Dibaajimowin: From Birchbark Designs to Computers -- Looking at Anishinaabemowin Word-roots



Birch bark
design --

loom --

Books, printed, typed --
computer --


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Tracing word roots back through ancient languages -- looking in an unabridged dictionary, finding word roots, looking them up, and so on back -- not only enriches their meanings for us, but shows us how history of English language use carries thousands of years of history encapsulated in meanings of many everyday and most special-use, longer words. These histories are called the etymologies of words. Many years ago, when I first encountered Anishinaabemowin, from an elderly lady who was teaching some of us beadwork, I learned that it is automatic for Native speakers to do this -- that it is an intrinsic part of knowing the language, though not so much to trace historic roots back to ancient languages.

This came about as our elder mentor first told us a very short word for apple pie. She then made this word grow longer and longer. What was happening was that increasingly detailed instructions for making apple pie were being incoprorated into the word for it, as bits of meaning, some added to the beginning or end, most taking abbreviated forms and shouldering into the middle. I was fascinated by this. Later, I learnd that linguists call this type of language agglutinative. Its structure -- grammar, and meaning-structure, is totally different from Indo-European languages.

Which means the way of thought of the Native Anisinaabemowin speaker is totally different, in ways more philosophically important than something so vague, distant, variable, and controversial as "values" or "customs". The language is creative and open. New words (concepts) can be created at need from assemblages of meaning-particles. The new words are highly descriptive. Unlike many European new word-coinings, they are not defined just by reference or pointing to some kind of object or situation. They intermesh with older webs of meaning that center in the new word or concept. So it is defined descriptively with great precision and subtlety. The concepts carry assemblages of connections to many others that make up the store of meaning-parts of the language. Since new ones become part of this web of meaning, they may feed back some of the new concept's meaning to be closely or distantly connected to older ones.

Concepts put together this way from meaning-parts also carry a history, though it is a history of more recent events than is carried along in the roots of European languages, and perhaps more important, it is a history of a way of thought that seems to me quite different. It is far more "active" than European languages. Most words -- or meaning-parts -- in Anishnaabemowin are verbs, action-words, where most European languages have far more nouns -- things, concrete, animate, or abstract.

In Anishinaabemowin, nouns are far more likely to be created from verbs: Thing-that-is-made-in-a-certain-way; or Thing-that-does-a-certain-action; or Thing-that-causes-a-certain-effect; or Thing-used-for-some-purpose. It sometimes goes the other way -- occasionally the nounlike name-of-object takes on some particle-freight and becomes a verb form. But this is very seldom in comparison to Anishinaabemowin's use of verbs. Anishnabemowin, unlike English, is a language of action, motion, life. The world it describes lives, moves, does. This is fundamental to the way of thought, as all language is for each group of people raised to speak it from the first. For Native Anishinaabemowin-speakers, the world -- conceived and expressed in a child's first language -- is alive before any kind of conceptualizing, religion, or explanations of the world are formed.

By contrast to the active, living cosmos that is expressed (and conceived) in Anishinaabemowin, the cosmos of English (and other Indo-European languages) is a static, moveless framework of objectified scenery and objects within it -- nouns, pronouns. A few of these objects are agents, actors, movers, but the big picture that comes with theinfant's first language is a sort of stage these few animate objects move around within.

For Anishinaabemowin, I know a little -- a very very little -- of it, but I think it is similar for some other Indian languages too.

"Computer" is a new enough word that some of its roots in local Anishinaabemowin history are still available. A few years ago, at Heart of the Earth school in Minneapolis, I asked the elder lady in her 70's who was teaching Anishinaabemowin if there was a word we could use for the school's computers. I expected not; after all, they didn't have them in the old days. To my surprise, there was a word.

So I'm going to tell this as a story, that puts into one dialog several months of conversations. Dibaajimowin this story is, not traditional -- aadizookaan -- not a legend, but words weighed and measured and judged to present a truth as best I can. (Weigh, measure, judge -- those are some of the relatives, the language-network connections that weave the meanings of the word for this kind of narrative or story.)

