering), without which a ceremony would be impossible, is our Native way of reciprocal recognition, of witnessing and walking with all our relatives (the spirits and all living beings, or “Relations,” within Creation) in the act of deep reflective knowing and understanding.



Prayer in a Christian sense:  
mumbling (anami'ewin)
asking for things (andojigewin)
begging for things (bagosenjigewin)
interceding (gaganoodamaagewin)
sermonizing (gaagiizimokewin)
seeking help nanaandomowin
“To pray” in an Ojibwe sense:
talk to spirit (gaganoozhi manidoo)
speak with spirit (biindaakoozh manidoo)
make/gather spiritual power to conduct a ceremony (manidooke)
offer spirit a prayer with use of smoke (zagaswem manidoo)
offer a smoke of tobacco to spirit (zagaswe’ manidoo)
make an offering of tobacco (biindaakoojige)



In the old days, there was no religion. We had a system of belief, not a religion. Gigiinanda-gikendaamin maskiki miinawaa anang nibwaakaawin, nahaaw what we did was seeking to know the medicine of the earth and the wisdom of the stars. That’s not religion, that’s spirituality.


Christianity is a religion. Islam is a religion. So is Judaism. All three religions include the belief in a monotheistic creator deity. The Anishinaabe concepts of Gichi-manidoo (the Great Spirit), Gizhe-manidoo (the Benevolent Spirit), and Gichidebenjiged ("Creator, literally: Great One Who Rules)" are neologisms. All three are in essence modern concepts infused with the male-dominant outlook and the patriarchal, monotheistic god concept that is so typical of the three above-mentioned world religions.


First of all, I think it is important to point out that the Judeo/Christian god concept almost entirely erased the old Anishinaabe notion of gender fluidity, which particularly has become obvious in the Anishinaabe storytelling centered around Wenabozho, the most popular aadizookaan (sacred-story protagonist) and trickster hero of all times. In the pre-Christian era, the gender identity of Wenabozhoo constantly changed depending on the storytelling. Because Wenabozho is a shapeshifter, his/her character used to be also androgynous. While the majority of (oral) stories told portrayed Wenabozho as a male character, the gender identity changed depending on the story and it wasn’t unusual if, depending on the context, Wenabozho displayed feminine characteristics. In modern-day (written) storytelling, however, Wenabozho is still portrayed as a shapeshifter, but seldom written with she/her pronouns.


Then there is the transition from a genderless “spirit ” into a male “god” or “creator.”  The ultimate power in post-contact Ojibwe spiritual life, Gichi-manidoo (“the Great Spirit, the Sum of all Spirit”), or “Creator” as he is nowadays called by 99% of Native Peoples, is essentially a merging of traditional Indigenous belief systems with those of missionaries intent on promoting Christianity. * Before contact with the Mooniyaag (Europeans) there was only bimaadiziwin, life in its broadest sense, and manidoo, which can be translated as both spirit and mystery, a neutral, genderless quality that was in all things of life. The ancestors knew that literally everything in life and nature has manidoo (a spirit essence). The higher power, in the old view, wasn’t a great spirit or a creator; it was bimaadiziwin, life itself. All beings and creatures possessed this bimaadiziwin and manidoo. The Universe was filled with manidoowiwin (life's spirit-character), which was neutral and genderless. Rather than a male God-like spirit or “creator” presiding over the world, bimaadiziwin, and bimaadiziwin manidoowiwin were simply seen as a cosmic source of sacred power suffusing and animating all creatures, either corporeal (natural) or incorporeal (supernatural).

*By saying this I do not mean to criticize or condemn those who use expressions like "Gichi-manidoo" and "Creator" and such, but rather to pose an observation meant to raise awareness. It is simply food for thought. Personally, I find Gichi-manidoo to be a beautiful and altogether acceptable neologism since it refers to the sum of Mystery that is in the Universe. Gizhe-manidoo (the Benevolent Spirit) I never use (but see nothing wrong with it). "Creator" (or Gichidebenjiged,"Great One Who Rules)" I would never use because of its Christian connotation of a monotheistic god concept. But I also like to stress here that "prayer" is a strictly personal way of connecting with the ancestors and the manidoog that are out there – which means there is simply no wrong word or expression. When it comes to manidookewin, word choice can never be more important than the intentions that are in our heart.




