The people we are interviewing are also our friends. There is Tom Stillday, from the traditional village of Ponemah on the Red Lake Reservation. Tommy Jay, as he's known, is somewhat famous for his spiritual work and for his sense of humor; he refers to his knees as his baakinigebishkigwanan, which means "openers," and once he described his Indian name, Ozaawaabiitang (Yellow Foam), as the "puke of the waves as they wash up onshore." He is a Korean War combat veteran, has served on the tribal council and was the spiritual advisor for one or two sessions of the Minnesota Senate. He is also my daughter's namesake.
Then there is Anna Gibbs, also from Ponemah, also famous -- for her voice and her special and spectacular brand of endearing crabbiness and her wild salt-and-pepper hair. Anna can be scary if you don't know her. She is abrupt and short, not more than 5 feet tall, one leg 2 inches shorter than the other (a condition she suffered through until just a few years ago when she finally got a few sets of orthopedic shoes). But she has the most beautiful Ojibwe name of Waasabiik, which describes the way moonlight will winkle on the water on an almost still night. She is my son's namesake.
THERE is also Eugene Stillday, perhaps the best storyteller of them all. He is from Ponemah, Tommy Jay's first cousin. As we recorded him, he told stories of staging powwows out in the woods, of using his grandmother's wash tub as a drum until it caved in, of making a boxing ring with vines and of one harrowing winter when his entire family was near death from influenza and he sat by the stove, feeding it wood and watching the flames through the grate, until his uncle, Tommy's father, walked through the snow and took Eugene to his house, where he was given two slices of bread, before his uncle returned to feed the stove and nurse the family back to health.
Anton is able to draw these stories out of our elderly friends with enviable ease. He's been doing that -- without funding or help or a fancy award -- for the last 15 years. He is a people person, I suppose. And I am more of a book person. I think it will take both for our language to survive. We will need things like a grammar and more complete dictionaries and databases of recorded speech. But we will also need people, because languages cannot live without them. Languages can be stored without people to act as the shelves, but they cannot be retrieved except by human grasping.
Since we've begun our project, six of our informants, our friends, have died, including Mark Wakanabo, who worked as a janitor at our tribal school for decades until someone realized that since he was a fluent speaker, it would be better if he pushed young minds toward the language rather than pushed a broom. He was a sweet man, about whom I knew very little, except that he was gentle, with a soft voice. Two of his sons (identical twins) were my friends through middle and high school.
Luckily, other people are working on making more Ojibwe speakers. My good friends Keller Paap, along with his wife Lisa LaRonge, David Bisonette, Thelma Nayquonabe, Harold Frogg, Rose Tainter, Monica White and others, have started an Ojibwe language immersion school named Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. The school has been in operation for six years, and all the children in the program have passed fifth-grade aptitude tests mandated by the state of Wisconsin. Sixty-six percent of them scored in the top 10 percentiles in English and math, compared with a much lower passing rate among students in the tribal and public schools on and near the reservation. And yet the students at Waadookodaading received no instruction in English and their math was taught in Ojibwe.
LAST spring, I went spearing with Keller Paap and Dave Bisonette on a lake in their treaty area. Band members fought for and won the right to continue exercising their treaty rights on ceded land, and so they do. One of those rights is to spear and net walleye pike during the spring spawn. It is cold on the water in April, and it was that night. We took the boat across Round Lake to the northeastern shore and into the shallow waters where the fish spawn. One person ran the motor, the other stood in front wearing a headlamp and speared the fish with a long pole. With a few modern modifications, this is something we have done for centuries.