Water is a Relative

This teaching is based on the book

Otter’s Journey through Indigenous Language and Law by Lindsay Keegitah Borrows. 

Borrows, Lindsay K. Otter's Journey through Indigenous Language and Law. UBC Press, Vancouver, 2018.

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In her first book, Otter’s Journey Through Indigenous Language and Law, Lindsay Keegitah Borrows weaves a beautiful narrative that combines her lived experience in seven different places with lessons from her academic research to understand how Indigenous language and law are connected, and how language revitalization can help recreate Indigenous legal knowledge and structures. In her introduction, she invites you to “enter the world colonialism has suppressed” in order to understand how all laws can guide us into the future (p.X). Our guide through this world is Otter, a dodem (clan) relation from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Borrows home community. Otter swims through the waters to connect each place together. What follows is one brief summary of Lindsay Borrow’s book, however you should really read it yourself if you would like to really take in all her teachings.

Questions guiding book narratives:

  • How does an Indigenous person understand the relationship between revitalizing their language and therefore their traditional laws?

  • Why is it important to keep language and law alive?

  • How did language and law end up near death, and how can they be revitalized?

  • What does it matter to other Canadians or to immigrants that Indigenous peoples are able to learn and speak their languages and revitalize their laws?

Ch.1 Neyashiingming “The place where the land narrows”  

In the first chapter, Otter is swimming in the waters of Neyashiingming – or the “place where the land narrows”. In this place (now referred to as southwestern Ontario), Otter listens into an Anishinaabe family’s dinner conversation. This conversation sets the framework for Otters exploration of the four guiding questions through the rest of the book.  We come to understand that Indigenous people have a historical relationship with land and pre-existing legal systems that comes long before Canada or the provinces were created. These nations of people helped Canada form treaties that allowed for people to co-exist on this land.


Indigenous languages, laws, cultures, and freedoms were suppressed in the mid-nineteenth century due to the introduction of residential schools (around 130 total) by missionaries who attempted to assimilate Indigenous peoples into European society. Children were forcibly taken away from their communities and placed into these boarding schools where they remained until they were young adults.

Despite the abuses people underwent in these schools, Indigenous peoples were (and are) resistant and resilient. They prevented their traditions and old ways from being “entirely swamped” (p.13). This is because Indigenous legal traditions are “based in stories. It is written on the land. It is lived in ceremony (p.15). Revitalizing Indigenous laws could also benefit the way Canadian law is understood and followed. Instead of being authoritative, law can be a way to “relate to those around you”,or provide lessons on “how to life a good life”. Law is connected to language, but through colonialism, many Indigenous communities have lost their language, “their tongues” (p.30). The next book chapters take us to different communities to understand how they can get their tongues back.


Ch.2 Nunavut “Our land”

In the second chapter Otter surfaces into an ice hole in at Iqaluit, Nunavut. There she is met by a teenage girl, Elisapee who is ice fishing. Elisapee understands that Otter was called to her by Sila, an Inuit concept that translates to ‘weather’ or ‘universe’ or ‘intelligence’ to help her process how to help language revitalization in her community.  

Nunavut (“our land”) is home to the Inuit people, whose language is Inuktitut. In Nunavut, Inuktitut is still being lost. The majority of the language speakers are elders, and it is difficult to keep the language culturally relevant for the younger generation. The high schools do not provide an immersive environment as there is not enough demand and space for the language. Iqaluit is home to Inuit people, but it also has temporary families that are employed by the government and often only stay a few years. It is not required for these non-Inuit students to learn Inuktitut. This is also a problem as language is a gateway into the Inuit way of life. Language is linked to political, spiritual, and cultural development. For the Inuit, the loss of their language has meant the loss of literal lives in the community. It is difficult to revive the Inuit language because the dominance of English and French with the western school curriculum. However, despite the many challenges, language revitalization is slowly happening. For example, Akitsiraq law program is where Inuit law is learned alongside English common law and students can hold their discussions in Inuktitut. This bridges the need for a post-western curriculum centered on active language practice.


Ch.3 Aotearoa “Land of the long white cloud”


In this chapter, Otter visits the land of the Maori people (New Zealand) during their te wiki o te reo Maori, Maori language week. Maori language week was open to both Maori and Non-Maori people and provided workshops on te reo. The Maori have many forms of language revitalization. Their language began to be changed and suppressed in the early 1800’s, marked by the signing of Te Tiriti, the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840. Two versions of this treaty exist: one in English and one in Maori. The two documents represent completely different ideas of what the contract meant. The following statement “one sovereign, and one Law, human and divine” had different interpretations. The British understood this to mean that Maori chiefs would giving up their sovereignty; while the chiefs understood it to mean they would give up their powers of governance only. Maori people understood that by signing the treaty, they were to live with the same rights and privileges of the British. This failed to happen. The British ruled over the Maori, suppressing their te reo (language).

