Black Lives Matter translation prompts calls for changes to Ojibway language

By | June 5, 2020

The phrase Black Lives Matter has been translated into many Indigenous languages to show support for the movement over the last week, but the Ojibway language’s term for black people is spurring calls for change.

“The people’s attitudes in trying to translate ‘Black Lives Matter’ is what set me off,” said Felisha Simone. 

Earlier this week, Simone said she was watching people in an Ojibway language Facebook group attempt to translate ‘Black Lives Matter.’

She said the online discussions kept bringing up the term makade-wiiyaz, which translates closely to “black meat.”

It is a term that she disagreed with other language speakers over.

“I feel like there is a lot of resistance to changing the way that language is used,” said Simone.

She was told that it wasn’t a disrespectful term and that it had been in use for a long time, however she has had negative experiences with the term in the past.

A few years ago at an Ojibway language camp in Keeseekoowenin First Nation, Simone introduced herself as makade-wiiyaz. She said the elders and language speakers chuckled at the term. 

She said that afterwards, her language instructor Darren Courchene told her that wiiyaz translated to meat.

“They were saying that I don’t have to refer to myself in that way, that it’s outdated, disrespectful and kind of racist,” said Simone.

Advocating for respectful language

Simone’s mother is Anishinaabe from Black River First Nation and her father is from Antigua. In English, she describes herself as Afro-Indigenous and in the Ojibway language, makade Anishinaabe ikwe, which translates closely to ‘black Indigenous woman.’

Her mother was part of the Sixties Scoop and her grandmother was a residential school survivor. She said that over the past five years she has made steps to connect with her culture by learning the Ojibway language.

“I’m proud to learn the language,” said Simone.

“I’m not saying everyone who uses that term is intentionally disrespectful, but we should have the right as black Ojibways to determine how we are talked about or introduced.”

Patricia Ningewance says the term makade wiiyaz has been around since she was a young child, and it’s time to stop using it. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Pat Ningewance who is an elder, Ojibway language instructor and has written multiple Ojibway language books, said she agrees that it is time for a change.

“It’s time to be respectful. There shouldn’t be racism towards black people,” said Ningewance.

“The language has to embrace more healthy outlooks.”

‘We’re not the only ones’

Shanese Steele, who’s mom is Anishinaabe-M├ętis and her dad is from Trinidad, said she has come across anti-black terms in other Indigenous languages as well.

“We’re not the only ones who have it,” said Steele.

“The Haudenosaunee, they have a term that is essentially the N-word for black people.”

Shanese Steele is an Anishinaabe-Metis and Trinidadian activist and writer. She says the Ojibway language accommodates new words all of the time and that there needs to be more respectful ways to talk about black people. (Carrington Christmas)

She said she has had conversations with her Haudenosaunee friends about the term, and said languages should be open to adapting.

“As Anishinaabe people, we are not stagnant people. We have never been. Our teachings have taught us that,” said Steele.

Both Steele and Simone said they would like to be referred to and introduced in a way that they feel comfortable with. 

Simone said the language matters not only for herself, but for Afro-Indigenous children across the country.

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