Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair on Anishinaabeg storytelling

In Anishinaabe (Ojibway) tradition, an offering is a gift. It’s a gesture given in the hope of creating a relationship. Anishinaabeg gifts can take many forms, from asemaa (tobacco) to miijim (food) to zhooniyaa (money).

In Anishinaabemowin, the word for a gift is bagijigan while the act of making an offering is bagijige. A more accurate translation is actually “to release” – to hand over the responsibility of carrying a gift to another.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

I remember when I received a beautiful bagijigan: my name. Niigaan means “leading” or “at the front.” A more direct translation is “future.” The second half wewidam – to make a long description embarrassingly short – means “a coming sound” (like a voice or word). One translation of Niigaanwewidam therefore is: “sound that comes before speech.” I’m still learning from this beautiful name.

For thousands of years Anishinaabeg have given these kinds of offerings, in words from our beautiful language that together form stories and songs. These live through speech and breath that – among many things – honour the sacredness of the universe, illustrate dreams, and record history. Some carry such power they have even adopted English as a medium of expression.

Anishinaabeg stories tell of the famous Naanaboozhoo or other spiritual, animal, and/or human beings. They are political tales, funny anecdotes, or philosophical and scientific articulations of the world. They are as brilliant as any composed in Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. Some of them, especially in how they embody the history and geography of Turtle Island (North America), are the best narratives of this place.

Some Anishinaabeg narratives are “published” in books but much more exist in other textual forms like petroforms, rock paintings, books, tattoos, paintings, street art, and beadwork. Some exist on sand, earth mounds, and footprints on the earth. These expressions not only carry the knowledge of a unique people but represent gifts to all; opportunities to understand a rich and resilient culture and community.

My latest book, Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories is an offering that embodies and honours the spirit of gift giving in Anishinaabeg literatures. It features 24 contributors who propose that Anishinaabeg stories carry dynamic answers to questions posed within Indigenous communities, nations, and the world.

I had the privilege of bringing this collection into being by working with these brilliant Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg scholars, storytellers, and activists. Their brave words draw upon the power of Anishinaabeg culture and community and illustrate how these offerings help us understand our world in a meaningful way.

I invite you to partake in this gift, enjoy reading it, and, perhaps, pass on a few offerings of your own.

About Centering Anishinaabeg Studies

For the Anishinaabeg people, who span a vast geographic region from the Great Lakes to the Plains and beyond, stories are vessels of knowledge. They are bagijiganan, offerings of the possibilities within Anishinaabeg life. Existing along a broad narrative spectrum, from aadizookaanag (traditional or sacred narratives) to dibaajimowinan (histories and news)—as well as everything in between—storytelling is one of the central practices and methods of individual and community existence. Stories create and understand, survive and endure, revitalize and persist. They honor the past, recognize the present, and provide visions of the future. In remembering, (re)making, and (re)writing stories, Anishinaabeg storytellers have forged a well-traveled path of agency, resistance, and resurgence. Respecting this tradition, this groundbreaking anthology features twenty-four contributors who utilize creative and critical approaches to propose that this people’s stories carry dynamic answers to questions posed within Anishinaabeg communities, nations, and the world at large. Examining a range of stories and storytellers across time and space, each contributor explores how narratives form a cultural, political, and historical foundation for Anishinaabeg Studies. Written by Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg scholars, storytellers, and activists, these essays draw upon the power of cultural expression to illustrate active and ongoing senses of Anishinaabeg life. They are new and dynamic bagijiganan, revealing a viable and sustainable center for Anishinaabeg Studies, what it has been, what it is, what it can be.