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Anishinabaemowin, the language of the Anishinaabae

I agreed to write this article to share some insight into Anishinabaemowin, the language of the Anishinaabae. Most Canadians use Indigenous terms in everyday life without realizing they are doing so.

Indigenous languages are entrenched in Canadian society in the names of places and things. We are in a time of Truth and Reconciliation. The sooner Canadian Society understands the contributions of Indigenous people in developing this great land we now call Canada, the better reconciliation will play out in mutual respect.

First off, the term that we use to self-identify as people, or simply, humans. Anishinaabe is a word that is a derivative of the term. Ogii niisinaan (the creator lowered) ayaa bayn (a being, two-legged). This is part of our creation story. The term we use to greet each other is Boozhoo. Many people think this came from the French term Bonjour. In fact, it is in relation to giving recognition to the first human that was lowered, known as Nanaboozhoo. So, when we greet each other, we say Boozhoo to remind each other of our origins and the first two-legged that were lowered.

There is the name Canada, which colonial historians suspect is a term of the Huron-Iroquois people (Kanata), which means village. As Anishinaabae, we have our own version of how this land came to be known as Canada. There was a time when the Anishinaabae people lived along the east coast close to their relatives, the Mi’kmaq. We were witness to the arrival of the white man to our eastern shores, which had been prophesized. We were in the treeline of the beachfront when we saw the floating Island arrive and the smaller boats make their way to shore. So, in Anishinabaemowin, we started to whisper to each other in relay, Kaa naa dah, (hide this person) kaa naa dah (hide this person). The story goes that we had a particularly odd-looking fellow amongst us, and we feared that if these newcomers saw him first, they would assume that was how we all looked. As the newcomers hit our shores, they could hear our whispers in the tree line, then assumed that we were welcoming them with the announcement of the name of these new lands as Canada.

Then we have the names of places like Manitoba. Proper pronunciation: Manidoo bah is the place where the creator sat. This is referencing a sacred site in the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Currently, it is known as Bannock Point, where Petro Forms are thousands of years old. It is also considered the centre of North America, which we call Miikinaak (Turtle) Miniis (Island). We then have the capital city of Manitoba, which we call Winnipeg. Proper pronunciation: ween ni beek (the place that has dirty or muddy waters) referencing the high silt content in both the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, which give them their appearance. There is also a street in Winnipeg called Keewatin Ave., proper pronunciation: kee way tin. This means North Wind. It was established back in 1871 on a Dominion Government Road allowance. It was originally known as the 4-mile road. Back when Winnipeg was first establishing itself as a city, it was the trail that led you north out of the city. 

We also have the names of other towns within the province of Manitoba and other provinces that originated in an Indigenous term or phrase. Neepawa is another example. When you enter the town, their welcoming sign states under the name “the land of plenty,” referencing the richness of the area. Proper pronunciation: nee pa wah (there is lots of something). 

We have various provincial parks with Indigenous names, such as Atikaki. Proper pronunciation: Atik (Caribou) Aki (Land) or the place where the caribou live. Nopiming (Bush/forest) provincial park. Numaykoos (lake trout) lake provincial park. Pisew (Lynx) falls provincial park, to name a few. 

Saskatchewan (Kisiskatchewanisipi) is a Cree term referencing the fast-moving waters of what is now known as the Saskatchewan River. In that same province, you have the city Saskatoon which is another Cree word (Mis-Sask-quah-toomina) for the Saskatoon berry, which grows in abundance in the area.

Then there’s Moccasin’s proper pronunciation: (ma-ki-sin) translation, shoe. 

We then have the province of Ontario, which is derived from the Iroquoian word Kanadario which translates into sparkling or shimmering waters.

Another city that has an Indigenous name in origin is Ottawa. A group known as the three fires confederacy consists of the Odawa, Potawatomi and Anishinaabae. The Odawa (oda waake), meaning the traders and/or middlemen during the fur trade, lived in the area of what is now known as Ottawa because of the convergence of the waterways in the area. The term/name Ottawa is the derivative of Odawa.

The Potawatomi (poota- wata meak) references their duty to keep watch over the sacred fire.

Then you have the Shawnee, which are part of the Algonquin peoples and the three fires confederacy nations. Their traditional territories were and are all around the great lakes before the medicine line Canadian/United States border was established. (shaw-wah noh) Translating into the direction of the south, it is referencing that the Shawnee were the southernmost nation amongst the Algonquin peoples. In the tractional governance system, this meant that they had the responsibility of watching over the Southern doorway into our territories. 

We also have the Wabanaki people in what is now Maine. (Wah bun aki) translates into the land of tomorrow or the land of dawn. 

The Anishinaabae term for the United States is Kitchi (Big) Mookoman (knife) aki (land) or “land of the long knives” This is in reference to the Calvary and their sidearm, the Sabe Sword. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the Siouxion gift of the Sundance. 

As Anishinaabae people, our term for Sundance is neeba (night) gway shi mon (to dance) or the dance of the night. I could never figure out why we called a ceremony that is normally conducted over four days from sunrise to sunset the dance of night. It then dawned on me (pardon the pun) that we called it the dance of night in reference to the time frame in this land we now call Canada when the Sundance and Potlatch prohibition laws came into effect from 1884 – 1851. (66 years). This time frame was where Indigenous people, by law, were prohibited from practicing some of their most significant ceremonies and, if caught, could be fined, imprisoned, or both and, at times, executed. 

This caused our people to take our ceremonies underground. Our elders started to conduct these ceremonies deep in the bush and/or on far-off islands, most times under cover of darkness. Even to this day, many of our elders continue to conduct ceremonies in the farthest reaches of our traditional territories because they still carry the memory of when the authorities hunted them down for simply living their lives the only way they knew how and praying in the way they too were taught by their elders and spiritual people. 

We now find ourselves in the era of Truth and Reconciliation. These types of stories need to be shared so Canadians, in fact, all of society, must understand and respect the Indigenous peoples and the many contributions they have made to this great land we now call Canada. 

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