Canada 2017·Personal Essay

As a non-Indigenous student of Oji-Cree, I learned much more than a language

Throughout her time at Kingfisher Lake, Tanya Mozias Slavin's ideas of what it means to be a good visitor "were busted over and over again."

‘People are still people, like everywhere.’

Tanya Slavin poses after a successful fishing derby and before a cookout in Northern Ontario. (Tanya Mozias Slavin)

"You want to go where?"

The travel agent's eyes slowly widened as his finger traced the map north, north, north … until the map ended and his finger was on the bare wall.

The northern Ontario community I wanted to visit was not even on his map. I was no less surprised than him.

I was an international student from Israel doing my PhD in Linguistics at the University of Toronto with a focus on Oji-Cree.

Now the plan was to continue learning in Kingfisher Lake First Nation — despite maps that ended some 800 kilometres south of where I needed to be.

A careful and quiet visitor

Three months later I found myself sitting on a log inside a tipi and sipping sturgeon soup.

Kingfisher First Nation is an Oji-Cree First Nation 350 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont. (Google Maps)

I watched as an old lady attended to the fire, stirred the soup and fried bannock in a giant frying pan.

I saw kids in muddy rain boots playing and chattering in a mixture of English and Oji-Cree. I heard music from an outdoor stage.

Despite the bowl of soup, which helped me look less conspicuous, I felt completely out of place — an outsider at a party.

Agnes, my new language consultant and the person who told me about this cookout, was busy elsewhere.

Lacking the confidence to introduce myself, I tried to interpret glances. Curiosity? Hostility?

I was, after all, a white academic working on obscure linguistic projects.

I decided then that for the next three weeks I would be careful and quiet, making it as easy as possible for people to pretend I wasn't there.

I felt relieved as the cookout ended, but Agnes caught up with me as I was about to leave.

"Hey," she said laughing, "Why didn't you go and speak Oji-Cree into the microphone? Everybody was waiting for you to go and say something!"

I was stunned.

Into the microphone? Me? Everybody knew who I was and wanted to hear from me?

Tanya, left, and her language consultant and friend, Agnes. (Tanya Mozias Slavin)

The missed mic opportunity set the tone for the rest of my visit.

Feeling braver, I started walking around the community waving Waachiye! (hello) to people I didn't know.

People everywhere were eager to share their language with me.

Many stopped me on the street to teach me a word or a phrase, or chuckle about the way their teenagers speak or simply to tell me how cool it was that I was learning Oji-Cree.

Elders urged people to speak to me only in Oji-Cree so I could learn faster. Kids, giggling, taught me "swear words" and toilet humour. I felt the aliveness of the language and culture, neither of which I could have found in a textbook.

Pet names and potty humour

Back in Toronto, Indigenous languages were viewed as fossilised things, sacred and endangered entities to be guarded and preserved.

The mainstream Canadian view of Indigenous communities seemed no less simplified, rooted in shorthand like "generational trauma" and "endangered language."'

Forget the textbook phrases. In Kingfisher Lake, Tanya felt the "aliveness" of the language she wanted to learn. (Tanya Mozias Slavin)

The only available Oji-Cree textbook taught me words for traditional activities like hunting and fishing, but nothing about the everyday.

So when one day Agnes said Nikwenawenimaa nimoosom! I was confused.

I recognized the words "miss", "my" and "moose". "You miss your moose?" (Was it possible they have personal moose here?)

Agnes laughed and explained that nimoosom means "my sweetheart/boyfriend."

At another cookout, an old man approached me with a now familiar question. 

Kitanihshinaabem na? "Do you speak Oji-Cree?"

Eha, ninkakwe-anihshinaabem, I replied. "Yes, I'm learning."

Mino-giizhigaa, he said. "What a nice day."

Eha, mino-giizhigaa, I agreed, sensing that he was not just talking about the weather but wanted to test how much I understood.

Elders urged people to speak to me only in Oji-Cree so I could learn faster. Kids, giggling, taught me "swear words" and toilet humour.

I mentally patted myself on the shoulder — look at me having a casual conversation in Oji-Cree!

A long pause as we both took a few spoonfuls of our soup, then he spoke again: Ninkii-pookich.

This time I was less sure but I nodded anyway, wanting to continue the illusion of a casual conversation. After the man left Agnes asked, "Did you understand what he said?"

I admitted that I didn't.

"He said, 'I just farted.'"

The crowd in the tipi burst out laughing. I laughed too.

A good and giving visitor

Towards the end of my stay, I got another mic opportunity. I went with Agnes to the local radio station, where I hoped to talk and answer questions entirely in Oji-Cree.

After my brief introduction, Agnes asked me about my background. I shared that I am from Israel but was born in Russia and speak both Russian and Hebrew.

Then we opened the floor for caller questions and I took a deep breath. This was my chance to shine.

Delivering a practiced introduction in Oji-Cree is one thing, but being able to answer questions in real time is a much bigger challenge.

To my surprise, the first caller asked me to say something in Hebrew. That's not what I expected but I said a couple of words into the microphone.

Tanya has been back to Kingfisher Lake seven times since her first visit. (Tanya Mozias Slavin)

"That was cool!" Agnes exclaimed with amazement.

I picked up the next call ready to finally start showing off my Oji-Cree skills, but this caller wanted me to say something in Russian.

The third caller had prepared a list of phrases she wanted to hear in both languages.

The rest of the one-hour interview was me saying random words in Russian and Hebrew to the ooh-s and ah-s of Agnes and much of the 400-person population of the reserve.

Beyond my initial introduction, I never really got to speak Oji-Cree.

Throughout my time at Kingfisher Lake, my ideas of what it meant to be a good visitor were busted over and over again.

I had thought that all you have to do is to come without an agenda and be willing to learn. But that was not enough.

No learning can be one-sided. Every interaction should be a cultural exchange. To be a good visitor meant not only learning but sharing my culture as well.

Twelve years and seven return visits after that first trip, I still think about this experience.

Throughout my time at Kingfisher Lake, my ideas of what it meant to be a good visitor were busted over and over again.

As Canadians increasingly discuss reconciliation, a grand idea backed by words like "awareness" and "trauma," I think about whether it's as much a personal process as it is political; a conversation happening at all levels.

Perhaps it's better in this process to be guided by curiosity and open-mindedness rather than the desire to "help". You can't reduce people to their problems and challenges.

People in Kingfisher Lake were surprised I wanted to learn Oji-Cree, but then I was surprised they wanted to learn words in Hebrew and Russian. But why was I surprised?

Letting go of stereotypes is not as easy as one might think. And more necessary than one might think.

People are still people, like everywhere.


Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer and a linguist who has written a dissertation on the Oji-Cree language. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, The Forward, the Wisdom Daily, Brain, Child Magazine and other outlets. Find her on Twitter @tanya_slavin.