Nanda-nisidotam: Adventures in Ojibwe with Maya Chacaby (Glendon Class Recommendation)

In case you didn’t know, someone had her 15 minutes of fame in Macleans the other day.

“I’ve always heard Indigenous languages are some of the toughest to learn. Turns out Anishinaabemowin is easy to learn, it just depends on how you teach it,” says fourth-year student Sienna Warecki.


This article is cool for a few reasons: playful egotism aside, it features Glendon as a really important linguistic hub in Ontario and in Canada–but more than that, it gives some much-deserved spotlight to one of our all-time favourite professors, Maya Chacaby.

Photo by Cole Garside!
Here she is, in all her staggeringly-creative RPG-loving Ojibwe-singalong-initiating glory.

She teaches two classes at Glendon: LIN3616, the mouthful ‘Case Studies in Canada’s Aboriginal Languages’, and SOSC2630, or the much easier to say ‘Aboriginal Peoples’. She’s a central figure in Indigenous Studies at York and at Glendon, and she’s also an eternal darling among the student body. It’s no secret that Glendonites are obsessed with these classes and their prof: eAmbassadors Juan and Sonia have both written their own recommendation posts about LIN3616 before, one in 2012, the other in 2014. Today, I’m carrying on the nearly-yearly tradition.

Only I’m doing it a little bit different this time.

There are already two posts about LIN3616, plus a fresh-off-the-press Macleans article, so I figured I’d broaden my horizons a bit. I’ve had the enormous privilege of studying under Maya Chacaby for both of the classes she teaches, not only LIN3616 but also Aboriginal Peoples (SOSC2630), which I consider to be an essential companion to the LIN class. One covers language, the other covers culture (although both have elements of both, because, as you’ll keep hearing on this blog: language is culture and culture is language.) But even that wasn’t enough for me. So, seeing as Maya doesn’t teach any other official classes, I made one up just so she would continue to teach me–namely, as the supervisor of my Individual Studies course this semester. There are already plans in the works for me to continue to pester her next year with a full-year Honours Thesis course. And, as the Macleans article states, with a Masters some time after that.

Suffice it to say, I cannot get enough of this astonishing human.

If it sounds like I’m fangirling, it’s because I am. I’m not even shy about it–like Juan and Sonia before me (and like all of the students who come into contact with her classes), I never stop gushing about the life-changing nature of these courses and the person who guides you through them. That’s what I’m here to do today: instead of offering you a recap of any one class in particular, I’m going to give you something of a highlight reel. The best of the best, the cream of the crop of my love affair with Indigenous Studies and with Maya’s methodology. Whether you’re interested in linguistics and language, in Indigenous culture, in education theory, or in how to be a top-notch human, there’s something in here for you.

