Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories

Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories

by Anton Treuer

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A language carries a people's memories, whether they are recounted as individual reminiscences, as communal history, or as humorous tales. This collection of stories from Anishinaabe elders offers a history of a people at the same time that it seeks to preserve the language of that people.As fluent speakers of Ojibwe grow older, the community questions whether younger…  See more details below


A language carries a people's memories, whether they are recounted as individual reminiscences, as communal history, or as humorous tales. This collection of stories from Anishinaabe elders offers a history of a people at the same time that it seeks to preserve the language of that people.As fluent speakers of Ojibwe grow older, the community questions whether younger speakers know the language well enough to pass it on to the next generation. Young and old alike are making widespread efforts to preserve the Ojibwe language, and, as part of this campaign, Anton Treuer has collected stories from Anishinaabe elders living at Leech Lake, White Earth, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, and St. Croix reservations. Based on interviews Treuer conducted with ten elders--Archie Mosay, Jim Clark, Melvin Eagle, Joe Auginaush, Collins Oakgrove, Emma Fisher, Scott Headbird, Susan Jackson, Hartley White, and Porky White--this anthology presents the elders' stories transcribed in Ojibwe with English translation on facing pages. These stories contain a wealth of information, including oral histories of the Anishinaabe people and personal reminiscences, educational tales, and humorous anecdotes. Treuer's translations of these stories preserve the speakers' personalities, allowing their voices to emerge from the page. Treuer introduces each speaker, offering a brief biography and noting important details concerning dialect or themes; he then allows the stories to speak for themselves. This dual-language text will prove instructive for those interested in Ojibwe language and culture, while the stories themselves offer the gift of a living language and the history of a people.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This substantial volume presents a rich and varied collection of tales from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) tradition while also integrating material from associated Algonquian tribes who migrated westward for centuries before European contact. Ten Indian elders from the northwestern United States and Canada provide narratives in their native language, with English translations appearing on the facing pages. Each participant is profiled, and his contributions (assembled over several years) follow in numbered paragraphs. These contributions present various aspects of Ojibwe daily life, including fishing, maple sugaring, ricing, devilish childhood tricks, religious ceremonies, and more. Drawn from both printed and oral sources, the stories are meticulously and sensitively translated and annotated, giving shape, form, and nuance to a fragile, almost extinct civilization. This preservation project will be a vital addition to Native American lore and is certain to be treasured by comprehensive collections in special and academic libraries. Richard K. Burns, MSLS, Hatboro, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Minnesota Historical Society Press
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Native Voices Ser.
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Living Our Language
Ojibwe Tales & Oral Histories

Copyright © 2001

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-404-0

Chapter One Inaandagokaag Balsam Lake (St. Croix)

Archie Mosay

ARCHIE MOSAY (1901-1996), whose Indian name was Niibaa-giizhig (Sleeping Sky or Evening Sky), was a man whose influence transcended his many titles. Medicine man, Midewakiwenzii, Chief, Boss, Healer, Speaker, Religious Leader, Spiritual Advisor, Grandpa, Dad, Friend: he was all of these things and many more. The 1,200 people who paid their respects at his funeral represent a mere fraction of the lives he touched so deeply.

Archie Mosay's parents did not send him to school after the second grade, choosing instead to keep him home and to instruct him in the art and rituals of traditional Indian religious leadership. This lack of education in the Western tradition enabled him to learn more about Ojibwe culture than most of his peers.

Born in a wiigiwaam on August 20, 1901, near Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, Archie was raised in a traditional Indian community. He was known only by his Indian name. The name "Archie" was given to him as a teenager when he went to work as a farm hand. The white wife of his employer was shocked to learn that he had no English name. When he returned to the farmhouse for lunch one day, she told him, "I have a name for you-'Archie.'" Niibaa-giizhig liked his new name and carried it with pride throughout the rest of his years.

Life was filled with hardships for Archie's family during his youth. In 1918 a flu epidemic ravaged the Ojibwe communities along the St. Croix River, taking Archie's maternal grandmother and his two siblings in one night. Archie's first wife and first child died of tuberculosis. In spite of these sorrows, Archie rebounded, remarried, and fathered eight more children.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Archie was instructed not only in ancient Ojibwe lifeways, but also in the complicated rituals of ceremonial leadership. At the age of twelve, he became Oshkaabewis (Messenger) in the Midewiwin (Medicine Lodge). In this position, he began to learn the complicated procedures and detailed legends essential to the ceremonies he would conduct later in his life. A skilled medicine man, Archie knew hundreds of plants and trees used for different types of healing, and he eagerly shared this wisdom with his children. He knew many ancient secrets for hunting and fishing, including the elaborate rituals of bear hunting. He was also well acquainted with the art of making bows and traditional Ojibwe birch-bark canoes.

