I was 24 when the first Ojibway word rolled off my tongue. It felt all round and rolling, not like the spiky sound of English with all those hard-edged consonants. When I said it aloud, I felt like I’d really truly spoken for the first time in my life.
I was a toddler when I was removed from my family and if I spoke Ojibway at all then, it was baby talk and the language never had a chance to sit in me and grow. English became my prime language and even though I developed an ease and facility with it, there was always something lacking. It never really quite felt real, valid even. It was like a hazy memory that never quite reaches clarity and that leaves you puzzled whenever it arises.
When that first Ojibway word floated out from between my teeth, I understood.You see, that first word opened the door to my culture. When I spoke it I stepped over the threshold into an entirely new way of understanding myself and my place in the world. Until then I had been almost like a guest in my own life, standing around waiting for someone or something to explain things for me. That one word made me an inhabitant.
It was peendigaen. Come in. Peendigaen, spoken with an outstretched hand and a rolling of the wrist. Beckoning. Come in. Welcome. This is where you belong. I had never encountered an English word that had that resonance — one that could change things so completely.
It was awkward at first. There’s a softness to the language that’s off-putting when you first begin to speak it. It’s almost as if timelessness had a vocabulary. With each enunciation the word gained strength, clarity and I got the feeling that I was speaking a language that had existed for longer than any the world has known. This one had never been adapted to become other languages like English had evolved from Germanic tongues.
Instead, the feeling of Ojibway in my throat was permanence. I stood on ground I had never encountered before, an unknown territory whose sweep was compelling and uplifting and full. Peendigaen. Come in. And I walked fully into the world of my people for the first time.
After that I learned more words. Then I struggled to put whole sentences together. I made a lot of mistakes. I was used to the English process of talk and I created sentences that were mispronounced and wrong. People laughed when they heard me and I understood what cultural embarrassment could feel like. It made me feel like quitting, like English could spare me the laughter of my people.
Then I heard a wise woman talk at a conference. She spoke of being removed from her culture, unplugged from it, disconnected and set aside like an old toaster. But she was always a toaster and the day came when someone plugged her back in and the electricity flowed. She became functional again – and the tool of her reawakening was her language.
She spoke of the struggle to relearn her talk. She spoke of the same embarrassment I felt and the feeling of being an oddity amongst her own. She spoke of the difficulty in getting past the cultural shame and reaching out for her talk with every fiber of her being. And she spoke of the warm wash of the language on the hurts she’d carried all her life, how the soft roll of the talk was like a balm for her spirit.
Then she spoke of prayer.
Praying in her language was like having the ear of Creator for the first time. She felt heard and blessed and healed. It wasn’t much, she said. Just a few words of gratitude like prayers should be but the words went outward from her and became a part of the whole, a portion of the great sacred breath of Creation again. She understood then, she said, that our talk is sacred and to speak it is the way we reconnect to our sacredness.
We owe it to others to pass it on. That was the other thing she said. If we have even one word of our talk, if that’s all we know, then we have a responsibility to pass it on to our children and those who have had it removed from them. You learn to speak for them. You learn to speak to function as a tool for someone else’s reconnection. I have never forgotten that.
These days I’m far from fluent and I still spend far more time using English but the Ojibway talk sits there in the middle of my chest like a hope and when I use it, in a prayer, in a greeting, in a talk somewhere, I feel the same sensation as I did with that first word at 24 – the feeling of being ushered in, of welcome, of familiarity and belonging.
An English word I admire is reclaim. It means to bring back, to return to a proper course. When I learned to speak Ojibway I reclaimed a huge part of myself. It wasn’t lost, I always owned it, it was just adrift on the great sea of influence that is the modern world. And like a mariner lost upon foreign seas, I sought a friendly shore to step out upon and learn to walk again. My language became that shore.
I have an Ojibway name now. I introduce myself with it according to our traditional protocols when I speak somewhere. I can ask important questions in my language. I can greet people in the proper manner and I can pray.
For me, peendigaen, come in, meant I could express myself as who I was created to be, and that’s what this journey is all about – to learn to express yourself as who you were created to be. You don’t need to be a native person to understand that, just human.