What is Ojibwe Literature?
Introductory Comments by David Thorstad
A while ago, I asked Ojibwe professor and author Anton Treuer to address the question "What is Ojibwe literature?" The answer is not necessarily obvious, and, as in so many other things involving Ojibwe language and culture, has several dimensions. There is no universal agreement, and even some controversy, among Ojibwe authors and spiritual leaders as to whether certain stories should even be written down, but rather left to their oral life in the context of the ceremonies they are part of. In this regard, Tony mentions the book by Edward Benton-Banai, The Mishomis Book, which describes Ojibwe myths and spiritual beliefs. The book is being republished by the University of Minnesota Press.
I transcribed Tony's commentary, as well as the English translation. Both are attached. I knew my transcription of the Ojibwe was riddled with errors, and Tony has graciously corrected them here. I pass them along because even those who don't know Ojibwe will surely find the English version interesting.
Thanks, Tony, for taking the trouble to put my transcription into proper Ojibwe. Two books by Tony have recently been published by the Minnesota Historical Society: Ojibwe in Minnesota and The Assassination of Hole in the Day.
Anton Treuer on Ojibwe Literature
Ahaaw. Ningii-kagwejimigoo wa’aw niiji omaa weweni sa ji-gigidoyaan nawaj ajina ojibwemong, da-ganoodaman o’ow isa gaa-izhichiged anishinaabe mewinzha gii-tibaajimod, miinawaa izhichiged noongom ezhi-dibaajimod, adizooked, miinawaa go ge-izhi-ozhibii’iged a’aw anishinaabe. Kawe dash niminwendaan aapiji o’o isa inenimigod doodoodamaan; apegish wii-naadamaagemagak weweni sa da-nanda-gikendaagwak gaye o’ow isa gidinwewininaan. Indapiitendaan aapijii. Nimikwendaan igo gegaa gii-wiindamawishiwaad aanind ingiw isa nawaj gekendaasojig. Giishpin wiikaa wanising, wanitooyang gidinwewininaan, booch giga-wanishinimin anishinaabewiyang. Miinawaa giishpin wii-anishinaabewiyang nawaj awashime zhaaganaashiiwiyang, gidaa-aabajitoomin yo’ow isa anishinaabemowin nawaj awashime aabajitooyang zhaaganaashimowin. Mii wenji-apiitendamaan yo’ow isa izhichiged.
Kawe dash weweni sa niwii-kanoodan gegoo gaa-izhichigewaad ingiw anishishinaabeg mewinzha wayeshkad. Geget sa, gii-azidookewag, memindage ani-biboong. Mii keyaa gaa-izhi-ganoodamowaad gegoo gaa-ezhiwebak mewinzha, miinawaa go ge gaa-izhi-azidookewaad, jibaapi’ing, miinawaa go ge weweni sa daa-gikinoo’amaaging. Mii o’ gaa-onji-azidookewag. Noongom dash geyaabi go azidookewag weweni sa da-baapiyang, miinawaa go ge nawaj da-gikinoo’amaageng, miinawaa sa go ge weweni daa-ganoodamowaad gegoo gaa-izhiwebak mewinzha. Kawe dash anooj igo gegoo geyaabi izhichigewag ingiw anishinaabeg noongom—dibaajimowag geyaabi—miinawaa go ge ozhibii’igewag, anooj dino ozhibii’igewinan. Geget sa onizhishin, nindinendam, ge-ozhibii’igewaad igo anishinaabeg, memindage giishpin aabajitooyaad i’iw anishinaabemowin. Mii ke a nawaj weweni sa waa-izhi-naadamaagemagak weweni sa da-aabadak miinawaa da-bimaadiziiwinagak ayi’ii o’ow isa anishinaabemowin. Mii o’ow wenji-minwendamaan.
Miinawaa anooj izhichigeyaang, ongow anishinaabeg ishkweyaang, anishinaabe gaawiin ogii-ozhibii’anziin yo’ow isa gidinwewininaan. Ogii-aabajitoonaawaa wiigwaas aangodinong. Miinawaa sa gaa-izhi-doodamowaad anooj igo gegoo omaa weweni sa daa-gikendaagwak gegoo ayi’iin. Gaawiin dash inwewin ogii-ozhibii’inziinaawaa.
