Behind my house, there’s a creek. It’s filled with dark, cold water that reflects the thick and sticky mud-soaked riverbed. There’s a row of short pine trees skirting the creek’s edge, stunted as if they’ve been hammered into the ground until just their tops showed, providing shade that only a child could enjoy. The grass squishes underfoot as you get closer to the water, gulping up each approaching footstep as if it were a thirsty animal. Canary grass and cattails entangle and untangle in a breeze that sends the quaking aspen rocking and whispering against the sky.
I’m ten years old and I come here to catch frogs. It’s an afterschool ritual shared by my closest friends and me. We rush home after the final dismissal bell, toss our backpacks at the bottom of the deck stairs, and sprint to the water, our laughter filling the air like wind chimes. We tiptoe along the shore, through reeds and weeds still crisp from a harsh winter. With endless practice, we’ve learned how to tread lightly so our steps are nearly silent. The water is still, the surface like maple taffy. We know this is a ruse. There’s life bustling below; we need only wake it up. We start slow and low, sound softly rumbling in our throats. Guttural. Glottal. Let it reverberate and then let it fall. Wait a beat until we try again. The sound is both foreign and familiar, one we’ve taught ourselves and learned by ear. Three calls, one response. Then another, timid and quiet, and another and another, until the entire pond is filled with the chirping and croaking of wood frogs and spring peepers. My friends and I share in a thrilled glance before gleefully cheering and shouting our success into the bush that surrounds us.
This is, perhaps, my first remembered experience with the visceral and deep connection we form with land language that isn’t taught but still learned. Every sound we let slip is foreign, filled with words that will remain unknown. And yet we glean some understanding, and there we take pride in a shared mysterious conversation with our amphibian counterparts.
‘Learning to Speak Frog’
There was something about learning to speak frog that felt natural. I never questioned my pronunciation or worried that I sounded silly. The goal was to get the frogs to come out of their hiding spots so we could watch them, not to start up deep discussions. So I made noise and spoke until what I was saying sounded close to what they were saying. It wasn’t perfect, I knew that, but it felt right in my throat and on my tongue, so I let it live.
What I hadn’t realized back then was that I had found a kinship in that animal language. And in some strange way, speaking confidently in what I’m sure was incorrect frog was my first step in rediscovering my own land language.
Anishnaabemowin should be my first language. It should be how I speak to my parents, aunties, and friends. I should be able to use it to talk to elders. I should be able to sing as easily as I know how to swear. But I can’t.
I grew up learning to speak English and French in a school named after the north wind. We all spoke with rez accents, dropping and adding h‘s at leisure. Everyone on the rez spoke English, swore in French, and joked in Anishnaabemowin—or, at least, with what little they knew.
When I was around ten, my school introduced us to Algonquin. My entire class took the lessons for granted. We misbehaved almost every day. All we wanted was to survive that last hour before recess or lunch or dismissal. And why did we need to learn this, anyway? It wasn’t as if there were enough people around who spoke it to make it worth our while. We didn’t see the importance of learning and speaking something that, to us, was dead and gone.
There are fewer than a handful of fluent speakers of my language at home. While I may not have seen it as a child, I now know how precious they are. It is our duty to protect them and the knowledge they carry. Things are slowly getting better with the addition of regular Algonquin classes at school, but that doesn’t mean reclaiming the language has become any easier.
In the end, those early lessons didn’t exactly work. I learned a few phrases here and there—basics like “Can I go to the bathroom?” and “Can I get a drink of water?”—but learning Anishnaabemowin in a class setting couldn’t happen. After all, it’s a language that lives in the land and was meant to be learned out on it. Like learning to speak to frogs, I had to simply live the language.
‘Everyone has Their Own Style’
I used to dance fancy at powwows when I was a little girl. I loved it, especially the spinning on the honour beats. I joined afterschool groups where we were taught how to sing songs that honoured the water and the eagle and we learned to dance like crows and butterflies. Letting my culture live in my body this way was freeing. Sounding out the words to each song was like sipping honey. Hesitant, careful, and delicious. With a drum in my hand and moccasins on my feet, I felt closer than ever to who I was as an Anishnaabekwe. I would dance at ceremony and at powwows. I sang with our little drum group and I loved it. But even then, something held me back. I began to doubt my “Nativeness” because I didn’t look the part. And as I got older, I became increasingly aware of the fact that my face didn’t match up with what I was told was Native. Now I know that such thinking is a direct product of the colonial mindset, one that has been force-fed to all Indigenous people for generations. A system that has been hoping to eradicate us has also been trying to define us for centuries. They tell us to stop being Indian, but also try to tell us we aren’t Indian enough. It’s worked so well that even at twelve years old, I felt uncomfortable in my skin and that I shouldn’t speak my language or dance my culture because I wasn’t enough.
I remember we had an assembly at my elementary school where I was asked to dance with some of the other Grade 7 fancy shawl girls. When it was done, a kid in Grade 2 came up to me and said, “You didn’t know what you were doing, right? I could tell.”