"Mazinaabikiwebinigan", she said. "It used to mean 'typewriter' but now we use computers, you don't see typewriters around any more. So that's what they're calling computers at Mille Lacs."

Immediately -- and wrongly -- I assumed that the "mazini" was a borrowed sounds-like word, "machine" imported from English into Anishinaabemowin.

"No," she said. "Mazini- is a word-piece that is very old. 'Mazinisin' means to have a design on it. Probably the first designs -- the one this word comes from -- were on birchbark. Because mazini contains zinigonan. That means to rub hard and steady with a deer antler -- which is how designs are made on birchbark. Rubbing firmly and evenly strips away the top layer, and underneath it's a different color. Then you can also press very hard with something sharp and make lines on it.

"Like that birchbark picture of the turtle -- mikinaak -- and the jiisakaan, shaking-tent. Part of the word for rubbing with a deer antler or bone got rubbed off into 'design', what you make when you do that on birchbark. Now that word for design is a part of very many words for new things -- cameras, movies, making drawings, beadwork embroidered or woven, even invoices and receipts."

"It's true" I said, "we make designs now with the computers -- the kids love that KidPix. And I like it because I can't really draw or paint but with the computer I can. But why 'design' for the first part of the word for typewriter? That's more writing than design."

"Most of the words for writing come from an old one 'mark with a stripe,' -- beshibii'an -- because we first learned in school to write script, and it was like making one curly stripe with paint for each word, and then the lines of writing looked like stripes across the page. But designs came long before writing, before the white man came. Our first new word using 'design' was probably our word for map, because maps were the first designs that the explorers, travelling traders, voyageurs, woods-runners brought with them -- to look at or they were continuing to make them. "Akii-mazina'igan", map. Aki or akiin means both earth, dirt that you work in gardening, and land, countryside. So our word for 'map' means 'land-design.' "

"Well, computers now can make maps, but typewriters sure couldn't. I still can't figure where it came from, that word 'design' for typewriter."

"Letters made by a typewriter are much more regular, same size and in rows, than writing script. It looks a little like beads on the paper. Some other words came first, beads came before writing, before typing, before they sent us to schools.

"When they began to trade for beaver skins, beads were very popular with us. We called them manidoominens. That means 'little seeds, gift of the Manido,' or spirit-seeds, because min means seed and -ens at the end of a word means it is little. We knew how to weave -- we made mats for our houses out of cattail swamp plants. We didn't use looms -- the long leaves were hung from a cord strung between trees, and other leaves were woven over and under, across. 'Niibidoon,' the word for weaving, comes from its even rows, it's related to words that mean lying side by side, and to teeth, my teeth, your teeth, they are in rows.

So, when we learned to weave beads -- sometimes using combs for looms, sometimes pins or nails to hold the long threads straight -- we neded a word for it. 'Mazinaabidoo'an' was to make a design on a bead loom -- something that held the beads regular in rows, and where you can work on it continuously to make a strip as long as you want.

"These regular designs, where the beads lie in rows and colums, instead of curving like applique bead embroidery, looked to us like the printing in books, mazina'igan. Prayer books of the missionaries, the nuns, those were the first and for a long time the only ones. Then when we had to send our children to school -- or had to go ourselves -- there were gikinoo'amaadii-mazina'igan -- schoolbooks. "

"Gikinoo is school?"

"Yes. It means 'Do what they tell you to.' " They weren't interested in us being creative, it was follow drills, copy, follow orders. When we young girls, as students, first began to use typewriters, loom-woven beadwork reminded us of what typed letters on paper looks like. -- especially when you're learning, and you just type the same ones over and over."

"FJFJ, dkdk, yeah, I rmember that from 7th grade typing. Still do with computers, but we use software: Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing, and Super Mario Teaches Typing. You still start with fjfj, dkdk. Page after page."

"OK, so sometime around World War II, some of us left the reservation to get wartime jobs in the Cities, some young girls took typing courses in the Cities if they could, although you could make more working in a factory than as a secretary. There was no typing courses for Indian girls in schools near the reservations or Flandreau BIA school. But if we went to the Cities with our mothers and aunties, we could study it in training school. Of course they talked English, but we talked about it to each other, so we needed the words to say it in Indian.

