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The current23:26Back to the country: Preserving indigenous languages could be good for the planet, researchers say
Joe Pitawanawat walks slowly down a forest path, but his mind is racing as he gazes at the abundance of medicinal plants before his eyes.
“There is jiichiigominaawashk.” He is pointing to a large stem full of dangling white flowers, also known as a tall white lettuce. “The plant has milk that we use to get rid of warts – jiichiigom,” he said on CBC Radio’s Back to the Land.
“It’s one of my favorites, Miskwaabimagoons.” He lightly touches the smooth-edged leaves of a plant called dogwood in English. “The dogwood we use to help with arthritis.”
One after the other, 30-year-old Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Ontario rhymes with the healing and nutritional qualities of plants and trees. He happily imagines every plant, not in English but in Anishinaabemowin.
“When you learn about plant medicine, you need to be able to address the plant by name,” Pitawanawat said. “It’s just respect, like a simple courtesy, shown to every other person.”
CLOCK | Joe Pitawanawat shares how traditional medicine plants are used:
Meet the indigenous educator who keeps the names of the Anishinaabe medicinal plants alive
He has worked tirelessly for years to learn more about anishinaabe-mshkiki, or plant medicine. But despite his deep knowledge of traditional plants, English is his main language – and he keeps a small list of plants for which he doesn’t know the traditional names.
“Not knowing the name of a plant haunts me,” said Pitawanawat.
A 2014 study estimates that between 1970 and 2009, about 30 percent of the world’s languages and animal species declined. Some conservationists and climate scientists believe that the key to protecting endangered plants and animals could be in efforts to preserve indigenous languages.
A red-legged grasshopper perches in red willow dogwood berries in autumn. (Jennifer Bosvert / Shutterstock)
“As people have culturally adapted to live and survive in all of these different habitats, an enormous amount of knowledge about flora and fauna … is essentially anchored in the indigenous language,” said Jonathan Loh, conservation biologist at the University of Kent in England.
“When a language is lost, this knowledge is very often lost too.”
Double extinction crisis
A few years ago, Loh began to investigate the global relationships between biodiversity and linguistic diversity.
“If you look at a map showing the distribution of languages around the world and compare it with maps showing the distribution of mammal or bird species, you see an extraordinarily similar picture: the hot spots of linguistic diversity, in so many cases, with hot spots of the biodiversity coincide, “he said.
Jonathan Loh, who studies biological and cultural diversity at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, says that with the loss of languages, knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna is also lost. (Submitted by Jonathan Loh)
The pressures that plants and animals in the world are exposed to, such as globalization and increasing consumption, often also threaten languages and lead to what Loh calls a double extinction crisis.
“Both face this critical threat: we are losing languages and species at an unprecedented rate.”
That worries Deborah McGregor, Associate Professor at York University in Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, who claims that indigenous languages contain beliefs that offer solutions to the climate crisis.
“Anishinaabemowin recognizes the country as alive and – for many people probably more surprising – than with its own agency. It’s embedded in our languages to see that the planet has a say and is trying to tell us something, ”said McGregor, a member of the Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario.
“Climate change is the earth trying to tell us what is happening to it.”
Learn from grandma
Pitawanakwat’s path to becoming a custodian of the Anishinaabe’s traditional botanical knowledge began in an unlikely way: he was trying to woo a girl.
He took her to visit his grandmother, Tackla Fasan, who often entertained the lovebirds with stories about plants their mother had harvested in the woods and meadows of Mnidoo Mnising or Manitoulin Island.
“My grandma grew up – and raised most of her children – without access to a hospital,” Pitawanawat said. “So when it came to illness and injury, she needed to know what medication to take.
“We have hospitals and hospitals on wheels, and she raised her children on plants!”
Pitawanawat, left, is pictured with his grandmother Tackla Pheasant. (Submitted by Joe Pitawanawat)
The old woman began sending the young couple to the bush to get Anishinaabe-mshkiki.
“I brought her leaves from around 30 or 40 different types of trees, like a deck of cards. She knew everyone by name, ”Pitawanakwat said, adding that she hadn’t pronounced some anishinaabemowin plant names out loud in decades.
English plant names sometimes escaped his grandmother, which created a language barrier. Pitawanakwat spoke Anishinaabemovin as a child but switched to English when he went to school.
Slowly he discovered that the uses of plants are often intertwined with their Anishinaabemowin names. For example, the bark of Wiigbimish, known in English as linden wood, was traditionally used to make rope by Anishinaabe – Wiigop.
“When you learn what the sounds mean and what they describe, you will understand uses, tastes and locations,” Pitawanawat said. “That brings a very important context to everything.”
When three of the prized keepers of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation’s plant teachings died, Pitawanakwat dropped out of college to devote himself entirely to studying from his grandmother. He understood how valuable her plant knowledge was – and what was at stake if it was lost.
Kristy Pitawanawat, Joe’s wife, collects and cleans plants. (Submitted by Joe Pitawanawat)
Mutual relationship with the earth
Language loss is particularly acute in America and Australia, where hundreds of indigenous languages are at risk. Linguists predict that 50 to 90 percent of the 7,000 languages in the world will not be spoken by the end of this century.
The University of Kent’s Loh said he believed that efforts to protect the environment must go hand in hand with trying to protect cultural diversity.
“I believe that if we are to protect and sustainably manage forests, conservationists should learn from the practices and knowledge of the indigenous peoples who have lived in the forests for thousands and thousands,” he said.
“If we lose these crops, we lose understanding of how these forests can be managed and protected.”
Deborah McGregor, Associate Professor at York University and Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Environmental Justice, suggests that indigenous languages contain worldviews that offer solutions to the climate crisis. “Climate change is the earth trying to tell us what is happening to it,” says McGregor, a member of the Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario. (Submitted by Deborah McGregor)
Declining language skills are often associated with the loss of traditional skills such as hunting, fishing and medicinal plants. McGregor of York University claims that the revitalization of indigenous languages helps foster an understanding of sustainability that is based on reciprocity rather than extraction.
“The language itself is based on nature. So this is where you’re going to learn, ‘Okay, how do we make sure the drugs thrive? How do we make sure the wildlife has fresh water? Fish are taken care of? ‘”She said.
“Embedded in [Indigenous] Language revitalization is … the ecological knowledge that enables people to treat the earth itself in a respectful and reciprocal manner. “
‘Mind the Creator’s Garden’
Teaching medicinal plants has become Pitawanawat’s life’s work.
Advertising under the guidance of his grandmother led him to marry his girlfriend Kristy. They started a small business called Creator’s Garden in Peterborough, Ontario, to offer First Nations workshops on plant medicine – even when the pandemic forced him to teach online.
“Tending to the Creator’s garden is our job. That’s what we learn and teach, ”Pitawanawat said.
He admits that Anishinaabemowin is an endangered language with increasingly less fluent speakers. Nevertheless, he takes courage in the tireless efforts of the Anishinaabemowin teachers to keep the language alive.
“In my experience, the easiest way to learn the language was always out in the country,” he said. “It makes the clearest sense there in every way. It’s a perfect expression of this territory.”