She didn’t mean it to hurt me the way it did. She even said it with a smile. As if it was supposed to comfort me.
I smiled back as best I could and said, “Everyone has their own style.”
It shouldn’t have been the reason I stopped dancing, but I don’t remember doing it after that. I had felt closer to who I was as an Indigenous woman when I danced, but if it had been so obvious to some seven-year-old kid that I knew nothing about the dance, what did I actually know?
So I stopped everything. I didn’t dance. I didn’t sing. I avoided ceremony and certainly didn’t speak my language. The newly regained bit of my ancestors I had found through the physical language of our culture had slipped away from me. It happened slowly. Piece by piece, the shawl I had created for myself unwound.
‘No People of Colour Here’
In high school, I did what I could to blend in. We had a resource centre—more of a room tucked away at the far end of the school— where all the Native kids went to hang out every day. I rarely went. Some part of me—the part that believed that settler voice—felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t Native enough. I clung to that belief for years, only seeing my Indigeneity as some sort of party trick or way to make myself seem more interesting than I was. After all, wasn’t that what being different was all about?
University brought more of the same. I lived in residence my first year and was placed on a floor with people studying music history, theory, composition, and performance—just like me. Some were singers; others played woodwind, brass, piano, strings, and even the harp. It was fascinating. I came from a tiny music department that could barely afford the upkeep of the brass and woodwind instruments they had, let alone support something as healthy as orchestral strings. I made friends with people from all over Canada. I was thrilled to get to know them and learn their lived experiences and to share mine. One day, my new friends and I returned from a “floor meeting” where all residents of the second-floor wing had gathered in the common area. We were all music majors at a university program that prided itself as one of the best in the country, so the group was predominantly “elite” and white. A fact that, I’m sure, the school would say was a fluke and not a direct result of the best pre-university training being accessible only to those who could afford private lessons and top-quality instruments, but that’s a topic for another essay.
“It’s so weird, huh?” said my friend. “Other than that Métis guy, there are no people of colour here.”
“What?” I replied. “I’m right here. I’m Algonquin.”
She looked at me and raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, but you’re pale. You’re practically white.”
Just like that, she erased me. I let her because I didn’t know better. How was I supposed to respond to something like that? She wasn’t exactly wrong. I am pale. At first glance, I don’t look like a stereotype. I don’t go around wearing buckskins or feathers and I certainly don’t paint with the colours of the wind. But did that give her permission to ignore my identity? It spoke to her privilege and her ignorance and to the simple fact that she was behaving like a jishkish.
It has taken me a long time to find the confidence to live in the body and the skin I’ve been given. I’m constantly othered by a settler colonial society that tells me I’m both too much and not enough all at once—a Westernized mindset that tries to set the parameters and requirements of what it means to be a good and proper Native.
To speak my language feels strange, performative, disingenuous. At times, I feel like even something as simple as saying meegwetch instead of “thank you” is inauthentic. Like I’m playing a part for someone else and not for myself. Who am I speaking my language for? Am I trying to prove my Indigeneity by using a few choice words in a language I embody but do not understand?
So much of how I feel about Anishnaabemowin is dependent on my body. I am uncomfortable with this strange space that I take up. I dance jingle now, but that didn’t come easily. I spent a long time worrying that people would see me in regalia and think, “She doesn’t even look Native—who does she think she is?” As if my pale skin, a constant reminder of colonialism and what it has done to change the face of Indigeneity in this country, would make me less than someone who was darker. I was afraid of the culture cops, Natives who would point and jeer and tell me I couldn’t ever hope to be as culturally pure as they were. I know now that this behaviour wasn’t their fault, but rather something they were taught as a by-product of colonialism. Still, I spent much of my life feeling tainted and that I had no right to speak Anishnaabemowin. I’ve worked hard (am still working hard) to unlearn that way of thinking. Decolonizing my body takes time, but I will get there.
Holding on to the words of my ancestors is like trying to catch river water. It is slippery, rushing, powerful, intangible. Language shapeshifts, and it asks me to do the same. Until I can find a way to accept that my Indigeneity is not defined by someone else’s image, I will continue to speak my language quietly. But that small act holds power. Each word, phrase, joke, and syllable is like a prayer, like medicine.
My language is my act of self-love. Letting it breathe and expand into being feels right, even if, at times, I feel afraid. And though it may not be correct, my Anishnaabemowin is present and alive and healing. My body will remember this language that it was never truly taught, but still it learns. And speaking it will be like awakening an entire pond full of frogs who are eager to sing their replies.
Pimashkogosi: Catching Language” © 2021 by Karen McBride, excerpted from Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language, edited by Eufemia Fantetti, Leonarda Carranza, and Ayelet Tsabari. Used with permission of Book*hug Press.
You can preorder a copy of Tongues: On Longing and Belong through Language at Book*hug Press, or through your local independent bookseller.