Climate Change History Translated for Ojibwe Lesson Plans

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Kevin Bunch
December 21, 2021
screenshot climate change video

A video describing the 53-year history of climate change studies by the International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario is now available in the Ojibwe language, also known as Anishinaabemowin, thanks to the help of experts from Nigigoonsiminikaaning (Red Gut) First Nation.

The video is also the basis for a new Ojibwe language lesson plan to teach the next generation of students about grammar and new scientific words coined for the video.

This is the second such video the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has worked on with Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation. The previous one on mercury impacts to freshwater systems was completed in 2020, with an accompanying lesson plan.

ELA Outreach Officer Dilber Yunus said the process for the climate change video translation was similar to that for the mercury video.

There were three full-day translation sessions with ELA staff working alongside language experts and knowledge keepers from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation. That was followed by a one-day roundhouse meeting with several Elders and experts from other Treaty #3 First Nations to integrate their perspectives and suggestions into the translation.

Fortunately, Yunus said, the in-person sessions were completed shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic ceased in-person meetings in 2020.

“One interesting thing about that was, when it comes to scientific terminology like carbon dioxide, we had a bit of trouble on how to translate that,” Yunus said. “When you try to break down what carbon dioxide is, it’s challenging.”

Jason Jones, an Ojibwe language teacher and part of the translation team, added: “Some of these words were not created yet, so we needed some Elders to help us.”

Two other Ojibwe language experts, Nancy Jones and her son Don Jones (no relation to Jason), assisted with developing these new words. Ojibwe doesn’t borrow words from other languages, hence the need to create new ones for scientific terms.

Yunus explained that unlike English or French, which are noun-based, Ojibwe is action-based. So the term “carbon dioxide,” a major part of the climate change video, doesn’t directly map into Ojibwe without any inherent action associated with it.

The translation developed through discussions with First Nation Elders translates “carbon dioxide” to “the air that trees breathe,” Yunus said, based on the photosynthesis process where plants use carbon dioxide to drive energy production.

Furthermore, any translation into Ojibwe is really three translations: an implied translation, a literal translation and a cultural translation.

For example, Jason Jones said the Ojibwe word for “Sunday” under those three aspects means “the prayer day” and “sign of respect” on account of the Ojibwe cultural respect for all people on Earth and their religious traditions.

“There are a lot of moving parts going on while trying to translate something into Ojibwe, and that’s what we were trying to capture,” Jason Jones said.

roundhouse meeting elders

A roundhouse meeting with Elders. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

Jason Jones said the lesson plans were a vital part of the project, and the translation team wanted to ensure younger people were involved.

The voiceover for both videos was done by Emma Bruyere, a high school student from Couchiching First Nation. For the lesson plans, users of a SMART Notebook educational computer system can click on a specific part of the voiceover text for a breakdown of each part of the sentence as it’s formed, with explanations for grammar and sentence structure as it goes on.

“When you’re creating Ojibwe sentences, you start with the word and add onto it to tell who is speaking, who is doing the action to who, is the action alive or not alive,” Jason Jones explained. “That’s why we have these long words in Ojibwe, because you start with the middle of the word and add onto it.”

These lesson plans are SMART Notebook files, to aid with second language classes, and also come in a PDF format. Jason Jones added that, while the lesson plans are based on the Rainy Lake dialect of Ojibwe, the filetype makes them relatively easy to tweak for second language classes for dialects used in other parts of the continent.

Yunus said the Department of Canadian Heritage funded the two videos and their companion lesson plans , and the process took about three years due to delays brought on by COVID-19.

The ELA seeks funding to translate its two other informational videos—one focused on researching the impacts of estrogen from medication on freshwater systems and the other on excess nutrients that cause algal blooms—into Ojibwe.

To create supplemental Ojibwe-language lesson plans, Yunus said she and Jason Jones also have discussed an educational podcast that would feature First Nations Elders speaking about water or weather topics.

These proposals aside, Yunus said he is happy with how these first two videos turned out and the collaboration with Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation.

“I want to really thank all the Elders, language experts and language helpers for their guidance, help, teachings and wisdom on these topics,” Yunus said. “Without their input and effort, it wouldn’t have come to fruition.”

Picture of Kevin Bunch
Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.