UM Professor San Duanmu’s first came into contact with the Ojibwe community during a cultural emersion trip to Sault Ste. Marie, which made him realize that much of the Ojibwe culture and experiences still relied on oral culture. When an issue needed resolving, people still have to ask the elders or rely on their memories to know how to proceed in the proper way. “I did not go thinking about a project I might do there. After my trip, I thought that if the knowledge was documented in some way, people could find out the information more easily. This documentation would allow knowledge to begin to distill so that people who have different ways of looking at things would have a source to go to double check the right way of doing things,” explained San.
San’s interest in this project also related to the language itself. According to San, “usually the term ‘endangered language’ refers to those that do not have many speakers left. The Ojibwe community is fairly large, especially in Canada, so it isn’t endangered in that sense. On the other hand, the children are not learning it, they do not speak the native language as their first language, at least not in the Michigan area. In that sense, no matter how many speakers there are, a generation later no one will be speaking it as a native tongue. In that sense it is endangered and people are really worried about it.” This situation parallels that of the Shanghai dialect of Chinese, which just 20 years ago was spoken by the majority of Shanghai’s millions of residents because of the prestige that went along with it. Today standard Chinese has become the main means of communication in Shanghai, and the Shanghai dialect is mainly used at home of half of the current residents. In addition, many children whose parents are native speakers of the Shanghai dialect do not speak it as their first language. San believes that after another generation passes only a small percentage of the city will speak Shanghai Chinese.
His recent visit to Sault Ste. Marie was to attend a storytelling event, “because I’m thinking about doing a documentation project, its good to find out who has more stories to tell, allowing us to find out where the culture is.” San would work with the two main tribal communities, each with their own government, and one that has a tribal college. In addition to being geographically convenient to research, the National Science Foundation recently released a call for proposals that would be more favorably reviewed if done in conjunction with the tribal college. In doing this work, San hopes to create a comprehensive collection of stories that paint a more complete cultural picture than those of other books that currently seem like scattered pieces.
“Old cultures were very often organized in terms of stories; sandskrit, religious texts were in terms of stories. If you put together about 1000 stories that would be a nice book. With that length you will have the linguistics qualities of the language documented. The recording is an important part of this project. I want to record it in two languages, English and Ojibwe. This is an innovation of the documentation idea, which is to have a bilingual parallel recording,” articulates San. San hopes that recoding the stories in this way will allow him and his team to try out some new ways of documenting language that could be beneficial to working with unknown languages in the future.
In his progress forward, “the most important thing is whether the tribal communities want us to work with us or not. I would only do this if they were very interested in doing this. Hopefully they find it to be very beneficial to their culture so that they have the motivation to do the work. So far so good.”