Eli Baxter grew up on his parents' traditional hunting grounds, where he learned the Ojibwe language through oral tradition.
“I always admired the speakers who were older than me, and I always wanted to have the ability to talk at that level,” he said.
But learning the ceremonial teachings associated with Ojibwe — a language now considered endangered — was cut short when Baxter was forced to attend Lac Seul Residential School, part of a network of the church- and government-run residential schools that operated across Canada from the early 1800s to 1996.
“We weren’t allowed to speak the language when we went through the residential school system,” recalled Baxter, an Anishinaabe elder and member of the Marten Falls First Nation in northern Ontario.
“We lost all of that.”
It’s why Baxter, who now lives in London, drew on oral tradition when writing his first memoir, Aki-wayn-zih: A Person as Worthy as the Earth. His book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, earned him this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
“It was basically me telling a story to somebody,” he said of how the book started.
In the memoir, Baxter recounts — in both Ojibwe and English — Anishinaabe life before Europeans settled in Canada, growing up in a hunting and gathering society and surviving the residential school system.
“It’s a great honour to be recognized for writing this book because this book is made for natives and non-natives to learn more about the Anishinaabe way of life before European contact and also what my experiences were growing up,” he said.
“Also, to tell people that our generation is the last of the hunting and gathering society that knows the Ojibway language fluently.”
Even before his book, Baxter was teaching others about the importance of oral storytelling. A certified teacher, he taught Ojibwe to students at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, southwest of London, for 20 years and created, taught and delivered the Anishinaabe language and culture course at Western University for 17 years.
Baxter then worked as a general education teacher at Oneida Nation of the Thames until the pandemic hit.
The first-time author said he’s already working on a second book that will pick up from where the first one left off.
“It’s about my journey after I spent time with my parents up north for a couple years, and then going back and getting my GED (general education development) certificate,” he said, adding it will also focus on what changes need to be made in the education system.
Baxter said he envisions an Anishinaabe university in Ontario where every subject will be taught in the Ojibwe language.
“We have experienced the European education system for the past 150 years or so,” he said. “So . . . why don’t we try the Anishinaabe education system for the next 150 years and see where that takes us?”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press