So, where does this all leaves us as Ojibwe People?

Let's have a closer look at the painting "Nurturing the Indigenous Language Tree."

The tree in the painting represents Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language. See how many dialect branches it has. The gete-ayaa (ancestor) to the right represents the old language from the area of Mikinaakwajiwing (Turtle Mountain). There is perhaps no other place that's more representative of dialectal diversity than Turtle Mountain since its dialect, which is very old, is comprised of no fewer than 13 neighboring dialects. Depicted in the foreground, the sitting woman and the man standing holding a pipe tend the fire of tradition. The ceremonial rattle, water drum, miigis shells, cedar leaves, and braid of sweetgrass are principal symbols of the ancestral teachings that connect every living thing, including the old dialects spoken before forced assimilation and the language as it is spoken today. The makade makwa (black bear) standing at the bottom of the tree trunk is gatekeeper, a guardian of gete-anishinaabemowin, the old spiritual language. He growls as soon as people start speaking backward (speak or write according to English grammar rules) or apply the un-Indigenous concept of inanimacy in Ojibwe grammar.

The gichi-anishinaabe (Elder) from Turtle Mountain, standing to the right of the tree, breathes new life into the tree. The spheres that come out of his mouth are the sacred words of the old language. His medicine pouch contains the gete-anishinaabemowin, the old spiritual language.

The two eagles lift the language that flows from the roots of the tree through the trunk and branches and leaves up, into the spirit realm.

The tree is a great metaphor for our language.

I painted the tree with 13 branches in total. 13 branches for 13 dialects. There are also 6 "layers" of branches comprising the crown (canopy). Those stand for the 6 word orders that exist in  Anishinaabemowin syntax; the canopy symbolizes all possible word orders combined, and the notion that word order is a relative and flexible concept.

The tree may be sick and have lost most of its leaves along the way, its roots are still firmly planted into the earth. What we must do is pause, turn, and look back, and realize that our language used to be the vital sap that ran through every branch and leaf of the tree, making it healthy and strong. All we have to do is return to the roots of the strong Indigenous tree we once were, nurture it, and make it grow tall and beautiful again... 


The branches also symbolize grammar, particularly the concept of animacy. Inanimacy doesn't exist in the Anishinaabe worldview and has therefore no place in Anishinaabemowin grammar. The branches to the left represent one form of animacy, called bimaadizi (pimaatis). The branches on the right represent the other form of animacy, called bimaadad (pimaatan). I painted the branches in a way that they mirror each other. Bimaadizi and bimaadad are two interconnected, complementary, and fluid types of existence that are both part of bimaadiziwin, or Life.

In short, the branches and crown of the tree represent dialects, syntax, and the concept of animacy in grammar. The trunk represents bimaadiziwin, life itself.

Like I said before, since, historically, the Ojibweg are the keepers of faith and thus form the spiritual cornerstone of the greater Anishinaabe nation, when their belief system changed from pre-contact belief to Midewiwin to Christian, they more or less led the other Anishinaabe tribes down the same path. But the reverse is also true: Restoring and fostering the old, pre-contact Ojibwe values will also restore and foster the old values of the other Anishinaabe tribes.

The tree may be sick and have lost most of its leaves along the way, its roots are still firmly planted into the earth. What we must do is pause, turn, and look back, and realize that our language used to be the vital sap that ran through every branch and leaf of the tree, making it healthy and strong. All we have to do is return to the roots of the strong Indigenous tree we once were, nurture it, and make it grow tall and beautiful again...

Nahaaw. Weweni onjida gibizindaw noongom. Well, thank you for listening today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! 


Episodes of "Teaching From the tree of Life" series published so far:

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