Language Warrior's Lifelong Love Affair with Ojibwemowin


Story and photos by Amikogaabawiikwe (Adrienne Benjamin) Mille Lacs Band Member 

John P. Benjamin (also known by his Ojibwe named Waabishkigaabaw or his nickname Zhooshk or Slick) has been a lifelong learner of the Ojibwe language. He has used it to turn his life around and as a tool to help youth and other community members find direction in their own lives. He holds classes in District I for the community and teaches at Nay Ah Shing Schools during the day.

John first learned the Ojibwe language in high school from Millie Benjamin. “I asked Millie one day, how do you say ‘Come on, let’s go to the liquor store?!’” 

John chuckled at the remembrance of his story and continued. “She said, 'Aaniin dana wa’aw Waabishkigaabaw! and then she proceeded to write it down and handed it to me on a piece of paper. She didn’t want to say it out loud.” John laughed wildly again. “I’ve come a long way since then.”

“Even after I graduated high school, I was always trying to speak it to Elders, but I never understood the grammar,” John remembered. He said a major shift happened for him when he came across a quote by Jim Clark that said, “When the Anishinaabe people lose their language, they’re no longer Ojibwe people, they’re descendants of Ojibwe people.” He said that those words stuck in his head for a long time and made him want to learn more.

John had found his passion. He was still a bit unsure about his future, though. “I heard an old man say that we were put on Earth for a reason, and I feel that I was put on this Earth to learn the language and teach as much as I can with my time here. So I made a choice, I guess, to continue learning and working on the language, or I could go back to my old ways. I thought about it hard. I thought about kids and the next generation, not really growing up to know anything about the language at all, and I thought that maybe I can teach them a little, teach them something besides just words. I only learned words and numbers in school, and I didn’t know how to make my own sentences,” John said. He knew he wanted more for the future of the language. 

Then he formally met Amikogaabaw’iban (Larry Smallwood) at an Elder conference in Fond du Lac. “I remember I was sitting at a table with my classmates from Fond du Lac College. Amik was maybe two tables down, and we had to give introductions. I stood up and said, ‘Boozhoo Niij-anishinaabedoog! Niminwendam omaa ayaayaan minawaa gaye niminwendam omaa ayaayeg.’" (Hello, my Anishinaabe people, I’m glad I’m here today, and also I’m glad you all are here today.) 

“After I said that, I heard a loud ‘Aho’ come from the back of the room, and it was Amik,” John said, smiling as he remembered the moment. (In linguistic terms, “Aho” is an acknowledgment to the speaker that they’re being heard.) 

After that experience, John started working with Amik. After hearing him speak, Amik asked John to start working with him part-time. Part-time turned to full-time, and soon he started working with Lee Staples as well. 

“They taught me how they do ceremonies, what to say for dishes, and other ceremonies like naming,” John said. Then he met Brendan Fairbanks, a linguist at the University of Minnesota. John messaged him on Facebook about a small bit of grammar, and he thought he would get a simple answer. “I ended up getting a long response from him about linguistic ideas of the language. So for a year I asked him grammar questions about the language, and he taught me a lot just from our Facebook conversations and me understanding it better with his guidance,” John said gratefully. “I still ask him questions today.” 

John also spends a lot of his time with the four Elders at Wewinabi school: Susan Shingobe, Maggie Kegg, Carol Nickaboine, and Elfreda Sam.  (For more on Maggie, who recently retired, see page 4.) “They’re always super happy to see me.” John said. “I always go over there and ask them crazy questions, sometimes just because I want to see how they would pronounce something.” 

He gave an example: “What are you cooking tonight?” 

“They’ll say it, and they’ll agree or debate it amongst themselves, but they all say it almost exactly the same way. Their dialect is specific to Mille Lacs. I like to ask them as a group because I’ll usually get to hear a couple of different options from them based on their speaking styles,” John explained. 

He has used the knowledge that he has gained over the years to teach others. He has become a quiet yet powerful language warrior in the community. “Grammar is the key. Learning about the grammar piece is the most important thing one can understand about the language, and it will take your learning and speaking to the next level,“ John believes. “You need to have a good teacher who has an understanding of how the language works and can explain things about how it works in the easiest way for their learner to understand. You have to learn a little bit about that big chimookomaan word – ‘conjugation.’ Learn how to ask the right questions of the people you know who are working on the language. Many of us are here to help and excited and happy when someone new wants to learn.” 

John reflected about his teaching and his dreams for the future. “The best part of teaching to me is when people stump me – which isn’t actually too hard,” John says jokingly. “Just knowing that people want to learn something and knowing that I’m helping them to speak their own native tongue. To even be able to say a few things here and there, and eventually they’ll keep working on it and maybe someday even be able to hold a small conversation in public, and people will look at them funny. I want to hear it more in public. I want the little kids to at least be able to make their own little simple sentences.”

John concluded with his ultimate hope: “to get an immersion school going here in Mille Lacs, in some way, shape, or form. The more we use the language, the more it will be heard….Mi’iw.”

Above: John Benjamin, center, takes every opportunity to use the language with other speakers, like David 'Niib' Aubid and Alex 'Bagwajinini' Kmett.

Below: John shares his language skills with the Ge-Niigaanizijig youth leadership program students, in addition to working with Nay Ah Shing and District I language learners. Pictured with John are (back) Jazmyne Skinaway, Niigaan mentor Matt Petty, (front) Jenae Beaulieu and Seth Benjamin.