As a result of their treatment by the British after the signing of this document, the Maori challenged the original treaty to bring their language (and with it their culture) back. The Maori Language Act was created in 1987 which recognized Maori as an official language. This allowed it to be used in certain legal proceedings. The Maori Language Commission was also created to help revitalize Maori language in schools, its use in public media, and within communities themselves. In 2009 a Maori dictionary was created and the Victoria University of Wellington Law school has a Maori legal lexicon component. These are all positive cases of language revitalization that do not happen in many parts of the world. However, there is still more work to going forward. Our narrator, Otter, learns that it is important to also consider that there are many unique dialects and each community has specific needs based on their history. But there is a lot to be learned from the Maori that Otter can take to her community and the other places she travels.

Waabigwan is the word for Flower in Anishinaabemowin.

Waabigwan is the word for Flower in Anishinaabemowin.

Ch. 4 Gabe-gikendaasoowigamig “Place of Learning”

Otter visits Dartmouth College in Vermont where she learns about the processes and challenges of offering Indigenous languages in a postsecondary institution. At Dartmouth College she attends a public lecuture where Waabigwan (a woman from the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario) reflects on her role as a professor in the Native American Studies Department. Waabigwan helped start the first fully fledged Native American language course at Dartmouth. It is her fifth year teaching Annishnabemowin, the language of the Anishnabeg people. Gaining support, funding and allowance for the language course was not easy. She explains that it was through leadership, sacrifice, patience, and love that the program was put in place. The following outlines some of her major obstacles.

Waabigwan is the word for Flower in Anishinaabemowin.

Waabigwan is the word for Flower in Anishinaabemowin.

Obstacles to Establishing a Native American Language Course at Dartmouth College (summary from page 86 of the book)

  • There are multiple languages (and dialectical differences within those languages) to choose from and choosing one language/dialect might seem to honor one nation over another

    • College is located on Abenaki land, but few resources or teachers available

    • Some do not want to share Indigenous culture through language learning

  • Lack of literature and material to teach with

  • Lack of immersion opportunities

  • Teacher isolation due to loss of land base and other fluent speakers to talk with

  • Question of practicality of a Native American Language course

  • Lack of protocols for a non-Native person taking a Native American Language course

  • Unstable funding within the Native American Program and from Dartmouth

Understanding these obstacles is important to understanding why Annishnabemowin is taught at Dartmouth instead of other language. Waabigwan explains that at this current time, Annishnabemowin is the language that has the most resources to teach it. Abenaki (the language of the people Dartmouth is on) is not taught because there currently no fluent language speakers, and those that do speak do not necessarily want to move from their community to Darmouth. Instead, Waabigwan is able to teach the Annishnabemowin course, and provide students with an immersive experience in Manitoulin Island, a community she has a relationship with. Waabigwan believes that teaching one Indigenous language is better than teaching none. In her mind, the revitalization of one language can develop the infrastructure to support others. But she does not forget about the Abenaki people. She honors her place of teaching as Abenaki land. She honors her connections to the Abenaki people. Abenaki speakers are invited to the class for a week every term. Indigenous students in her class also receive funding to work on their own languages. Through listening to Waabigwan speak, Otter begins to understand how language revitalization can be done respectfully in an institution setting. 


Ch. 5 Mayagi-Anishinaabe Kichi-Gaming “The Salish Sea”

“when you learn a name, you learn about a people and a place” (p.111) 


In this next chapter, Otter floats over to summertime on the Salish sea where she learns about how local Indigenous place names have many meanings that hold significance as they tell stories about the people and land. In the Salish sea, otter flops onto BC Ferries, and listens to a Parks Canada coastal naturalist tell the story of the places they pass by using their place names. Typically, coastal naturalists are not supposed to share “Indigenous knowledge”, but this particular naturalist is using akinomaagewin “earth teachings” as a way of understanding the natural landscape. He explained how English place names layered over Indigenous names, covering them up and obscuring their significance. However, for the people who know the names, there understanding remains. There are many different names in relation to how different peoples interacted with the land. There are ten language families spoken in what is now British Columbia and Washington. 


The coastal naturalist talks about the different names for mount baker. In the Lummi language it is called Koma Kulshan. Koma = white and Kulshan = puncture wound or shooting place or shoot.  In Nooksack, the name means “go up high” or “go back in the mountains shooting place”. The naturalist describes how “these Indigenous names paint and image for anyone who learns the name” (112). He describes the mountain as a “white sentenial with both spiritual and practical value”. By relearning place names, we can gain a broader understanding of a landscape or place we may have thought we knew.  


