Elders share Anishinaabemowin to preserve environment

Experimental Lakes team worked with Indigenous elders to translate research videos into Anishinaabemowin

A project coming out of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has worked to translate two educational videos into Anishinaabemowin, and created several new words in the language in the process.

The IISD ELA is located between Kenora and Dryden and is a one-of-a-kind research space that utilizes a chain of lakes to do controlled scientific experiments on things like the impacts of climate change and the effects of pharmaceuticals or mercury on the environment. As part of the organization’s ongoing outreach efforts to local Indigenous communities in the region, an effort was made to translate two of their previous educational videos into Anishinaabemowin. Dilber Yunus is the IISD’s outreach officer and she explained that with the help of the Royal Bank of Canada, the IISD was able to create informative animated videos in english and french called “How We do Things at IISD-ELA” to help explain some of the results of their research. Once the ELA came under the purview of the IISD following cuts by the Harper administration, Yunus said the organizations’ recognition of operating on Treaty land pushed them to do more in terms of outreach to Indigenous communities.

“Before we became not-for-profit there was very limited outreach done by the government, but it wasn’t on the larger scale we’re doing now,” Yunus said.

“Becoming a not-for-profit opened up a lot of opportunity for us to really collaborate with communities near the ELA because we realized there was a need to let people know there are these types of research that are ongoing. We also realized it’s important to share those research findings. We’ve done a lot of research on mercury contamination and those issues are very obvious in communities like Grassy Narrows [First Nation].”

The IISD traditionally holds a fall feast event where staff can speak to and discuss topics with local elders and knowledge keepers, and Yunus explained that one thing they learned over the years was the concerns that elders had with younger generations not engaging with the Anishinaabe language and culture, as well as how they felt that youth were intimidated by science and scientific concepts, which later on would lead to barriers for those youth trying to get better jobs.

“The other huge topic was how we could look at these pressing environmental issues from both lenses,” Yunus said.

“Science as a tool can really help us understand how contaminants can really impact an ecosystem and how Indigenous worldview can also help us look at these things from a more sustainable or environment-centric way of looking at the world.”

As a way to tackle both of those issues in one move and bridge these two seemingly disparate ways of thinking, the IISD began work on translating their educational videos into Anishinaabemowin. Yunus said the initial thought was that the IISD would be able to broaden their audience and focus on their Indigenous neighbours. The IISD reached out to elder Nancy Jones, elder Don Jones and Ojibwe teacher Jason Jones of Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation and together they landed on translating two of the the organizations’ five videos; “Researching Mercury” and “Researching Climate Change.”

When it came time to translating the videos, Yunus said she, along with IISD-ELA deputy director Pauline Gerrard and retired ELA scientist Bruce Townsend would make the trip down to Fort Frances to meet with the Jones’ to begin the process.

“We had three full-day translation sessions,” Yunus explained.

“It wasn’t three days in a series, we went out multiple times and we would all of us sit down for a full day and do sentence-by-sentence translation of the transcripts of the videos. We did the mercury video first and then we did the climate change video in the same manner. We were there basically to explain how the research was conducted, what the equipment was, the methodology put into the research.”

After the translation team finished the three full-day sessions, they would then join back together for a roundhouse discussion in Nigigoonsiminikaaning to which more area elders and youths were invited to go over the translations and any of the new words that had been created for the videos and an accompanying lesson plan.

By way of example, in the IISD video and lesson plan for mercury, the team lays out the word they settled upon as a translation, “Biiwaabikowaabo gaa-waawaakeshkaag,” and break it down to the component or root words. While the term is the Anishinaabemowin word for mercury, breaking it down to its root words shows that “biwaabiko” is “(a piece of) metal; iron,” “waabo” is “liquid,” “gaa” is “the thing that is being,” “waawaakeshk” is “very shiny; bright” and “aa” is “in a state or condition. Taken all together, the Anishinaabemowin word for mercury, Biiwaabikowaabo gaa-waawaakeshkaag, directly translates to “the liquid metal that is (very) shiny” or “the liquid metal that shines brightly,” according to Yunus.

“This is the most amazing part of the whole translation process,” she said.

“The translators actually translated a lot of the scientific words and terminology that didn’t exist in Ojibwe dictionary before and Jason reached out to the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary website and put those new words created through our translation exercise into the dictionary.”

As part of the translation process and final results, the lesson plans were developed to walk the public through developing each translation in a more thorough fashion, giving examples of sentences in english and Anishinaabemowin and providing translation notes, along with notes on how the team created new words and additional learning materials to bring the knowledge into a teaching or classroom setting. Each lesson plan also includes the final translated video, spoken entirely in Anishinaabemowin, and both english and Anishinaabemowin transcripts.

Yunus said the final results of the project, the two videos, accompanying lesson plans and new words created in the language, are a testament to the dedication and knowledge of the translators and the Indigenous communities who collaborated with the science team to accomplish the translation process. The process also highlights how western and Indigenous ways of thinking can work together to help further environmental research and goals. Yunus said she’s hopeful the videos help inspire Indigenous youth to engage and connect with science, language and culture and push a paradigm shift in western ways of thinking to incorporate more traditional knowledge.

“There are just so many aspects of this project we didnt expect at the beginning,” she said. 

“I really want to give credit to the elders. I really appreciate they gave me permission to share this knowledge and some of the lessons I’ve learned. Like I said, we were just thinking about broadening our audience but later on we realized it was more than that, we encountered and learned a lot of things. For me as well, I’m a huge language enthusiast. For me it was how different the Ojibwe language is, because all the languages I can speak are noun-based; encountering a language that is just so verb-based and imagining the different worldview really made me understand the languages we speak play a huge role in forming our worldviews.”

To learn more about the work that is done at the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area, or to watch the translated videos and read the accompanying lesson plans, visit their website at www.iisd.org/ela/ or their YouTube account “iisdvideo.”