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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place. Of course, just remaining alive and Indian for the last 150 years has been one of the hardest things imaginable. A respect for blood is a respect for the integrity of that survival, and lineage should remain a metric for tribal enrollment. But not the only one. Having survived this long and come this far, we must think harder about who we want to be in the future, and do something more than just measure out our teaspoons of blood.
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David Treuer, from the Ojibwe author’s op-ed in The New York Times on ”blood quantum laws” and how they have been used historically to cast out members without pure tribal bloodlines.

Hear him talk at length with Krista Tippett about how his Ojibwe language is the only vehicle that can carry forward the unfolding experiences of culture in the On Being show "Language and Meaning: an Ojibwe Story."

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Bouncing Off Language and Meaning
Marc Sanchez, associate producer

We recently aired our show "Language and Meaning — an Ojibwe Story," with Ojibwe linguist David Treuer. The show prompted a letter from a listener and fellow linguist, Miriam Isaacs.

She teaches linguistics and Yiddish at the University of Maryland and writes, “I just finished writing an essay about how it felt when I met some Zapotec speakers in Oaxaca, how their experiences about their children being ashamed of their own language related to how many immigrants felt about Yiddish.” This video features Professor Isaacs reading her essay as part of the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series at the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland.

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So when you give someone a name, you’re giving them part of your soul. And when you accept a name, you’re both accepting the soul given and you’re giving part of your own. So you’re connected in ways that are profound and meaningful and communicated by the very word which the English translation ‘namesake’ doesn’t really cover.
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—David Treuer, an author and translator who spoke to Krista for our show, "Language and Meaning, an Ojibwe Story"

Trent Gilliss, online editor

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They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking. If we lose that language, we lose who we are.
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Ryan Wilson, referring to tribal elders who were listening to young girls singing in Arapaho.

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a board member of the National Indian Education Association, is working with the Northern Arapaho tribe to establish Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an Arapaho language immersion school on the Wind River Reservation in northwest Wyoming. Wilson’s words remind me of something David Treuer said to Krista about his tribe’s effort to preserve the Ojibwe language:

"What I really love about language revitalization, what is so key to it, is that it’s always been ours and it’s a chance to define ourselves on and in our own terms and in ways that have nothing to do with what’s been taken. We can define ourselves by virtue of what we’ve saved."

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Language Reclamation, Not Just Preservation

by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer

What inspires a person to learn the language of his ancestors, even though he didn’t grow up speaking that language himself? And what inspires him to join a school where he can teach that language to children? What do those children think about the language? And what affect can the effort have on an entire community?

These were a few of the questions I had for Keller Paap, a teacher in an Ojibwe immersion school program called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. I got in touch with Paap while I was working on our recent program "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." You can hear his story in the embedded audio above. He begins by introducing himself in Ojibwe.

What I gleaned from talking to Paap was that this language revitalization effort is doing more than merely preserving the language. It’s literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students’ relationship to the language. They aren’t dwelling on the long-standing U.S. policy of forcibly educating Native Americans in English. They aren’t learing Ojibwe as a political act or even as a cultural act. They’re just living in it, and making it their own.

This audio piece was produced with help from Trent Gilliss and Mitch Hanley. Music by Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Keller Paap took the photo of the Ojibwe road sign, which translates as “The Dam.”

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How an Idea Becomes a Show
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

Each week at SOF, we get together in a small conference room to talk about the upcoming production schedule and other mundane matters, and for the last 15 minutes or so we toss around potential future topics for shows. A few months ago, I tossed out a vague idea for a show about endangered languages. This weekend that vague idea becomes a reality as our show “Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning.”

Coming up with a good idea for a show is the easy part. What’s hard is finding the right person to speak on that topic. In this case, Krista wanted to find someone who was trying to save the language of his or her own people, who could also speak about how the loss of that language could result in the loss of cultural and spiritual practices. But there are thousands of endangered languages around the world. Where to start?

I went down several blind alleys — contacting the Living Tongues Institute, doing Nexis searches, e-mailing linguists — before I made the lucky decision to contact the novelist David Treuer. I was familiar with his work, I knew he was Ojibwe and that he had a background in anthropology, so I thought he might know someone who was working on a language revitalization project. He wrote back to my e-mail the next day.

You’ve come to the right place! I just published an article in the LA Times about that very subject. In addition to writing and teaching I am involved (with a group of others) in efforts to preserve and protect the Ojibwe language. Our most recent effort is research (recording, translating) aimed at creating the very first Ojibwe grammar book; work which runs parallel to spiritual and ceremonial work.

Suddenly, this huge, unwieldy topic of endangered languages had acquired a specific language — Ojibwe — and on the day Krista interviewed him, David Treuer helped bring into focus the specific people engaged in trying to save that language. My favorite moment in that interview was the story David tells of interviewing the Ojibwe elder Eugene Stillday, who recounted a childhood moment of sitting in his house when his entire family was sick with influenza, and the only thing that kept him from freaking out was staring at the flickering light in the stove. To me, that light in the stove seemed like a metaphor for the language itself. The light helped keep Eugene Stillday calm, and the language helped keep the memory of that day alive.

That story became even more real when David Treuer’s brother, Anton, sent us the actual recording of Eugene Stillday telling the story in Ojibwe. We wanted more recordings of Ojibwe speakers, but Anton Treuer was leaving town, so David suggested I check with his friend Keller Paap, an Ojibwe immersion school teacher in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, it was Keller’s last week of school before summer, which is always chaotic for a teacher. He said he would try to find some recordings, but it took him a little while to dig through what he had. As our deadline for finishing the show crept closer and closer, I kept checking my inbox. Then, just in time, Keller sent me his recordings, and they were magic. We used the sound of him speaking Ojibwe to his three-year-old son at the top of the show, and we closed the show with the recording of him singing an Ojibwe song he wrote with his students.

It was amazing to finally hear all those pieces fit together. To me this is what radio is all about: the marriage of words and sounds that go beyond words. David Treuer has some profound things about the power of language to keep culture alive, but hearing Keller Paap literally passing that language onto his son and the enthusiasm of his students singing in Ojibwe, that just makes the whole thing real.

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What’s the Ojibwe Word for Beep?


"An Ojibwe Language Society Calendar" (photo: Hanson Dates/flickr)

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

Working on an upcoming SOF show about endangered languages, I called a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University to get recordings of Ojibwe speakers for the radio program and website. His answering machine message was delivered first in Ojibwe and then in English. Then this week I called someone who works at an Ojibwe immersion school in Wisconsin, and his answering machine message was Ojibwe only.

It was a little disorienting but also inspiring to hear the language in this modern context, especially considering that Ojibwe is one of only a handful of Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada that is expected to survive beyond 2050.

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