Little Thunders— Speaking Indian
- Published: November 16, 2020
Whenever I hear an Elder speak our traditional Ojibwe language, known as anishinaabemowin, my eyes fill with tears. I become overwhelmed with emotion. I’m told that tears are the ancestors coming to visit and wash my vision to help me heal from historical trauma.
My dad used to “speak Indian” when I was a girl — that is what he called it when he would say an Ojibwe word or two here or there. “Listen to the a-ni-mi-ki (thunder), my girl. That is how you know the gi-tchi man-ito (spirits) are here.” He’d look at me questioning as if to say there is so much more behind each word — a story, a history. Dad didn’t speak Indian very often though. He was a part of the “sixties scoop,” a horrific time in recent history. Native Americans and First Nations children like my dad were stolen or “scooped up” from their families and communities for placement into “Christian” foster care or boarding schools. It was a part of the “kill the Indian, save the man” legislation that is still felt to this day.
Thousands and thousands of Indigenous children lost their names, their languages and a connection to their heritage. Sadly, many were also abused and made to feel ashamed of who they were, and many children didn’t survive. As for my own father — and his siblings — his hair was cut, his language stripped, he was beaten and made to work at the age of 10. The way he tells it, he chose not to speak for an entire year after his “adoption.” My dad was emancipated at the age of 16, went on to finish high school, got married and had a family, but is still not over the trauma — and neither am I.
Every lashing a child had to endure when they spoke their language is a fire spark in my belly to regain what was taken. Much of that fire has to do with forgiveness. I forgive my parents for not teaching me my language as a child. After all, they were protecting us from a world that was not accepting of our culture. So much so that our language, regalia, dance, drumming and ceremony were illegal. It was a long period of painful silence. The English words trained my mind. But even so, I refused to believe that the Indian in me had been killed.
When I was in the third grade we experienced some relief from the silence when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. The 1978 Act allowed us to “exercise traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” In our area, many languages were restored to legality as well.
When I was born, my parents gave me an English name to hide me among the Americans: Jennifer. My middle name was given to me as who I am, and was hidden: Waaseyaaban (in the clear light of Dawn). When I hear that name spoken now, it sounds like clarity, and it sounds alive. Every little step that I take toward healing my family is healing myself. I am the continuation of those who came before me. My hands continue my ancestors’ work, my heart carries their love, and my voice continues to sing and speak the truth of their stories.
November is Native American Heritage Month — and there is much to celebrate. The fact that Native people are still here, some thriving, and the fact that we are proud of who we are gives me hope. When I dream at night, it is that I might finally be able to “speak Indian” in the words of the old ones and continue to reawaken our Indigenous ways.
The writer is a board member of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition and will be speaking at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Nov. 21. She is also the Director of Strategic Partnership at Community Solutions and welcomes calls at 937-767-2161 and emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.