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Swear words arrived later

One of the first things people want you to do for them when they meet you is to teach them how to swear in Indian. Everyone wants to know the cuss words first.

One of the first things people want you to do for them when they meet you is to teach them how to swear in Indian. Everyone wants to know the cuss words first.

Maybe it’s the idea of colorful talk that prompts the wish but and when I tell them that there really aren’t any swear words in Ojibway, they get all mooky-faced and disappointed. How on earth can you have an entire language without the ability to really sound off sometimes, they wonder.

Sure, there are strong words and phrases, largely meant to put disrespectful people in their place but there’s really nothing like a good old-fashioned four-letter-word rant. That bothers a lot of people. I guess it comes from the lingering idea of native people as savages. Any self-respecting heathen, pagan or barbarian would absolutely need to grouse bitterly about things and they want to learn how to do it.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of blue talk anywhere in the world. Kids in the schoolyards these days have a better functional command of low-level diatribe than I ever did. They can even make it rhyme. English perhaps, is best suited for invective-laced bursts of lingo.

Strange that Ojibway would not have its share of blistering talk. The language is verb based for one thing, so you could conceivably tell someone to go do a lot of things. However, we’ve had to learn to incorporate English phraseology to deliver effective messages like that. But it’s the younger generation that’s learned to do that. The old ones, the elders, the teachers and the healers, speak the language in its rolling, gentle tones.

That generation is committed to saving the talk. They have lived through, and seen firsthand, the incredible changes our people have lived through. They’ve seen the movement away from the influence of culture and toward the cities, universities, the corporate and business world and they seek to preserve the language before it disappears entirely.

Not everyone is familiar with our cultural histories. Most people have no idea of the lives native people had to live and they have no idea that for a lot of us, our languages have become lost, forgotten or replaced. I speak English, and the Ojibway language that I do know is minimal at best. But what I can speak is vital to me because it keeps me connected to my history, my culture and my identity.

There are a lot of reasons for our languages to fade. They range from residential schools to outside adoption. But the thing is, that native languages are faltering and a recent study said that only four—Ojibway, Cree, Dene and Inuktitut—have a reasonable chance of survival. Out of the hundreds of cultures with active languages that once flourished in Canada, that’s grim news.

But you need to speak English or French to work these days. You need those tongues to function in university. Mostly you need them from the very day you start school in Canada. So it’s no wonder that fluency in our native tongues is diminishing—and it’s no wonder some people go to extreme lengths to keep their limited ability to speak Indian hidden.

Like me. I was embarrassed to say that I couldn’t speak Ojibway. I didn’t want anyone to know that I felt shame over that. I didn’t want them to know that my sense of who I was was reduced drastically by my inability to express myself in my language. So I faked it. Whenever someone asked me how to say something in my language I came up with a creative but fictitious word or phrase.

But you had to create the setting first in order to sell it. I discovered that you needed to pretend to be two things—stoic and guttural. Back then it was what people expected of native people. You got all stern-faced, nodded solemnly and muttered your words. Hmmm, I’d go. Then I’d hold up one hand, palm out like a Hollywood Indian and say in a deep stern voice, “I own a Honda.”

Just like that. The acting helped sell it but I don’t think I ever really fooled anyone. Mostly they just laughed but it was the best I could do until friends eventually helped me learn to speak genuine words.

When your language disappears so does your ability to greet the world in a traditional manner. Your identity is altered and it feels clumsy walking around in your own skin. It’s the same for everyone—not just Indians. Society asks all of us to surrender parts of ourselves to be accepted and language is usually the first to go. Reclaiming our talk is like coming home.

If they should ever disappear completely, you’d hear a lot of us cuss.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at