Near my house in west Toronto, an age-old path now known as Indian Road cuts across the city's grid toward Lake Ontario. Two years ago, the sign at the road's northern end was covered over with a marker of identical shape and font that read Mikana Anishinaabe – Trail of the Ojibwa. City workers removed the sign within days, but the indigenous activists who put it there had made their point: that the land had an identity in language long before Europeans arrived.
Seeing the unfamiliar words attached to a street I cross or walk down every week, it struck me that I didn't know the first thing about the language original to the place where I've lived for three decades. That seemed wrong, or at least inexplicable, so I started to find out – not to play at reclaiming something that was never mine, but to get an idea of how this land looks and sounds in the Ojibway language, Anishinaabemowin.
I met the pair who relabelled Indian Road: Susan Blight and Hayden King, originators of Ogimaa Mikana (Leader's Way), an ongoing project that has indigenized the names of several Toronto sites. They aren't fluent in Anishinaabemowin, but want to be.
"When I was growing up, I always knew people who spoke the language," said Mr. King, a Ryerson University politics professor who is Beausoleil First Nation from Chimnissing on Georgian Bay. "But I wasn't talked to a lot in the language. It was kind of an adult thing. It always seemed to me as a kid that it was a very funny language, because people were always laughing when they spoke it." He started learning seriously as an adult, initially by jotting phrases his grandmother said, on his PalmPilot.
Ojibway talk was also adults-only in Ms. Blight's household at Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, where her grandparents, who experienced residential school and a Catholic orphanage, spoke the language only with each other. "I can't say categorically why they didn't teach their children the language," she said. "I just know the intense racism and pressure to assimilate that they lived through." After her grandfather died, she started formal Anishinaabemowin studies at the University of Toronto, where she works at the university's First Nations House.
"I feel like there's knowledge contained in the language about what it is to be Anishinaabe, about a way of seeing that's contained in how we speak and how we describe the world," she said. "It has taught me more about who we are than anything else."
The Anishinaabe language map covers a sprawling area around the Great Lakes and into Manitoba and the northern United States. The 2006 census found 30,255 Anishinaabemowin speakers in Canada, about 600 fewer than the previous census. Everyone I spoke with said that fluent speakers are mostly elderly. "I can converse," said Anishinaabe broadcaster Wab Kinew, who is 33, "but that's rare in my generation, and very rare in my kids' generation."
The language is healthier in northern Michigan and Minnesota, said Mr. King, in part because reserves there tend to be larger and more populous. Those U.S. communities have become teaching hubs, noted for immersion camps and online resources such as the Ojibwe People's Dictionary (OPD), as well as a raft of language apps and YouTube lessons.
Anishinaabemowin is very action-oriented. You can express a complete thought in a single verb, fitted out with prefixes and suffixes that indicate who is doing what to whom, and when. "Everything that you say is 100-per-cent action words," said Helen Roy, an Odawa from Wikwemikong reserve on Manitoulin Island.
Ms. Roy led a weekend immersion class I attended last summer at Alderville First Nation near Peterborough. Even the nouns, she says, have verbs inside, or verbal characteristics. For example, the root of bakwezhigan – bread – is a verb that means to cut a piece off. The key aspect of anything is what it does or what happens to it; in that sense, the language mirrors the motion and process of the natural world. Compare that to Adam's first job in the Bible: to name everything, to spread nouns over the Earth. That name-centred orientation runs deep, for me at least, as I found every time I looked in the OPD for the name of something, only to be led to the actions underlying the word.
Adam was also given dominion over everything he named. That hierarchy of beings shaped colonialist relationships with the land, and treaties with the Anishinaabe, which were written in English. Small wonder that an indigenous language so attuned to natural flow and movement had trouble finding words for the concept of fencing a piece of land and calling it someone's property.
"I would say the language contains very strong teaching about humility, about your place in the world, and about the Anishinaabe world view of nothing being hierarchical," says Ms. Blight. "Everything's on an even plane, from rocks to people to chiefs, and everybody's contribution is worth listening to."
There's also a total lack of gender: no he or she, nor any gendering of objects, as in French. The key distinction is between the animate and the inanimate. A rock can be animate, and spoken about just like a living being, and that can seem beautiful and profound – but a car can be animate too. A pot is animate, but its lid is not, which seems just as arbitrary as the French designation of the heart as masculine and the throat as feminine. Whatever the rationale, the binary distinction means a doubling of inflected verb forms throughout the language.
Anishinaabemowin also has a fourth-person mode, used to indicate an animate being beyond the third person. That's useful for keeping track in a language with loose sentence structure and no pronouns as such, but it, too, compounds the number of inflected verb forms.
I tried learning from books, including Patricia M. Ningewance's excellent Talking Gookum's Language, but that seemed an odd way to approach a tongue that is primarily oral. So I went to some drop-in evening classes run by elder Alex Jacobs at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.
The first time I joined the small adult group around the table, the person beside me scribbled a few words in Anishinaabemowin for me to read out about myself, by name, place of origin and clan – in my case, makwa, or bear, honorary patron of the clanless. We all introduced ourselves that way at the start of each class, placing ourselves in relation to the land and other people – a kind of teaching, in the way you greet others.