Noongom dash ozhibii’igewag anishinaabemong mazina’iganing— miinawaa giishpin wiikaa anishinaabe inendang gegoo waa-izhi-ozhibii’ang gegoo dibaajimowinan, da-baaping, da-gikinoo’amaageng, nawaj da-gikendaawak inwewininan—booch onizhishin. Idash giishpin wiikaa aabajitoosiwang io anishinaabemowin, mii inendamaan, mii i’iw dino zhaaganaashii-dibaajimowin. Miinawaa giishpin aabadak o’ow isa anishinaabemowin, mii i’iw dino anishinaabemowin. Mii i’iw inendamaan. Aangodinong aanind anishinaabeg odaabajitoonaawaa zhaaganaashiimowin izhi-ozhibii’igewaad, miinawaa owiindaanaawaa anishinaabe-dibaajimowin, anishinaabe-ozhibii’igewin. Gaawiin dash indinendanziin. Mii ow keyaa gaa-ozhibii’ang zhaaganaash, mii ow keyaa, mii i’iw inwewin gaa-aabajitood zhaaganaash, miinawaa zhaananaashii-ozhibii’igewin indinendaan. Weweni sa gidaa-mikwendaamin weweni sa da-apiitendamaang gidinwewininaan. Weweni sa go ge giishpin aabadak bakaan inwewin, gegoo izhi-aanji-aayaamagak, bakaan inendam anishinaabe anishinaabemong. Miinawaa go ge giishpin aabadak i’iw zhaaganaashiimowin, bakaan da-inendaagwad. Miinawaa sa nawaj da-wenipanad wii-paaping anooj gegoo omaa anishinaabemong, miinawaa anooj dino gikinoo’amaadiwinan atewan imaa inweng anishinaabe. Mii ow wenji-aabajitooyeg, miinawaa go ge izhi-inendaagwak i’iw anishinaabe-ozhibii’igewin.
Weweni go ge aanind anishinaabeg noongom gaawiin gakina ogikendanziinaawaa anishinaabe-inwewin, mii iw wenji-inendamowaad niibowa “indanishinaabew’,” miinawaa “indoozhibii’ige,” mii o’ow anishinaabe-ozhibii’igewin. Gaawiin dash gwayak, indinendam. Geget sa zhaaganaashiimowin, zhaaganaashii-inendamowin, giishpin ozhibii’ang gegoo zhaaganaashiimong. Mii wenji-apiitendaagwak. Weweni sa gaa-aabajitooyang zhaaganaashiimowin, gaawiin anishinaabemowin izhichigeyang. Weweni go kawe onizhishin giishpin anishinaabeg nawaj weweni waa-ozhibii’amowaad gegoo.
Dibishkoo go aya’aa Baadwewidang ezhinikaazod ogii-ozhibii’an iw isa mazina’igaans, Mishoomis mazina’igaans ezhinikaadeg. Miinawaa go ge ogii-gagwe-ozhibii’an anooj igo gegoo anishinaabe-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan, idash izhi-ganoodang anishinaabe-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan odoodan iw isa imaa zhaaganaashiimong. Mii i’iw zhaaganaashii-ozhibii’igewin genoodaagwak dash anooj igo anishinaabe-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan. Miinawaa enda-wiindamaage, aanind anishinaabeg go ominwendaanaawaa iw isa ozhibii’an, aanind dash gaawiin ominwendaanziinaawaa. Miinawaa sa inendamoog onow isa anishinaabe-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan atewan imaa aadizookaaning. Miinawaa go ge dawaaj anishinaabe waa-izhi-dazhindamowaad ezhichigewaad gegoo omaa Midewing gemaa dewe’iganing. Gaawiin ganabaj gidaa-omaada’adoosiimin imaa mazina’iganing. Mii ow izhi-inenendamowaad. Niin dash wii-indinendamaan giishpin gichi-aya’aag mesawendamowaad ozhibii’igewaad, booch ge wiinawaa waa-izhichigewaad ozhibii’amowaad.
Idash weweni gidaa-ozhibii’aamin anooj igo gegoo, weweni sa da-gikendaagwak anishinaabe-inwewin miinawaa anishinaabe-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan. Idash aanind, gaawiin niin indoozhibii’anziin dibishkoo go Mide-gikinoo’amaadiiwinan. Gaawiin niin indoozhibii’anziin. Ingii-pi-wiindamaagoa gaa-nind igo akiwenzii agaawiidagmodwaa, “Gego sa na ozhibii’angen. Mii owenji-toodamaan o’ow. Mii eta go izhi-ganoodaagwak dibaajimoyang aadizookeyang imaa izhichigeyang gegoo.” Mii i’iw izhichigeng.
