Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Language and Native American Heritage

Frank Boles

Ironies abound in how historical resources are used. One of the most striking differences is how the records created by one generation to accomplish a particular goal can be used by another generation for very different and sometimes very contradictory purposes. Take, for example, Native American language. For decades, the Clarke Historical Library has played an important role in preserving a large body of printed Ojibway-language material, and thus a fundamental part of Anishinaabe culture. How this body of information is used, however, has changed dramatically.

One of the most important aspects of culture is language. Although there are exceptions, the United States is one of the most obvious nations, and people often define themselves around a common tongue. Ojibway (also known as Anishinaabemowin, Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Otchipwe, or Chippewa) is  common language of the Anishinaabe people. In the United States, it is heard from Michigan to Montana. In Canada, the language is spoken from Ontario to Manitoba. 

Although Ojibway speakers are dispersed across a broad part of the North American continent, their communities are small, and the number of people within the communities who speak Ojibway represents only a fraction of the total group. Based on statistics from the 2000 U.S. census and the 2006 Canadian census, in the two nations, there are, approximately, a combined 300,000 people who claim Anishinaabe heritage. But of this group, only about 20 percent, approximately 56,000 people, speak Ojibway.

Ojibway is an endangered language. Today, many groups are trying to preserve it. One way to accomplish this goal uses printed material from the nineteenth century that sought to translate Ojibway words into English and explain Ojibway grammar. The Anishinaabe did not develop a unique set of characters through which to write their words. Instead, alphabets were developed by Europeans who used their Latin script and usually based their work on English or French spelling systems. This attempt to place Ojibway into the Latin alphabet using different spelling systems has numerous limitations, exemplified by the at least six different ways the name of the language can be written in English, but it nevertheless created an indispensable pool of historical information that today can be used to supplement the oral tradition of those who still speak the tongue.

But the goal of the people who created this wealth of information had nothing to do with language preservation, and in fact, was seeking fundamental change within the Anishinaabe community. The people who worked most diligently to place Ojibway on paper were Christian missionaries. Other European language speakers who needed to communicate with the Ojibway, primarily traders, military officers, and government officials, could usually make do with relatively rough translations between their language and Ojibway. Basic communication met their needs. But missionaries, intent on spreading Christianity, believed it necessary to translate Christianity’s sacred writings very precisely into the native language. Thus, missionaries became the primary group who took on the immensely challenging work of developing Ojibway-English dictionaries and Ojibway rules of grammar.

Among the Ojibway-language treasures they created that are found in the Clarke are dictionaries and several bibles.

Frederic Baraga was a Catholic priest from Slovenia who came to America in 1830. In 1831, he was sent to Arbre Croche, (Cross Village) in the northwest corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to work among the Indians and master Ojibway. Until his death in 1868, he would spend the rest of his life in the Great Lakes region, much of it in Marquette, working among the Native population and continually developing his understanding of their language. In 1853, this linguistic study resulted in what is usually described as the first complete English-Ojibway dictionary, which he published under the title A Dictionary of Otchipwe Language Explained in English. The Clarke Historical Library has a first edition of the critical work, many of the subsequent reprints editions that have appeared, as well as several other dictionaries and grammars published by later authors.

Baraga and other Christian missionaries’ goal, of course, was to publish the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in Ojibway. The first portion of the New Testament to be published in Ojibway, the gospels of Matthew and John, were translated by Peter and John Jones and printed between 1829 and 1831. The first complete translation of the entire New Testament appeared in 1833, the work of Edwin James. As a better understanding of the language developed, new translations were published in 1844 by Henry Blatchford and in 1854 by Frederick O’Meara. The Clarke holds a first edition of Jones translation of Matthew, as well as first editions of the James, Blatchford, and O’Meara New Testaments. These volumes are supplemented in the Clarke stacks by many Christian prayers, hymns, and other devotional material, all printed in the Ojibway language.

The ultimate goal of nineteenth-century missionaries was to completely change the Anishinaabe’s spiritual values. The missionaries sought to extinguish Anishinaabe belief in a world inhabited by good and evil spirits and replace it with faith in Jesus. Yet the linguistic documentation and examples created by the missionaries to change Anishinaabe culture created a linguistic legacy that helped future Anishinaabe people do the exact opposite: work to preserve their culture by keeping their language alive. 

The Clarke Historical Library’s role in documenting the activity of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries to the Anishinaabe, and making available that same documentation to twenty-first-century library users seeking to preserve Ojibway is one example of the profoundly different way two people can use the same information.