"That part in the middle of maziniaabikiwebinigan, -aabiki, that's keys, keyboard keys in rows. It comes from lock, unlock which the traders and agents did with those old fashioned skeleton keys. On the end where it sticks out, it looks like two or three teeth. They poke it in the keyhole -- turn it one way, the teeth inside the keyhole bite down, locked, the other way, unlocked, aababika. by the key, aababika'igan. Some of that word for keys fell out when it went into the word for typewriter, only the shift key -- biindaabikibibizh -- locks, unlocks. What's left is the keys that you make the design with (that looks like woven beadwork). They are in rows, round. Those on the computer, now, they still are kind of round but kind of square, too. Those old typewriter keys were round. The keyboard -- it can remind you of beadwork, too."

"Does webinigan in the word for typewriter, mazinaabikiwebinigan, mean 'the thing that makes the designs with keys,' then?"

"No. It means when you make the designs -- the regular little rows of same-size letters -- with keys, they take and throw it away, webinigaazo,, 'it will be thrown away.' That word is the root of all kind of throw-away words: throw away a person, shove something away from you, divorce, separation. "

"What!?! Well, of course they throw away the typing lessons, fjfj, dkdk, etc., but what about when you got jobs as secretaries? When you would type letters, reports and such?"

"That would be much later when we were out of training, finished learning. But Indian girls didn't usually get hired as secretaries or typists or working in offices in those days. There was just a couple of jobs for the BIA in the Cities that hired Indian girls sometimes. There was some Indian programs of churches and that, but all those jobs were white people. When we got jobs -- factory worker was good pay, but mostly it was cleaning, cooking. Make a design with the keyboard, then throw it away, because no one wants it, what you made. No one will hire you. That's it. Typewriter. Throw it away, throw you away. And now, computer."

"Oh, no! This is a terrible name for computers, then! I don't like it, I hate it! Can't we have a new name for them, not typewriter?"

"That might be hard. It's on those word lists, Bemidjii, Mille Lacs it's in the database, Canada, it's going to be in the dictionary those professors are putting together."

"Well, if it's in that computer database of words at Mille Lacs, computer is named 'they throw the designs away,' we can take and throw it away, then."

"So what should it be then, the new word for computer?"

"Designs made out of light, it makes them."

"Mazinibii'ang-waazakone, glowing light drawing a design."

"Yes, that's better. Mazinibii'ang-waazakone. "

Mazinibii'ang-waazakone. Makes designs of glowing light, the computer. Somebody should say it a fourth time.

You can see a little -- just a little -- of the beauty and subtlety of Anishnaabemowin, just from this little history of the word "computer" -- which isn't even finished yet. Words that get "translated" in simplest look-up form, like "school" miss out all that is built in through a network of meaning-connections that root these words in people's personal and historical experiences. Anishnaabenowin words (ikidowinan) are connected by many strands of meanings to a whole network that is the language itself. They are more descriptive than the words of English. In English, a school is just a school -- even if they beat you there for speaking your language, cut your hair, try to erase your thoughts and memories -- a place where you have to take orders, do as they say. That history, that reality, is preserved in gikinootaw and a whole family of words related to it, such as "teach," or "repeat after someone". It even gives a word-name to "year," gikinoonowin, the school year, replacing the older beboong, a winter, count the winters.

With all this of the history and meaning-web in mind, you can perhaps see the inherent inadequacy of translations between the English and Anishinaabemowin, English and other Indian languages. See the importance to the people that the Native language, which carries a history and a heritage in a complex webwork of meanings, with the creative possibilities to add more when something new is encountered, continue to live. A living language cannot be preserved like a stuffed, dead animal. To live, it must be used, and if used, it must change, to incorporate the new -- new things, new ways, new songs, new insights, new knowledge.