Ch. 6: Minnesota “Sky tinted waters”

Minnesota is a Dakota word meaning “sky tinted water” or “cloudy waters”, the state itself is covered with hundreds of lakes. Otter emerges into this region to learn about Anishnaabemowin teaching and learning at the “American Indian Resource centre” at a local college. She enters a room where about 20 youth and elders are gathered together to learn. The teacher, Ginew, guides his class with this question: “What is our relationship with the language and how can we balance having fun with showing respect?”. The class learned from singing songs together and having the language taught in context with their lives. For elders the might mean learning the language for healing their communities. For young  people, this might mean learning songs that help them connect with their identity. Ginew describes the wider context for learning Anishnaabemowin is connected to the concept bimiikamaagewinn ‘stewardship’. The term refers to our responsibility with the world. It applies to language learning, laws, spirituality, care for families, and land. There are four A’s of  bimiikamaagewinn in English: ‘acknowledgement’ gaamiinigooyang; ‘accomplishment’ gikinoo’amaadiwin; ‘accountability’ gwayakochigewin;  and ‘approbation’ tabahamaagawin (p. 126). These terms are summarized below.


 ‘acknowledgement’ gaamiinigooyang

  • Acknowledge that stewardship comes from the creator, Gizhe-Manido, who provides and sustains all life.

  • The Anishnabe: Nish= good, abe = man, acknowledge that the creator wants people to be good people, that we remember who we are by doing good.

 accomplishment’ gikinoo’amaadiwin

  • To gain a deeper understanding of Annishanaabemowin and its meanings one must work hard and study.

  • Preparation is necessary for accomplishing our goal of honoring the Creator, our ancestors, and ourselves by learning language in this way.

  • Understanding that language learning is not easily, but anger and frustration can be laughed off.

 accountability’ gwayakochigewin

  • Effort and endurance is necessary to fulfill responsibility for stewardship.

  • We are accountable to those have come before us to learn their teachings and stories.

  ‘approbation’ tabahamaagawin

  • People are rewarded for their proper stewardship with the knowledge they gain; there is a celebration with approval from spirit healers and ancestors

  • Cycles back to acknowledgement: acknowledge the creator for any approval that we receive, be humble.

These four aspects of bimiikamaagewinn ‘stewardship’ are just guidelines for how language learning can be done. As Otter continues onto the Purple Lake Reservation, she learns of how all language is best learned through immersion, and certain places provide better energy from the earth and our ancestors.


Ch 7: Giiwe “Return Home”


In this final chapter, Otter returns to the Joneses house where she has come to share what she has learned about revitalizing Annishnaabemowin language and laws in Neyashiingming. It is winter and a time for storytelling. Otter describes her journey of learning and how she spoke with many Indigenous people who told her their language was frozen. Or turned to stone. Some described their tongues as being hooked, politized, forgotten, or calmed up. Most have suffered through colonization and its ongoing effects to various degrees (p.147). She now understands that language and laws are constantly being created and recreated. They are living, changing beings. Some laws come from scared sources, some from customs.

Anishnabee law is about practice, it’s how about how we live. The word for law is Daebinaewiziwin which means to be entitled to the necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter. In this way we understand that we are not perfect, that law creates the basis or standard for living. The words of Daebinaewiziwin also give insight into deciding when a debt to society has been paid. Words like boonaendjigaewin or boonigidaetumoowin means to ‘to absolve, excuse, or forgive’ (p.153).  Booni means ‘to leave alone’. It is a way of living - a law -  that understands that when someone has fulfilled their debt, they should be left alone.

When Otter has shared her understanding, an ancenstor, Sikke,enters the room and provides his teachings. He describes to the family that their laws were not written on paper, they were written on their hearts. He explains how when we recognize the connection between our tongues and hearts, only then can people live their laws. These living laws are adaptable to various situations - it is about cultivating mino bimaadiziwin ‘ living the good life’.

Anishnaabeg peoples live all over the world and are just as multi-lingual and diverse in their knowledge as their other human and nonhuman relations. In order for language and law to be revitalized, the way things were done in the past should be learned by talking to our elders and ancestors. But it is equally as important to understand where people are now and how this can affect the future. Speaking English, French or any other language does not make one less Anishnabee. It can actually help people understand how Anishinaabemowin can be used and changed in their daily life. The past can inform the present and future of language learning. Anishnaabeg peoples have a changing language amd living laws that will help guide its revitalization.


This summary was prepared by River Michele Wannitikul Walter is a chinese-thai, german-american settler who grew up on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) homelands (aka Vancouver) and in the city of Krueng Themp (Bangkok) Thailand. Her role was to summarize the teachings  Lindsay Keegitah Borrows describes throughout Otter's Journey. The "we" used in the summary is used in the book and not as a way that River is put herself into the narrative.