Weweni sa go ge indaa-wiindamaage, weweni sa onizhishin anishinaabe izhi-aabajitood o’ow mazinaabikiwebinigan, miinawaa go ge giishpin ozhibii’imowaad mii onow isa mazina’iganan, weweni sa ji-aabadak da-gikinoo’amaagemagak o’ow isa gidinwewininaan, miinawaa go ge gidinendamowininaan, weweni sa nawaj da-nisidotaagwak. Niibowa ongow anishinaabeg wanishinoog, gaawiin gikenindizosiiwag anishinaabewiwaad. Miinawaa giishpin ginoodamang o’ow isa epiitendamang weweni sa nawaj daa-gikenindizosiiwag anishinaabewiwaad, miinawaa sa da-nadaamaagemagad. Mii waa-izhi-wiinadmaageyaon o’ow apii akawe.
What Is Ojibwe Literature by Anton Treuer
OK. I have been asked by my friend here to speak for a little while, to speak in and about the language, and to speak about Ojibwe literature. [Here I’m using the words dibaajimo, pertaining to any kind of storytelling, and also the words aadizookewin, which is traditional storytelling and telling of legends; dibaajimowin, which is regular storytelling; and ozhibii’igewin, which is any kind of writing and how the Indian used to write.] And I’m very happy to be thought of to do this and I hope that it helps to expand the understanding of our language, which I hold in high regard. And I’m remembering something that people older and wiser than me have told me. If we ever lose our language, or our language is lost, we as Native people will become lost. And if we want to be Indians first and foremost, and we want to be Indians more so than we are Englishmen, then we should use our Native language more so than we use our English language. This is why I hold in high regard what he [David] is doing.
I’m going to speak about something Indians used to do long ago. They used to tell legends, especially in the winter. Indians told their legends in the wintertime for entertainment, jibaapi’ing, for laughter, and for teaching, and to talk about history. That’s why they told legends. Today, they still tell legends, aadizookewag, for teaching, to talk about things that have happened in the past, history. They also tell other types of stories, dibaajimowag, and they do different kinds of writing. I think this is good, that Indians are writing things out, especially as they use the Indian language. I think it could make a contribution for the language to be used and better understood. That’s why I like it.
In former times, Indians didn’t write things down. They used birch bark, and they did a variety of things with the birch bark. They were mnemonic devices, and not a written language per se.
And as writing is used today—for stories, for entertainment, for literature, for explorations of the language—I think all of these are good. But if we don’t use Indian language, then it is actually a form of English literature. If it’s in the language, then it’s some variety of Native literature. Some Indian people are writing in the English language and calling it Indian literature. I don’t think so. But I feel that this is actually a variety of English literature. The language defines the literature. And if a different type of language is used, something changes. And if the English language is used, there’s a different way of thinking in that language. There are different understandings, and different teachings, that are embedded in the language. And that’s how it’s thought of.
There are many Native people who don’t know their Native language, and so it’s normal for them to think, “Indianishinaabew’, I’m Indian, indozhibii’ige, I’m writing, so this is Indian writing.” Not exactly right, in my thinking. In writing in English language, they’re thinking in English language. So I think it’s important that we try to use our Native language in our Native literary forms. And I think it’s good if Indians want to write more things down in the Indian language.
Now, I’ll talk about this Mishomis book by Baadwewidang (that’s the name of Eddie Benton. Baadwewidang’s his Indian name, Sounding Voice). He’s tried to write down a number of Indian teachings, but the book itself is written down in English. So, it’s the English writing that talks about Indian teachings. Some Indians look favorably upon this, and some do not. Some Native people believe that the teachings in that book properly belong in their cultural context—aadizookaanig—so they’re part of a story that is told only at certain times for ceremonial purposes. Some of those people feel that those teachings are best [dawaaj] used at Midewiwin or at drum ceremony. And they feel that we shouldn’t share them in a book. That’s what they think. It’s my thinking that it should be up to the elders who have these teachings to decide what they feel should or should not be written down.
I feel that a variety of things can and should be written down to advance our understanding and knowledge of the language and the teachings. But I myself do not write down certain things: Mide teachings. I was told by a number of elders that I worked with not to do that: “Don’t write that.” It should only be talked about when we’re actually doing the ceremony itself.
And I should also say that I think it’s good that we’re using computers, making books, and using these things to teach the language and our philosophy, to make it better understood. There are many Native people today who are lost, who don’t know themselves as Native people. And so I hold it in high regard that we are trying to share these things with all of our fellow Native people.