When Archie's father, Mike Mosay, died in 1971 at the age of 102, the communities of Round Lake and Balsam Lake were in a quandary as to how best to fill the vacuum left by his death. Mike Mosay had been the Grand Chief of the St. Croix Band and a central spiritual leader of his people. For a few years, the Medicine Dance was not conducted, as the people adjusted to the loss of their ceremonial chief.

In the early 1970s, an Ojibwe man from Round Lake approached Archie, offered him tobacco, and told him that his daughter would die if she could not be initiated into the Midewiwin. He begged Archie to help his girl, and eventually Archie acquiesced. Archie healed the man's daughter and revived his father's Midewiwin. From that point on, Archie assumed his father's role in presiding over the Medicine Dance and speaking at Big Drum Ceremonies. Initially, John Stone of Lac Courte Oreilles and other Ojibwe spiritual leaders from Wisconsin and Minnesota helped Archie conduct his ceremonies. As time went on and other leaders died, Archie carried on the work alone, and increasing numbers of people traveled from other Ojibwe communities to participate in ceremonies at Round Lake and at Balsam Lake.

Shortly after his father's death, Archie also assumed the honored position of Grand Chief of the St. Croix Ojibwe. The position had been in the family for several generations, and Archie carried the feather war bonnet and 1789 United States peace medallion, which had been passed on through his father, as proud symbols of that title and position.

In all of his spiritual work, Archie used his first language, the only language he knew until a teenager, and, according to him, the only language intended for Ojibwe prayer-anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language. One day, Archie stepped outside of his ceremonial Medicine Lodge to lecture his helpers, saying, "I can't use English in there. The Spirit doesn't understand me when I use English." This perspective also explains Archie's focus on the importance of keeping the Ojibwe language alive. Without the language, there is no Midewiwin, no Big Drum, no Jiisakaan (Shake Tent Ceremony). Without the Ojibwe language, there is no Ojibwe culture.

At various times Archie fed his family by hunting and fishing and by working as a groundskeeper at Balsam Lake resorts and as a mason and a rations plant worker during World War II. For the bulk of his working years-thirty-four to be exact-Archie worked for the Polk County Highway Department. However, as often happens with Indian elders, Archie in his retirement was more active than in his working years. His new work included counseling people recovering from alcohol addiction at the Ain-Dah-Ing (Endaayang) Half Way House in Spooner, Wisconsin. Throughout his ninety-four years on earth, Archie Mosay had never used alcohol, a practice to which he attributed his good health and long life. Traveling frequently to conduct various ceremonies and to speak at pow-wows and conferences, Archie became a true servant of the Spirit-working hard for his people until his last day on earth.

At age ninety-four, Archie was still independent, driving himself and living alone. His children looked after him, bringing food to his house and washing his clothes, but Archie lived his own life every day, never residing in a nursing home. He died in 1996.

Thousands of people approached Archie over the years-from his maternal grandmother's reservation, Lac Courte Oreilles, from his father's place of origin, Mille Lacs, and from many other places as well. Archie gave hundreds of people their Indian names. He initiated over a thousand people into the Medicine Lodge. He spoke at countless pipe ceremonies and Big Drum feasts.

Archie's stories collected here are rich and varied. Archie remembered the first time he saw a car and the first time he saw a black man. He remembered what it was like when his children were born in wiigiwaams. He also recalled how Ojibwe people traveled long distances on foot to participate in the Medicine Dance at other communities. Frequently his family walked to Lac Courte Oreilles for this purpose, a one-way journey of three days on foot. His father journeyed by foot from Mille Lacs to Balsam Lake, six days round trip, in order to court Archie's mother. Archie also remembered hunting in the St. Croix River Valley's tall pine forests before logging decimated them-trees so large and canopies so dense that no other plant life grew on the forest floor and one could walk on the pine needles more quietly than on pavement. All these stories as well as several jokes and remembrances are included in this collection.

The stories presented here were usually recorded at the home of Archie Mosay. Sometimes I would arrange special trips to visit Archie for this purpose. More often, we would record a few stories before or after a ceremonial event that had brought me to Balsam Lake, such as the naming ceremony for my daughter, a funeral, a drum ceremony, or a Medicine Dance. The story "Mii Sa Iw" was written down through dictation. All others were recorded and then transcribed. Archie died before the transcription work was complete. For this reason, the titles for all of the stories presented here are of my creation. They are usually derived from lines in the stories themselves, but they are not part of the oral tradition they label. They are used here for ease of reading and differentiating stories. In the process of translating stories and selecting titles, I consulted Archie's friends and family members as well as Ojibwe linguist Earl Otchingwanigan.