At those classes, we mostly divided into pairs and read printed dialogues to each other, with corrections to our pronunciation from more fluent speakers. It was daunting and sometimes hilarious to attempt very long verbs that bristled with prefixes and suffixes. But I liked the feel of the blunt syllables, and of the earthy tones that seemed to lie farther back in the throat than English.
In You're So Fat!, linguist Roger Spielmann's book about Ojibway language and discourse, I found a two-language transcription of an elder's tale. The English version was a simple repetitive story about a man out in the bush who dreams about a bear, and an old woman who warns him that because bears fast for months at a time, his dream means hunger ahead. But in Anishinaabemowin, the rhythmic repetitions of energetic phrases somehow magnified the peril, till I could feel how this man would soon be looking starvation in the face.
I also attended some online language sessions on Spreecast, the interactive video site, including one led by Alo White, an elder from Naotkamegwanning First Nation on Lake of the Woods, about how to sing in Ojibway while playing a drum.
"You have to breathe along the drumstick," he said in English, apparently referring to the way his words seemed to glide across the beat. "Sing like you're crying, like you're asking for something from the Great Spirit." People were trying it out, haltingly, and the musician in me was thinking, "I can do that!" – although, as a Zhaganaash (white guy), I didn't dare join in with something so connected to rituals I don't practise. Mr. White segued smoothly from song instruction to straight-up teaching, about how to treat each other and the land. It was all of a piece: The language holds the teachings that the elders share.
In another Spreecast, about learning indigenous languages, Coast Salish teacher Khelsilem Rivers, founder of the Skwomesh Language Academy in Squamish, B.C., said he isn't interested in language apps, CD-ROMs or anything that involves working from English translations. Fluency is impossible with "that English brain controlling things." Full immersion is the only way, he said, with the urgency of one whose community of 3,500 people retains only a handful of those fluent in its language.
I heard the same thing from Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist who recently held a long-weekend immersion camp for young people at her house in Espanola, near Sudbury. No English was spoken; elders such as Mary Ann Corbiere used speech, drawings and direct demonstration to show how to make bannock or talk about the growth cycle of maple trees.
"Not knowing the language, you feel like you have something missing inside," Ms. Belcourt said. "I'm now 100-per-cent convinced that immersion is the way to go."
My own weekend immersion experience was mixed. Setting up my tent on the traditional powwow grounds at Alderville last summer, I prepared myself to be flung into a deep lake of the unfamiliar. But most of the weekend was spent in English, as Ms. Roy, a retired teacher of Anishinaabemowin at Michigan State University, explained her "sound-based method" of learning, according to which each basic sound has an inherent permanent meaning. "Every sound is a full sentence," she said – a fairly radical advance on any verb becoming a complete statement. Knowing these components, she said, we could figure out word meanings, dispense with translated lists, and study easily with people of different knowledge levels.
It sounded exciting, though when I tried to use her system to puzzle out new words, I didn't really get to their effective meaning, or have any more success at remembering them. Even words I thought I knew had a way of sliding out of memory – they were all so very far from any of the European language paths available to me through English.
I found it fascinating to discover how words are built in Anishinaabemowin, from germs of meaning nestled inside. "One of my favourite words is akinagegoo," says Christi Belcourt, "which means 'everything,' and begins with the acknowledgment of the Earth – 'aki' – within that."
As for new words, Anishinaabemowin resists borrowing from other languages, preferring to form new words from old. The word for car comes from a verb meaning to drag something or pull a sled. Mazinaatese, which is what you see at a cinema, comes from a word meaning an image flying quickly in the light. Sometimes neologism seems like an Ojibwa sport, played to witty extremes by whoever started referring to coffee as the mouth-filling makade-mashkikiwaaboo – literally, black liquid medicine.
I had to keep reminding myself that dictionaries offer just one view, no more definitive than that of elders from different dialect areas. "Fluent speakers often carry different understandings, teachings and knowledge of word-origins, and this diversity is an important part of the language," poet and thinker Leanne Simpson writes in her book, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back. She cites at least two different etymological understandings of debwewin, or truth: "what my heart tells me" and "a person casting his or her knowledge as far as he or she can." Both point toward the personal, as if to say that each person's truth has its own validity.
Ms. Belcourt's grandparents spoke Cree, but she lives on traditional Anishinaabe territory, so she decided to learn that language instead of her own (both are part of the Algonquian language group). Chelsea Vowel, a Métis lawyer from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., who now lives in Montreal, speaks Cree with her children and participates in "language nests," an intergenerational approach developed by Maori teachers in New Zealand. But she told me she, too, would gladly adopt the language with the largest number of local speakers.
"If I had the option in Montreal to learn the Mohawk language, I would take that, even though it's a completely different language," she said. "I think it's important to learn even a little of the language of the territory you're in, and we're at the point where we have to promote all our languages, because they're all in trouble."
Back in my neighbourhood, walking down Mikana Anishinaabe toward Niigaani-gichigami (Lake Ontario), I'm surrounded by my native English tongue. I can't imagine some great power taking it away from me, or preventing my children from speaking it. That tragic experience belongs to others. But perhaps I can support indigenous languages just by knowing more about their ways and their beauty and, in the process, get a better understanding of my neighbours on this land.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that the U.S. government never actively tried to suppress native languages. There was in fact a network of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. for decades.