So without further ado, I give you–

7 Reasons Why Professor Chacaby is A-Maya-zing:

  1. You will feel like a human being in her classes. The first day of Maya’s classes are almost always host to “hugging circles”, which are exactly what they sound like–everyone gets in a circle and, one by one, you all give each other a solid, heart-to-heart hug. Have you ever hugged 30 people one after another? It’s a serious boost on your endorphins. (No, really. Go look it up.) Both LIN3616 and SOSC2630 included frequent rounds of talking circle as well, which sometimes lasted as long as an hour–just students going around and talking about their feelings and experiences without any interruption or judgement. For quite possibly the first time in your academic career, you will feel allowed to be a human being at the same time as being a student. It’s magic.
  2. She is the opposite of patronizing. You know how some profs, however well-intentioned they are, can’t seem to help but condescend their students? Like, we get it, we’re the students and you’re the professor, but you don’t need to laud your knowledge over us. Maya makes it clear that she is learning just as much from her students as they are learning from her–more than that, she normalizes the concept of being able to learn valuable lessons from everyone and everywhere, regardless of traditional hierarchies of authority. I mean for goodness’ sakes, she brings her young kids to class and asks them to help teach. Seriously. If that doesn’t show respect for the unique experiences of individuals, I don’t know what does.
  3. Her knowledge base is seemingly infinite. We are talking about a kwe (woman) who can take a story about a guy taking a dump on some birds and show you that it’s actually an illustration of a non-moralistic philosophy hinging not on generalizations of good/bad but instead on a heavily-interconnected network of action/consequence. But then again, we are also talking about a kwe who considers things like the 423-page “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” to be a bit of light reading. And a kwe who sent me an article about explaining post-structuralism using hipster beards. Take it as you will.
  4. She tells one heck of a good story. Speaking of stories, did you know that’s the primary method of teaching and learning in Maya’s classes? From Cree creation stories (Creeation stories I’m sorry I couldn’t resist) to Ojibwe narratives explaining the calendar to tales of the seemingly endless ookomisan (grandmothers) ready to provide wisdom and insight to children and adults alike, the aatisokaanan (traditional stories) of Indigenous people are the primary source material for lessons of both language and culture. More than anything, humans retain information when they can connect to it–they learn through stories. And Maya knows how to play an audience.
  5. Your efforts actually have an impact. In LIN3616, the final project is to create a “community resource” using Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language), which actually gets circulated among Ojibwe communities and Ojibwe-learning individuals as a method of actually using the language in a real-world context. In SOSC2630, the entire syllabus was constructed by the class–everything from the readings to the content of presentations to the importance placed on one topic over another. It was a self-governed learning experience. Here’s why these things are so massively successful among students: you leave each class feeling empowered. You leave feeling like all the hours put into the class aren’t just going to amount to a number on a transcript and some essays crumpled in the prof’s recycling bin.
  6. She lets her passions inform her teaching. And I don’t mean “she has a passion for her culture so she became an Indigenous Studies professor”. I mean she’s a tabletop RPG nerd and she reads comics about the existential crises that you risk when playing D&D and she literally schedules things like “dungeons” and “boss battles” in the LIN3616 syllabus. She is not afraid to integrate her whole being in her teaching, including (sometimes especially) the aspects which might otherwise be considered “unprofessional”. And she encourages you to do it too, because–
  7. She challenges your notion of what’s academically acceptable. Did I mention you get higher marks on all of her response papers if you use personal anecdotes? Did I mention another student is planning on an Individual Studies course where the final project is an RPG computer game taking you through some of the traditional stories? Did I mention my Masters is basically going to be an annotated graphic novel? (As a matter of fact, I did.) Like this girl who made her PhD in Chemistry into a comic book, you won’t ever have to read or write anything that you think is boring in Maya’s classes–in fact she actively encourages you to do things your way. It’s the way you shine brightest, after all.
The first page of my LIN3616 community resource project, which sparked an ambitious post-grad plan. Clickthrough for the story behind it!


There are more, obviously, but I need to leave you a few surprises, don’t I?


Stop “Studying The Indians”: Why The Methodology Matters

Here’s a fun fact: Maya always starts her courses with an obstinate proclamation of “we are not going to be studying the Indians“. Specifically in LIN3616, she tells the class outright that “you are going to be my case study”, indicating that the true experiment has nothing to do with learning dry facts about Indigenous history/languages but instead is about seeing whether a group of predominantly non-Native students can learn to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into their everyday worldview.

With suicide rates among First Nations being between two and ten times the national average, with only four of the original near-hundred aboriginal languages considered ‘viable’ for revitalization, and with friends coming to me with such exasperating stories as the girl who genuinely believed that “all the Indians are dead now, right?”, it’s never been more clear that we are in desperate need of an Indigenous-centric education–not a history textbook education, not something that reduces hereditary trauma to a textbox in Chapter 8, not something that makes an even further abstraction of “the Indian”, but an education that is grounded in truth and in compassion and, above all, in understanding.

The Anishinaabemowin in the title of this post translates to “to try to understand”, and it’s a slight play off of/poke at Juan’s post title, “Nanda-gikendan“, which means “to seek to know it”. They sound similar, but my semantically-sensitive linguist’s brain spots a key difference. For me, knowing about Indigenous people is about facts–about knowing things like the Kaswenta Wampum, or the Beaver Wars. Knowledge is static, objective. And it is possible to attain.

The Kaswenta (or “Two-Row”) wampum belt. If you live on Turtle Island, this piece of heritage belongs to you, so read up!

But understanding–understanding is a much more difficult endeavour to undertake.

Understanding is when you actively engage yourself in viewing your world through a Native perspective; it’s when you immerse yourself so fully in the experiences of Indigenous people that you can’t help but begin to empathize. Understanding is an act of vulnerability, accountability, and of empathy that sometimes causes great pain. And, unlike knowledge, true understanding is impossible to attain–for me, anyway, because by dint of being non-Native I will never fully understand, no matter how I try. But I try anyway, and it is the struggle inherent in the attempt of this impossible thing that creates real, lasting change–in myself and in the world around me.

With the aid of her classes and their incredible pedagogical framework, Maya Chacaby is on a mission to help Glendon students try to understand. I hope you join us as one of them.

Miigwech (thank you) for reading–baamaapii giwaapamin!

6 thoughts on “Nanda-nisidotam: Adventures in Ojibwe with Maya Chacaby (Glendon Class Recommendation)

  1. just saw this blog post searching for anishinaabemowin. that graphic novel idea is incredible! i actually taught a highschool course in ojibwe last year and had students update the writing of some of those anishinaabe’aatisoo’kaanan to modern double vowel. tell me, is the graphic novel completed? would be an absolute treat to read!


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