“Today, like so many other days, someone asked me the Ojibwe names for plants,”

says Hope Flanagan, elder, teacher, and knowledge bearer.

“But it helps to know what the language is saying about the plants.” 

Take the word for smooth sumac for example — opwaaganaatig.

You cannot fully understand opwaaganaatig as “smooth sumac” without understanding what the word is really saying — wood used for pipe making.”

Hope was recognized with Pollen and AARP’s 50 Over 50 award in 2018 for her work in preserving and teaching Ojibwe language and culture. Since then, she has continued her work at Dream of Wild Health, teaching Ojibwe language, stories, songs, and about indigenous plants. 

“How you are able to experience the world varies with your language,”says Hope.

   Research over the past two decades has proven this to be true — the language you use impacts how you think, and therefore how you act. So learning another language becomes about more than being able to communicate with more people — it gives you a new way of looking at and moving through the world around you.

   In fact, Hope has encountered two astrophysicists who said that they needed to learn the Ojibwe language, because it’s the best way to understand physics. In the Ojibwe language verbs are the most important part of speech, explained Hope. Words express how beings and things exist in relationship to each other.

 

That’s why the words are so long,” says Hope.
They are often a full sentence.” 

Listening to plants has always been a part of Hope’s life.

“I remember when I was two years old, my mom showed me wild carrot and yellow water lily root,”she says.“The yellow water lily root reflects its place in the Water World.”

For Hope, learning and teaching about indigenous plants and their language are inextricable.

 

    “When I was younger, the elders would send me to go fetch plants, and they’d tell me their names in Ojibwe,” says Hope. “I had to learn.” The elder who gave Hope her Ojibwe name also encouraged her to learn the language. “The plants could be talking to you in your language,” she would say, meaning their ancestral and heart language, the Ojibwe language.

    When she was 25 Hope received her spirit name from an elder. The elder gave her great auntie’s name to Hope. Hope’s namesake was also someone who would fetch plants and was a teacher. Upon receiving her name, Hope understood that the name was about more than her as an individual. “It’s about responsibility, not ego,” she says. “I’m a placeholder for someone who fetches plants in the community and is here to do service for the community.” And that’s exactly who she’s become.

    Now at 64, Hope has taught for 13 summers at Dream of Wild Health, working with youth ages 8-18. They go to the farm to learn about food, nutrition, growing, cooking, and finding their own food, and producing food for their communities. Dream of Wild Heath’s mission is to restore health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy indigenous foods, medicines, and lifeways.

    This is always a moving target, says Hope. The uprising after the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing upheaval in South Minneapolis left many facing even greater challenges finding access to food. Dream of Wild Health pivoted to focus on making sure food got to their community. Now, says Hope, “we are continuing to focus on building secure food systems, restoring sovereignty to Native communities, teaching youth to restore health food ways, and building support for soil and nutrient-dense foods, building tribal seedkeepers, and re-matriating our traditional seeds.”
For Hope, aging is a part of her work.

  “In native society,” she says, “the older you get, the more valuable you are.” The best — and according to Hope, the only — way to learn a language is by speaking it. Noting that most people who currently speak the Ojibwe language learned it as a second, or even third language, Hope describes the elders that grew up speaking Ojibwe, the first language speakers, as being “so utterly precious.” To learn the languages, you have to talk to the elders, she says. And as she continues to gather language, stories, and knowledge, she also grows more precious.

The Ojibwe language reinforces, or perhaps creates the idea of the importance of elders. 

Mindimooye — the word in Ojibwe used to describe an elder woman— can be translated into English as “she holds things together.” 

“I am so fortunate to have that,” Hope says.

    She remembers a teaching from an elder, who was speaking of all her friends who have moved on from this world. “I wonder what I still have to learn, or what I have to teach, and that’s why I’m still here,” the elder mused. 

    “That’s why we’re all here,” says Hope — because we still have something to learn, or something to teach, or more likely both.

“We don’t know how we teach someone else,” she says,
but “everyone is giving a lesson.”

    In the Ojibwe language, the greatest demarcation is between the living and the non-living. So when Hope says “everyone,” she is also referring to the plants, animals, and microbes that share this Earth with us. Lately, the changing climate has been on her mind. Hope remembers a time when every March 15 marked the return of the robins to this land. Now, she says, the robins don’t even leave. 

    As Hope advises those who come to her on how to create systems to support native pollinators when climate change provides so many more variables, she too, turns to the wisdom of her elders. 

Listen to the plants,” they tell her.
Listen to the animals.
The animals know, we don’t.
We’re the young ones.”

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contributors

Alia Jeraj
Alia Jeraj (she & they) is a performer, writer, and educator in the Twin Cities. With support from MRAC's 2018 Next Step Fund and as a part of Pillsbury House Theater's 2020 Naked Stages cohort, Alia continues to explore their connection to the songs and stories of her ancestors. Alia's bylines include American Craft, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Pollen Midwest. When not singing, writing, or working to subvert mainstream education systems, you can find Alia curled up with hot chai and a book, or somewhere near a body of water.
Jerome Rankine
As Editorial Director, Jerome is the keeper of Pollen’s editorial voice and vision. He works with Pollen’s talented stable of writers to produce stories that entertain, enlighten, and invite readers to take action. Jerome spends a lot of time hunched over keyboards--either editing the latest Pollen feature, or composing music in his home studio. He’s active in local politics, less active on social media, and more active in his kitchen.
Leeya Rose Jackson
Leeya Rose Jackson is an Art Director, Graphic Designer and Illustrator. She is the Creative Founder of Noisemakers Design and a Design Lead at Pollen Midwest.