Usually, Archie selected the topics for discussion or the stories he wished to tell. Occasionally, one of his daughters or I would encourage him to share a story we had heard him tell before. In all cases, however, Archie, his daughter Dora Ammann, and I were careful to choose topics appropriate for recording and publication. No sacred legends from the Midewiwin were ever recorded. Archie always strictly maintained that those stories could only be learned in the Medicine Lodge itself and that they had to be passed on through oral tradition, without the aid of modern technology.

Archie's dialect of Ojibwe differs somewhat from that of most other speakers in this book. Although two of Archie's grandparents were from East Lake, his language was more heavily influenced by his grandmother from Lac Courte Oreilles and his grandfather from Balsam Lake. Thus, Archie uses zaaga'egan for "lake" where most speakers of Minnesota Ojibwe use zaaga'igan. In addition, aniw is used in place of iniw. Archie also seemed to prefer using the first to third person conjunct transitive animate verb paradigm -agig rather than -agwaa: for example, waabamagig (when I see them) rather than waabamagwaa (when I see them). These forms are used by many speakers interchangeably, but the patterns of Archie's language usage and pronunciation are noteworthy. Archie and his contemporaries wanted all dialects of the Ojibwe language to survive. Differences are to be celebrated rather than denigrated.


[1] Akawe niwii-tibaajim o'ow gaa-izhiwebiziyaan o'ow isa gii-oshki-bimaadiziyaan. Gaawiin ingikendanziin aandi gaa-tazhi-ondaadiziyaan-gemaa gaye wiigiwaaming gaa-tazhi-ondaadiziwaanen gemaa gaye nisawa'ogaaning gemaa gaye iwidi ingoji megwekob gemaa gaye. Mii iwidi gaa-tazhi-ondaadiziwaambaanen.

[2] Baanimaa ashi-niiyo-biboonagiziyaan, mii apii waakaa'igaans noosiban gaa-ozhitood. Mii apii gii-ayaayaang. Ishkweyaang, mii apane wiigiwaaming ingii-taamin. Mii dash imaa gaa-tazhi-nitaawigiyaan imaa, imaa sa Inaandagokaag ezhinikaadeg. Mewinzha ingii-tazhi-ondaadiz. Ingitiziimag igaye imaa ginwenzh omaa gii-tanakiiwag, nayenzh igo.

[3] Noosiban, iwidi sa Misi-zaaga'iganiing ezhinikaadeg, mii iwidi gaa-tazhi-ondaadizid a'aw noosiban. Mii dash imaa, miish imaa midaaswi-ashi-zhaangaso-biboonagizid, mii imaa gii-wiidigemaad nimaamaayibanen. Miish omaa gii-ayaad biinish gii-maajaad. Miinawaa onow oniijaanisan gii-shaangachiwan oniijaanisan, ingitiziimag.

Mii Gaa-pi-izhichigewaad Mewinzha

[1] Boozhoo anishinaabedog! Akawe niwii-tibaajim o'ow isa ayindiyaan ishkweyaang gii-oshki-bimaadiziyaan. Gaawiin indaa-gikendanziin dibi gaa-tazhi-ondaadiziwaanen-gemaa gaye wiigiwaaming gemaa gaye nisawa'ogaaning gemaa gaye iwidi ingoji megwekob gemaa gaye. Mii iwidi gaa-tazhi-ondaadiziwaad aanind anishinaabeg ishkweyaang.

[2] Ganabaj gii-ashi-niiyo-biboonagiziyaan, mii bijiinag apii gaa-piindigeyaan ayi'ii waakaa'igaans indedeyiban gaaozhitood. Mii eta go wiigiwaaming gii-ayaayaang bebiboon. Miinawaa wa'aw ingitiziimag iwidi Odaawaa-zaaga'eganiing izhinikaadeg, mii iwidi nimaamaayiban gaa-tazhi-ondaadizid. Imaa o'ow, aya'aa Aanakwad ezhinikaazod anishinaabe, iwidi gaa-tanakiiwaad. Miish iwidi ingoji gaa-tazhiondaadiziwagobanen a'aw nimaamaayiban aya'aa Neweyaash akiwenzii gii-izhinikaazowan odedeyan. O'ow dash nimaamaa onaabeman gaa-wiidigemaajin ishkweyaang a'aw mindimooyenh gii-izhinikaazod.

Where We Were Born

[1] First of all, I am going to talk about what happened with me when I was young. I don't know where I was born-in a bark lodge, or maybe I was born in a lodge with a peaked roof, or maybe somewhere in the woods. That's where I must have been born.

[2] Later on, when I was fourteen years old, my father made a house. We stayed there at that time. Before that we had always lived in bark lodges. Then I was born there, there at Balsam Lake as it's called. I was born a long time ago. And both of my parents lived here for a long time.

