Sometimes there is no translation


First things first:

My earliest ancestors here in the Kichisippi watershed were named MacEwen, British people who farmed 100 acres on Baseline Road, which is now a city park. My name is Tom Fortington. I was born here almost 40 years ago. It is my home only by the forbearance and good will of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, since we have no treaty.

I attended the inaugural Niigaan event in March 2013. In the event’s program, there were one-word headlines in a language I recognized as Anishinaabemowin. They were set in uppercase, large enough to span the page. These words demanded attention!

Reading and re-reading the document, though, I found no translation for these words that the designer had deemed important enough to display so prominently. My initial reaction wavered between puzzlement and annoyance: was a minimum level of fluency to be assumed? Did I miss an e-mail?

So I sat with this enigma and let it be. In the two months since I encountered those words, some realizations have dawned on me. Intentional or not, the typesetter had issued a challenge: You may have to seek answers using your own resources. You will rely on the knowledge of others. The sharing of knowledge is as much a gift as it is an obligation. Sometimes, there is no translation. There is no guarantee that you will understand it. It is important to try anyway.

Sometimes, fortunately, a message comes in plain language exactly when you need it. In a recent article, Mississauga Nishnaabeg author and teacher Leanne Simpson relates her experience of Indigenous diplomatic traditions as she visits a nation on the western edge of the continent:

Doug Williams from Curve Lake First Nation always makes time to meet with me and answer my questions. He reminded me to acknowledge the territory I was visiting directly after I had shared with the audience my clan affiliation, where I was from, and my name. We talked about how as a visitor in another’s territory, my primary responsibility would be to listen and to take direction from my gracious hosts. We talked about our protocols and processes of engagement that foster and maintain good relationships between our nation and neighbouring nations. We talked about how even though I am not a political leader, I carry those responsibilities no matter where I go.

Had I been moving to Victoria, this kind of diplomacy would have carried even greater responsibilities. According to my own traditions, I would have a responsibility to listen, to learn, and to appreciate the jurisdiction, political culture, and traditions of the nation within which I was residing. I would have a responsibility to understand the issues this nation was facing, and I would have an obligation to support them and to stand with them. I would have a sacred duty to learn about my place and role within their political structure and their culture, and I would expect the same if one of their citizens moved to my territory. (Emphasis mine)

Leanne Simpson’s traditions are not my own, but I am willing to take direction from my hosts. Canadian culture certainly does not encourage its citizens to acknowledge the sovereignty of other nations on territory Canada claims as its own, so if I am to do my part to bridge the gap, I need to step outside my culture and take on that sacred duty to learn about my place and role. Learning the meaning of unfamiliar language moves me toward understanding. Understanding moves me toward action. This process is what the Niigaan series is encouraging.

The first step is to listen. There will be a lot of unfamiliar words and ideas. Many of them are wonderful. There is a lot to learn.

Chi miigwech.