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Complete With His Language: Kenny Pheasant and the Great Lakes' Original Tongue

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Kenny Pheasant has been teaching Anishinaabemowin since he was 14 years-old. (credit: Dan Wanschura / Points North)

Kenny Pheasant didn’t know it then, but he first became a teacher at a grocery store meat counter on Manitoulin Island.

“The guy says, ‘I want six chicken legs,’” said Pheasant. “And I says, ‘Okay. Ngodwaaswe bakaawenh kaadenhsan.’”

That’s Anishinaabemowin, the Great Lakes’ original language. Soon, Pheasant’s reputation spread.

“‘There's this little Indian boy…at the meat market that teach [sic] you language if you go in there,’” he said. “And I was 14.”

It’s now Kenny Pheasant’s life mission to get more people speaking Anishinaabemowin – an endangered Indigenous language. It’s spoken by few and is continuously threatened. But when it’s spoken, a unique worldview is retained.

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Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Sierra Clark, Patrick Shea
Music: Alan Mikelis, Blue Dot Sessions, Crowander

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Kenny Pheasant was 14 when he got his first job. It was at a small grocery store, working in the meat department.

KENNY PHEASANT: Back then meat wasn't packaged the way it is now, you know, sandwich meat and whatnot, and chicken, and everything like that. So we had to do that for our customers.

WANSCHURA: Kenny was born and raised on Manitoulin Island in the middle of Lake Huron. Tourists would visit during the summer months.They’d stop to pick up food at the market and Kenny was the one taking orders.

PHEASANT: The guy says, ‘I want six chicken legs.’ And I says, ‘Okay. Ngodwaaswe bakaawenh kaadenhsan.’”

“And he says, ‘What?’ I says, ‘Well, I just said six chicken legs in my language.’ ‘Oh, really?’ And he says, ‘Teach me that, I wanna be able to say that when I order, come in here.’”

WANSCHURA: Kenny Pheasant is Anishinaabe and belongs to the Wiikwemkoong First Nation. Soon, his reputation spread.

PHEASANT: There's this little Indian boy…at the meat market that teach [sic] you language if you go in there. And I was 14. I did not know I was going to have a career teaching language. (laughter)

WANSCHURA: Now Kenny Pheasant is 68. And he’s still teaching his language: Anishinaabemowin. The Great Lakes’ original language.

He’s one of a few who speak it fluently. And despite tough odds, Kenny is determined to pass on his native tongue.

This is Points North: a show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

Concentration is a game made of rows and columns of homemade cards laying face down on the table. Each one has an image depicting a verb or rarely used word. The students flip over a card, say the word in Anishinaabemowin, and then try to find its match. (credit: Kenny Pheasant)

It’s a cold, winter morning in Manistee, Michigan. Three adult students sit at a table in the basement of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians government building.

That’s when Kenny Pheasant introduces his next game.

PHEASANT: Now we’re about to play this game, Concentration, in our language.

WANSCHURA: Rows and columns of homemade cards lay face down on the table. Each one with an image depicting a verb or rarely used word. If you’ve ever played Memory – it’s like that.

The students flip over a card, say the word in Anishinaabemowin, and then try to find its match.

PHEASANT: Uh-oh, right off the bat! Say wawaatesiinh maaba.

ROGER SHALIFOE: Wawaatesiinh maaba.

WANSCHURA: Roger Shalifoe is the oldest student here. He’s 58.

PHEASANT: Kaadeniganan ninda.

SHALIFOE: Kaadeniganan ninda.

PHEASANT: He said that’s a firefly and those are braids.

WANSCHURA: If it sounds like the Anishinaabemowin version is longer than the English ones – they are. A single word in English might be represented by several in Anishinaabemowin.

It’s because the language is verb-based and centers around action.

Jonnie Sam is Kenny’s boss at the Little River Band. He jokes about how complex even simple words are.

JONNIE SAM: It’s like I told Kenny, ‘Can’t we just use, ‘phone?’ Giigidoo-biiwaabikoonsan. That means, ‘Being able to speak from one spot to a different one.’ But I could just say, ‘phone.’ Why can’t we adopt some of theirs and slide ‘em there? (laughter)

And he just says, ‘Cause then it wouldn’t be our language.’

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Jonnie Sam is the Historic Preservation Department Director at the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and Kenny Pheasant's boss. (credit: Dan Wanschura / Points North)

(in classroom)

PHEASANT: Ok! Paswewe maanpii.

ANDREW JEURINK: Paswewe maanpii.

WANSCHURA: That’s Andrew Jeurink. He’s 34.

PHEASANT: Shkwaanjiganan ninda.

JEURINK: Shkwaanjiganan ninda.

PHEASANT: Leftovers and echo.

WANSCHURA: Andrew has been in Kenny’s Anishinaabemowin class for over seven years.But he says just within the last year, the words are coming more easily.

JEURINK: So when I’m hearing it, I’m no longer kind of scrolling through in my mind of what that word could be, compared to now, I’m just able to follow along.

WANSCHURA: Andrew says he was inspired to learn the language himself when he noticed fewer and fewer of his people speaking Anishinaabemowin. But it takes a lot of patience.

JEURINK: I mean, we’re just children at this moment where we’re learning. So I feel like it’s like we’re learning how to read and talk in kindergarten and first grade sometimes.

WANSCHURA: Kenny Pheasant understands that. It’s why he models the words for his students, and then they repeat them. Anishinaabemowin is an oral language. It doesn’t have an alphabet. Kenny says some people think you have to know how to read the language before speaking it. But he doesn’t buy that.

PHEASANT: I said, ‘When did you start talking, maybe two years old?’ I said, ‘Did you learn how to read back then?’ They said, ‘No.’ Well, I said, ‘Why do you have to learn how to read the language if you can’t, you know…?’

