Now Or Never

Nmiswendaan nsitamyaanh Anishinaabemowin

"I want to understand Anishinaabemowin." That's Lenard Monkman's New Year's resolution -- and his success with last year's tough goals suggests he might actually be able to do it.
Lenard Monkman's resolution for 2017 is to learn his family's language, Anishinaabemowin. (Iris Yudai, CBC)

I want to understand Anishinaabemowin. That's what the headline says. It's the language of the Anishinaabek nation. Some people call it Ojibway, some people call it Saulteaux. It's the language that my family spoke, and it's something that is quickly disappearing.

Like many Indigenous families across the country, I no longer get to hear the language of my ancestors. This year my new year's resolution is to learn my language. Or at least be conversational by the end of the year.

Lenard is learning Anishinaabemowin and hoping to teach it to his kids. (Lenard Monkman, CBC)

It's important to me because I would like to make an attempt to be able to speak the language in public. Growing up and riding public transit, I would notice that Canadians from multicultural backgrounds spoke their native tongue on the bus -- except for us. Through residential schools, Indigenous people have been forced and shamed into not speaking their language.

When I was a kid, I would visit my grandma's every weekend. I would hear her pray in the language every night before bed, and in the morning when she woke up. I miss that. I miss hearing her talk on the phone to her family and how she would laugh as she was gossiping on the phone. I remember going to family dinners and hearing her and my aunties sitting around the kitchen table and laughing hysterically while speaking in the language.

I recognize that learning the Anishinaabe language in one year is not going to be an easy task. In my own family, there are very few speakers living who carry the language. A couple of uncles and aunts, including my aunt Sharon, are the only ones left who are fluent. My cousins and my generation were not taught to speak. With more and more Indigenous people living in urban centres, it has become increasingly difficult to find people my age who speak the language fluently.

Lenard is getting language tips from his auntie Sharon. (Kaj Hasselriis, CBC)

I am optimistic that it will change. I recognize the challenge, but I don't think it is impossible.

Last year, I had set out a couple of resolutions that were personal. I wanted to quit drinking alcohol, and I wanted to be able to sundance. In the second week of January, I quit drinking, and went on to complete my first of four years of sundancing in June. The sundance consists of four days of dancing, fasting and prayer. It is held once a year and is considered to be one of the highest ceremonies across Turtle Island.

I hope that learning the language will be able to give me a better understanding at ceremonies like the sundance. I would love to be able to learn and pass on the language and teachings to my children. As Indigenous peoples, our languages are intricately connected to our world view. Starting the first week of January of this year, I will be dedicating three hours of classroom learning to connect with others who also want to learn the language. If there are any others out there interested in learning their language, be proud! In order to learn, we have to be OK with it not sounding right at first. Meegwetch!

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Lenard Monkman is an associate producer with CBC Indigenous and the co-founder of Red Rising magazine. 

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