Language Roots

Some presenters at Healing Turtle Island this summer suggested that we all, colonizers included, should seek to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had the idea then to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then to mark their transitions to other languages. (Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots, but in this exercise, I limited myself to my matrilineal line.)

I want to thank Roger Paul, my teacher of Passamaquoddy/Wolastaqey, because I could not have approached the Innu language without having learned so much about Passamaquoddy. From what I can tell, the structures of these languages are the same, the grammar, the animacy, even some of the words are cognates. So with this foundation, I was able to use the Innu dictionary online to shape sentences that might bear some resemblance to how the language is spoken, though no doubt I have made errors.

After I was deep into it, I laughed at myself, because to whom could I speak these words, since I am not in touch with any Innu people right now? But then it seemed that perhaps they were for my ancestors in the spirit world. And so this is dedicated to them. I also want to acknowledge that though I have studied French, Google translate was my helper in the French language parts of this exercise, and unfortunately there is no Quebecois French in that translation program, so some subtleties have not been included. I have heard it said that Quebec French is closer to ancient French ways of speaking. I begin with a photo of my great-grandmother, since she is at the heart of the story.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother Claudia Tremblay.

Mishen Claudia nitishinikashun.
My name is Mykel Claudia.

Claudia iapit nitanishkutapanukum ishinikashu.
Claudia is also the name of my great grandmother.

Shekutimit utshiu, ińnu-assit.
She is from Chicoutimi, in Innu territory.

Ukuma ińnushkueuńua, Mańi-Matińin ishinikashuńua.
Her grandmother is an Innu woman, whose name is Marie-Madeleine.

Ińnu-aimińua.
She speaks the Innu language.

Eukuannu nui ińnu-aimin.
That is why I want to speak the Innu language.

Mańi-Matińin uitshimeu Pień McLeod, kie mitshetusheu.
Marie-Madeleine marries Peter McLeod and she has many children.

Utanishu, Anisheń ishinikashuńua.
She has a daughter, named Angele.

Ashku Anisheń kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishtᵘ, ukauia Mańi-Matińin nipińua.
When Angele is thirteen years old, her mother Marie-Madeleine dies.

Natshe uitshimeu Anisheń kakussesht. Shushep Tremblay, kie mitshetusheu.
Later, Angele marries a French-Canadian, Joseph Tremblay, and she has many children.

Anisheń utanishu Claudia, nitanishkutapanukum an.
Angele has a daughter Claudia, that’s my great-grandmother.

Kakusseshiu-aimu.
She speaks the French-Canadian language.

Mon arrière-grand-mère Claudia parle la langue canadienne-française, comme son père Joseph Tremblay.
My great-grandmother
Claudia speaks the French-Canadian language, like her father Joseph Tremblay.

Très probablement, Marie-Madeleine et Angele parlaient aussi la langue canadienne-française, ainsi que leur langue maternelle.
Most likely Marie-Madeleine and Angele also spoke the French-Canadian language, along with their mother tongue.

Mes ancêtres canadiens-français sont au Canada depuis le début de la colonisation, depuis l’an seize vingt.
My French-Canadian ancestors have been in Canada from the beginning of colonization, since the year 1620.

Je ne peux pas compter le nombre d’ancêtres français qui se sont installés au Québec, atteignant onze générations en arrière.
I cannot count the number of French ancestors who settled in Quebec, reaching eleven generations back.

Ils ont abattu de très nombreux arbres et cultivé la terre dans un climat difficile.
They cut down many, many trees and farmed the land in the difficult climate.

Malheureusement, leur arrivée a entraîné la maladie et la mort de nombreux Innus.
Sadly, their arrival brought disease and death to many Innu people.

Les Innus vivent dans leur terre depuis des temps immémoriaux, et y vivent encore aujourd’hui.
The Innu have lived in their land since time immemorial, and still live there today.

Claudia a une fille Yvonne, c’est ma grand-mère.
Claudia utanishu Ipuan, nukum an.
Claudia has a daughter Yvonne, that’s my grandmother.

Par ma grand-mère Yvonne, j’ai l’héritage des colonisateurs mais aussi, dans ma descendance matrilinéaire, l’héritage des colonisés.
Through my grandmother Yvonne, I have the heritage of the colonizers but also, in my matrilineal descent, the heritage of the colonized.

Yvonne a déménagé aux États-Unis à l’âge de dix-huit ans, où elle parlait anglais.
Yvonne moved to the United States when she was eighteen, where she spoke English.
Ipuan atutsheu Upashtuneu-assit ashku kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishuaush, tanite akańeshau-aimit.

Yvonne has a daughter Carol, that’s my mother.
Yvonne a une fille Carol, c’est ma mère.
Ipuan utanishu Kańań, nikaui an.

English is my first language.
L’anglais est ma première langue.
Nitakańeshau-aimin ńishtam.

Mothers and Grandmothers

In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.

When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.

Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”

Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.

Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.

My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown

My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.

Grandmother Yvonne with Myke

My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.

It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.

[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]