Guest Post: Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

This week, Niigaan: In Conversation is pleased to present a series of essays written by our friends and allies who, through their work, are rebuilding relationships and reenvisioning our future. As part of the planning process behind our upcoming gala, we asked ourselves, what happened to the fire? The community rallied around Chief Spence, there was a desperate feeling, people brought wood, food, soup, medicines, water. We need to get that energy back. The problems are still here, we still have work to do.

For more information about our Biiskaabiiyang Winter Gala in partnership with Red Man Laughing, visit:

On Creation and Re-Creation: Words as Gifts


Aaniin, boozhoo. I want to share with you what it means to communicate from an Anishinaabe perspective. I don’t pretend to know much but I know a little bit I can share.

Communication begins with the language we use. I am definitively speaking about our ancestral languages, which have now endured over a century and a half of colonial policies meant to eradicate them. Genocide in this country has always involved separating Indigenous peoples from our languages, as these provide the deepest ties we share with ourselves, the land, and our autonomy.

I am also talking about other languages that we use.

Language is an act between two or more parties to communicate and form meaning. This is an act often spoken – but not always. Gesture is a language. Touch is a language. Silence is a language. The actions of police against our relatives in Elsipogtog is a language. Language is based in time and place, has a specific purpose, and relies on mutual understanding between two or more entities in order to communicate with one another.

When our children were removed to Residential Schools, they were not only separated from our spoken languages but also languages of love, dignity, and agency. The fact that many people managed to find these languages is a testament to the incredible power and resiliency of our people. In fact, it is a testament to their ability to find, use, and express language. I lay asemaa (tobacco) every day to give thanks for this resilience.

Anishinaabemowin is found in every aspect of Anishinaabe community today. We are not a dying people. Anishinaabe languages are found in our lodges, our homes, and our everyday dealings with each other. Our languages are continually made and re-made, whilst grounded in wisdom, bravery, truth, humility, honesty, respect, and love (often called Niizhwaaswi G’mishomisinaanig, the “Seven Grandfather Teachings”). Our languages can encompass other teachings too, ones full of pain, violence, and hurt. Anishinaabe kendaaswin (knowledge) is limitless. We are not perfect by any means.

Human beings speak with other humans and form communities constantly. There are other communities who communicate with us too, like animals, winds, and water. Language forms the terms of all kinds of relationships: intimate or extensive; open-ended or detailed; enduring or temporary. It depends on how we use our words, breaths, and gifts. Language can change friends into family. It can also form ties embedded in power. Language, therefore, is an incredible responsibility, relying on how much one listens and learns as much as speaks and expresses. Every word, action, and instance of language, therefore, represents an opportunity to access the potential for a great collaboration.

Language is much like a treaty. A treaty, from an Anishinaabe point of view, is a living arrangement that must be re-visited consistently and continually. It is not a one-time exchange but a living and ongoing set of terms that must be re-conceived and re-created every time we communicate. Like any relationship, language is a shared set of rights and responsibilities which, if forgotten or exploited, will result in conflict.

I believe that most Anishinaabe narratives teach us mino-bimaadiziwin, the “good-life.” We are motivated to take care of ourselves but also of others, the earth, and Creation itself. Stories embedded in mino-bimaadiziwin are offerings of critical and creative struggles in a long journey of relationship building. As paths often go, these can be full of twists and turns, with some sections more clear and well-travelled than others. Some lead to difficult areas, others travel in circles and danger. Some lead to safety, security, and sustenance; perhaps even new, uncomfortable places we have never seen before. Languages embedded in supporting all life, however, save us from the destruction we can bring on ourselves. They can save us from wanting to be more than the humble, inter-connected, and imperfect beings we are. This kendaaswin we learn from our stories.

The potential of our languages is limitless but we have to bravely believe in their power if we are going to create, re-create, and live into the future. This is what I know.

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