WANSCHURA: Kenny learned to speak Anishinaabemowin in his home listening to his parents. But it almost didn’t happen. When Kenny’s father was a boy, he was put in a Catholic residential school in Ontario. He was there for eight years.

The main purpose of these schools was to erase Indigenous language and practices and replace them with Euro-American culture.

PHEASANT: The first day that he was at the residential school, he got hit in the face by a priest because he got caught speaking the language. And he said that it frightened him, you know, a little eight year-old boy getting hit in the face by a grown man. You know, that's pretty traumatic.

WANSCHURA: And the boarding schools often succeeded, disrupting that cultural handoff from one generation to the next. But Kenny’s dad found another way.

He secretly spoke Anishinaabemowin to his friends – out of the earshot of his teachers.

His dad was the lucky one.

Unlike so many who stopped speaking, he was able to hold onto it and pass it on to his son. Because he did, Anishinaabemowin was Kenny’s first and only language growing up. Kenny says it also helped that Manitoulin Island was isolated.

PHEASANT: We never heard English in the home and we didn't have electricity, so we didn't have a radio or television or anything like that.

WANSCHURA: He says it wasn't until he was a teenager, they got electricity. Eventually, his parents told him and his siblings they would have to learn English, and that was upsetting.

PHEASANT: Why do I have to learn English for, you know, I'm perfectly fine, speak in my language. And uh, my, our parents said that…English is the dominant language. It's everywhere. It's written everywhere. It's used everywhere. So, you're gonna have to learn how to use it.

And then they turned around and said, ‘But we're not gonna teach you!’ (laughter)

WANSCHURA: Manitoulin Island didn’t have a high school, so Kenny went to one on Ontario’s mainland.That’s where he learned to speak English at 16 years-old. He jokes he still isn’t fluent in it today.

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Kenny Pheasant has been teaching Anishinaabemowin since he was 14 years-old. (credit: Dan Wanschura / Points North)

Anishinaabemowin is an endangered language and it’s becoming more so every day. It’s a global trend for Indigenous languages.

According to a 2021 study, of the world’s seven thousand recognized languages, about half are endangered. The study says by the end of this century … that number could decrease by over 20%.

ANTON TREUER: Anybody who's not worried isn't paying attention.

WANSCHURA: Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.

Ojibwe are a part of the Anishinaabek.He says languages are a part of a greater cultural ecosystem.

For example, if a bird goes extinct, yes, the beauty of that bird is lost. But also, the balance of the whole ecosystem could be thrown off – like a big game of Jenga. Anton says the same is true with language.

TREUER: And there's a lot at stake. It's not just another pretty bird singing in the forest, and wouldn't it be nice to hear all the pretty birds, which is how a lot of people think about things like, you know, endangered languages.

WANSCHURA: When a language goes extinct, Anton says you’re not just losing that dialect. You’re losing that cultural knowledge, too. That’s what makes Indigenous languages intrinsically valuable.

TREUER: Each language embodies the unique worldview of a people. It's a totally different way of looking at the world, and it's very difficult to get it all in translation.

(in classroom)

KRYSTAL DAVIS: Some of these words that we say actually bring in our spirituality…inside the word.

WANSCHURA: Krystal Davis is another one of Kenny’s students.

DAVIS: And so it actually means something different and on a higher level. And so that’s why I love being here. I wanna say it’s like going to church every time that I come.

WANSCHURA: Krystal says that deeper connection isn’t there with English.

DAVIS: The language ties in with…our spirituality. So it makes me feel that this table isn’t just a table, it’s actually its own being. Even though it’s inanimate. But when we talk in our language it does have connection with me and my body. I am on the table or the table is by me and it’s always connecting to what I am as a person.

WANSCHURA: That’s something she says you don’t get when translating Anishinaabemowin. In fact, she has an acronym for it.

DAVIS: Translates like crap. (laughter) T.L.C.

WANSCHURA: Krystal says her grandmother spoke Anishinaabemowin to her as a child. And when she passed away, she was inspired to learn the language herself.

DAVIS: My hardest thing…would be to find somebody to speak it to and have a conversation with once we leave this classroom. There’s nobody other than us, and then we try to use those words at home, and we try and use those words wherever we go, but after that it kind of just fizzles.

PHEASANT: Krystal, wegnesh maanda yaawaang? (What is this?)

DAVIS: Doopwin we aawaan. (That is a chair.) 

WANSCHURA: Before each class begins, Kenny Pheasant puts a candle on the table and lights it. He does it for Terrie Tyler’ba, a student who attended these classes for 20 years. ('ba is used with cultural significance for a deceased loved one.)

Every week before his language class begins, Kenny Pheasant lights this a candle in remembrance of Terrie Tyler'ba. She was his first student out of his program to become fluent in Anishinaabemowin. (credit: Kenny Pheasant)

PHEASANT: She was my first student out of this program to become fluent in the language.

WANSCHURA: Terrie’ba passed away a little over a year ago.

PHEASANT: Her body may be gone, but her spirit is still here in this classroom.

(classroom ambiance)

Drew, wegnesh ninda yaawaangin? (What are these?)

JEURINK: Pabwinan newe aawinoon. (Those are chairs.)

WANSCHURA: For these students and the other ones that you interact with, what is your ultimate hope that they walk away with?

PHEASANT: To feel like me. That's what I want. Excuse me. (emotional)
I'm complete with my language. I'm whole. I'm a complete person.

Kenny Pheasant has created an extensive Anishinaabemowin website with videos and other tools to learn the language.
Click here to visit.

Ever since he was young, Dan has been fascinated with radio. From hearing the dulcet tones of John Gordon broadcast Minnesota Twins games, to staying up late listening to radio theater, he was captivated by the imaginative medium.