Hence: How can there be an Indian word for computer -- when they didn't have them wayback? But you see, now we do, and the language lives, and so there's a word. I don't like the word that's been selected, though. Its history -- the old meanings that cluster drearily around it (learn to use computers but be thrown away anyway) -- should not be repeated. Besides -- keyboard, keys, not important. Already, there's the mouse -- point, click, drag. In a few years we'll be talking to them. So we need a new word that carries the history I have sketched here, but transcends it. "Makes designs of light" is my suggestion -- which I've now said 4 times. But I'd like to see some abbreviation -- to no more than 3 or 4 syllables, for easy, practical daily use -- still preserving some of this meaning-history.

I bet every Indian language has a way to say that, too. Enough! Mii-gwetch!

"You think 'miigwetch' means 'thank you,' don't you?"

"I know it does!"

"It means more! gwetch means 'enough!' and mii- adds an emphasis, 'that, there, is enough.' People used to say it when they were being served food. Because as you know, us women will really try to feed everyone big, plenty, whenever we can. Missionaries and traders saw this happen -- saw people being given food, saying "miigwetch! enough!" -- turned it into the much more general word, "thanks," we didn't have, didn't use."

"Well, it's enough reading for anyone looking at this web page, and thanks for doing it! How do I say 'goodbye' to them?"

"Sha ! We never say goodbye in Indian ! "

  • Native language speakers, teachers, computer folks -- It would be nice to create the word for all our languages. In the essay, you see why I reject the one that's been adopted in the Ojibwe dictionary (a recycling of "typewriter") and propose instead "Draws designs of light" . Propose (or explain by tracing meaning-connections as I did) a word for computer in your own language. If you like my proposal, translate it with such connections. Translations should be quite easy (and similar) for all the Algonquian language-group, though probably there will be different histories of word-creations. 'Typewriter' might be just a Minnesota word -- but I haven't heard it was different, about jobs, anywhere else.

  • Here, I used to have an input form for posting your own proposed word in your (Native American Indian) language. Unfortunately, this used Guestbook, running on the LPage Guestbook server, which has gone commercial. The freebie bcame flakey, then disappeared. Fond du Lac has no fgacilities for interactives on its server, so I've had to drop this. Sorry,

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Page prepared by Paula Giese graphics and layout copyright 1995, 1996

CREDITS: Walter "Porky" White, for many years culture and language teacher at the AIM Red School House in St. Paul, who taught kids maple sugaring -- and a lot of words for it -- on his family sugar bush. Vivian Stateley, Ojibwe language (Anishinaabemowin) teacher at Heart of the Earth AIM school, Minneapolis. Maude Kegg, Mille Lacs elder, culture teacher to the world, through words, stories, and amazing beadwork. See book review of her PORTAGE LAKE: MEMORIES OF AN OJIBWE CHILDHOOD and honor essay on beads, dedicated to her. . Of course I cheated a lot, writing this. I used the dictionary that has been made from earlier word-lists, very cheaply available from the University of Minnesota press, because of work and financing from the Mille Lacs tribe, and using a great deal of info from Maude, other members of the Kegg family and many others. See reviews, A CONCISE DICTIONARY OF MINNESOTA OJIBWE.

PIX: I did these all, the computer aiding my lack of artistic ability. The birchbark of the shaking tent was copied from a book about Ojibwe birchbark scrolls and Midewiwin, find out more in an essay honoring Norval Morrisseau, Canadian Ojibwe founder of Medicine Painting style. The bead loom I drew myself, the eagle flying from an open book is a logo of my NATIVE AMERICAN BOOKS section. The computer with an owl onscreen is a logo I sometimes use, from the Lakota name Hinhanskawin (White Owl Woman), given to me by Nellie Red Owl in 1974. The fancy big pic that illustrates my thoughts is something I did for my article on fractals for the techno-wizardry special issue of Computer Gaming World a couple of years ago. I generated one fractal I particularly liked, then fiddled with its colors using a program that flows them in the same sequential relation the mathematics the fractal generator program uses to assign arbitrary colors. Then I transparent-pasted a silhouette near the center of the fractal web, so it seems to be a person's thoughts radiating out of the person's spirit.

Last updated: 1/11/97