[3] My father, he was born over there at Mille Lacs as it is called. Then, when he was nineteen years old, there he married my mother. Then he stayed here until he left [for the spirit world]. And my parents had nine children.

What They Did Long Ago

[1] Hello Indians! First of all I want to talk about how things were with me in former times when I was young. I can't know where I must have been born-in a bark lodge or a lodge with a peaked roof or somewhere out there in the bush. In former times some Indians were born out there.

[2] Maybe when I was fourteen, that was the first time I went inside a house my father had built. We had only been in bark lodges each winter. And this one of my parents, over there at Lac Courte Oreilles as it is called, my mother was born over there. There with that Indian named Aanakwad, they lived over there. Then over there somewhere they must have been born, my mother and the old man Neweyaash as her father was called. And my mother's husband she had married long ago, this old woman as she was called.

[3] Mayaajaanid sa onow onaabeman, miish imaa neyaab Inaandagokaag gaa-pi-izhi-goziwaad. Mii dash imaa gaa-tanakiiwaad, gaa-tazhi-gonaadizid a'aw nookomisiban, nimaamaayiban igaye wiiba go gaawiin aapiji mewinzha gaa-ako-bimaadizid. Miinawaa a'aw isa noosiban, iwidi Misi-zaaga'eganiing ezhinikaadeg, mii imaa gaa-tazhi-ondaadizid. Imaa dash Inaandagokaag, imaa gii-wiidigemaad iniw nimaamaayibanen. Midaaswi-ashi-zhaangaso-biboonagizid, mii apii imaa gaa-wiidigemaad nimaamaayibanen.

[4] Mii dash gaye niin imaa gaa-onji-maajiishkaayaan wendaadiziyaan. Waakaa'igaans ogii-ozhitoon imaa a'aw noosiban. Mii imaa gii-ayaayaang.

[5] Gaye dash o'ow isa ziigwang, o'ow apiitak, mii apii mewinzha anishinaabe gii-kozid noopiming izhi-gozi, gii-ozhitood o'ow, o'ow isa ziinzibaakwad mitigong ininigaadeg zhiiwaagamizigan. Mii gaa-ozhitoowaad. Mii iwidi gaataawaad, gaawiin waasa-gemaa gaye naano-diba'igan o'ow apii iwidi ingoji megwaayaak. Mii iwidi gaa-taawaad iskigamizigewaad.

[6] Mii miinawaa ishkwaa-iskigamizigewaad, miish imaa jiigibiig zaaga'eganiing Inaandagokaag, mii imaa gii-kabeshiwaad. Noongom miinawaa imaa gii-kabeshiwag gii-noojigiigoonyiwewaad waaswaawaad, ashiganan aajigwaawaad. Mii imaa gaa-tanakiid wa'aw, gaa-onji-bimaadizid a'aw anishinaabe mewinzha.

[7] Mii miinawaa giiwegoziwaad. Mii dash zhayiigwa gii-ozhiitaawaad o'ow isa gii-midewid anishinaabe. Akina ingoji gii-midewi aw anishinaabe-Odaawaa-zaaga'eganiing, miinawaa a'aw Waaswaaganing, miinawaa Mashkii-ziibiing, miinawaa iwidi Dewegishigamiing. Namanj ezhinikaadegwen i'iw, anishinaabewinikaadeg iwidi ishkonigan. Miinawaa go omaa ayi'iing gaye Wekonamindaawagaansing izhinikaadeg, miinawaa iwidi Metaawangaag, Bikoganaaganing-mii imaa gii-midewiwaad iko ingiw anishinaabeg mewinzha.

[8] Mii miinawaa ishkwaa-midewiwaad, mii dash miinawaa gii-sagaswe'idiwaad o'ow baakibii'ang o'ow zaaga'eganiing; gii-asemaakewaad onji-naanaagadawenimigoowaad manidoon imaa wenjishkaawaaniwenijin.

[9] Mii miinawaa ishkwaa-zagaswe'idiwaad, mii dash miinawaa

[3] When her husband left [for the spirit world], then she moved back there to Balsam Lake. Then they lived there, my grandmother who had spent her entire life there and my mother who had come to live there not so very long ago. And my father, over there at Mille Lacs as it's called, that's where he was born. And there at Balsam Lake, there he married my mother. When he was nineteen years old, at that time he married my mother there.

[4] And that's where my own life began when I was born. My father built a house there. We were right there.


Excerpted from Living Our Language
Copyright © 2001 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Anton Treur is a member of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe and assistant professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota. He is editor of the only academic journal on the Ojibwe language, Oshkaabewis Native Journal, and author of Omaa Akiing, a collection of Ojibwe tales from Leech Lake elders.

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