When Kenny Pheasant, 56, was a child on Canada’s Manitoulin Island, in northern Lake Huron, the Anishinaabe language, called Anishinaabemowin, surrounded him. His family spoke Anishinaabemowin. His friends spoke Anishinaabemowin. His entire community spoke Anishinaabemowin. And since his home had no electricity, no English beamed in on TV or radio to dilute the effect.
By the time Pheasant entered kindergarten, he “knew maybe three English words,” he says. But then his English instruction began in earnest, because English was the only language his teachers spoke. English washed into Pheasant’s mind, but unlike many Native Americans who had the same experience, he did not allow the flood of Britain’s mother tongue to drown his own.
Flash ahead to 1979, when Pheasant, by now a single dad with three young children—two sons and a daughter—moved to Traverse City. “I always liked to go to Meijer because I would see my people there,” he says. One day, not long after moving to Traverse City, he approached a Native American man who was shopping with his young family. “I went up to him and started speaking in Anishinaabe,” Pheasant says. “And he looked down at the floor. He said he couldn’t speak the language, he couldn’t even understand it.” Pheasant’s language is so central to his being, his sense of what it means to be a Native American, that it hadn’t even occurred to him that native people his age would not know the language. Similar encounters played out in ensuing months.
“I felt a real sadness, this realization. I thought, Well, who will I talk to here?” Pheasant recalls.
He knew English, so obviously his question went much deeper than simply wondering about pleasant conversation. Pheasant’s father had taught him that the Native American culture lives within the language, and that the language must never be lost. “The native people here did not understand that philosophy,” Pheasant says. “They thought, If I sit around the drum and dance, that is my culture. They didn’t understand the gift that lies within the understanding and the speaking of the language. How it connects you with the Creator, the Earth. The spirituality is in the language, it’s built right in there.”
The drum, for example, is an important cultural item for Native Americans. The word for drum is ade-we-gan. “Ade” means heart. “We” means sound. “Gan” means object that had to be made. “So the drum means the heartbeat of our people,” Pheasant says. “Growing up, we learned these spiritual things, and to us it was great. It gave us empowerment. We were proud of who we were.”
Over time Pheasant learned that older Indians near Traverse City, people he met in Peshawbestown, did speak the Anishinaabe language, but that they hadn’t passed it on to the next generation. “It all goes back to the residential school era when the older people were beaten for speaking the only language that they knew. So they didn’t use the language in the home or anywhere else,” Pheasant says.
Eventually, some local Native Americans asked Pheasant to teach a class at Northwestern Michigan College, which he began about 1988. And the people came. “We had to turn people away because the classrooms weren’t big enough,” Pheasant says. “They put me on four nights a week. But one thing people didn’t realize is how difficult the language is, and how difficult it is to learn at that age.” Most adult students stopped coming after a while. But Pheasant didn’t give up on the desire to resurrect and protect the language in Northwest Lower Michigan.
in 1997, Pheasant came home from teaching one day and heard a man on the 6 o’clock news say, “It’s official. The English language is the official language of Grand Traverse County.”
“I thought, Say what? Who made it official?” Pheasant made some calls, did some research. He discovered to his consternation that Grand Traverse County Commissioners had indeed made English the official language of the county.
He attended the next county commissioner meeting and was the last speaker of the evening. “I said all the animals and all the birds have voices. They can speak freely wherever they want to each other without anybody else saying not to do it, and the animals and birds respect each other and they have their own distinct sounds. I don’t know if the crow can understand the eagle or the eagle understand the crow, but they respect each other’s sounds. You people are disrespecting my sound and don’t respect me in the county I live in.”
Pheasant says the commissioners gave him “the runaround for six months.” He formed a group, and native and nonnative people joined. Ultimately they reached a compromise with the commission that Pheasant was okay with. Gone was such victor’s hubris as “Our great nation would not have remained together today if it had began without a common government language.” Taking its place, a more expansive view: “The Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners recognizes the wealth and diversity of language used by Grand Traverse County residents.” And a more limited scope prevailed: “English is the working language of the Grand Traverse County Commission in their acts and records.”
“That is the only time I ever put on my political hat to defend my language,” Pheasant says.
A little before noon on a blustery November day in 2010, Kenny Pheasant walks into the Kennedy Elementary School in Manistee. He’s maybe 5 foot 8, average build, and he wears a black billed cap with a Canada pin stuck to the front. The strap of a messenger bag angles from shoulder to hip. He’s here to do what he does a couple times a week, teach two classes of fifth graders the language and culture of the Native American people whose roots in the region reach back thousands of years. Accompanying Pheasant is Terri Raczkowski, a Native American woman whom Pheasant trained in the language and now is an assistant language teacher.
Pheasant has taught in Manistee schools for nearly a decade, funded by the Little River Band, his employer. Tailoring programs to different ages, he teaches children from first grade through high school. Some programs run maybe a couple hours a week, and others, like the high school class, run every day for an hour.
For the Native American kids in class, Pheasant says his presence alone speaks volumes. “They feel empowered. I made a joke one time. I said that 20 years ago, the only time you saw a native adult in school was when somebody was in trouble. Having a native adult in the class regularly, well, it just has a different look.”
Even though just a few of the two-dozen students in each class are Native American, it doesn’t diminish Pheasant’s sense of mission for sharing what he knows, because increasing understanding of native people among Americans in general is equally important in his mind. To most nonnative people—adults and children—“An Indian is an Indian. They don’t understand the substance of the culture. They think every Native American is connected to a casino. They think every Native American is out there with gill nets,” he says.
Pheasant experienced that cultural gap first hand when he was barely 14 and had to leave his reservation to attend high school about 70 miles away.
“Something happened to me those first few days of high school that had never happened before: I was made fun of because I was native,” he says. When he walked into a classroom, kids would bang on their desks like drums. He was confused. “I had just come from an area where I was respected, encouraged. I was happy. There was support from my elders. I thought, What did I do? My dad said, ‘It’s because they don’t understand our ways. They think it’s funny to do that.’” So today, whenever Pheasant gets a call from a teacher, no matter where the school is, he goes there to speak. “Maybe those kids will have a better understanding and not make fun,” he says.
During his own high school time, Pheasant worked with four other Native American guys to form a Native American radio call-in show that eventually went nationwide and won a broadcasting award. He worked to get Native Americans on sports teams, whereas before no natives played. “By the time we left,” he says, “we were getting the respect we were used to.” His teen years were also when he began teaching language, sort of. He worked at the meat counter in a grocery, and he would teach customers the names of meat parts. “Like chicken—bakakwenh—or whatever. They liked it and my boss liked it,” he says.
Pheasant walks into the first classroom, Mrs. Josvai’s room. The 25 or so other kids also take their seats, folders on their desks. But Pheasant doesn’t focus on written instruction, so he simply begins speaking Anishinaabe words to the students. He talks slowly, long words from the ancient language filling the room. The kids listen, some cock their heads, others watch his mouth closely. He asks several to state their names in Native American, controlling the action by throwing a spongy ball to whomever is chosen to speak.
Next, he pulls out a grid with numbers one through 10 written in individual squares, but some numbers are missing. He reverts to English, “some of our friends are out today, they all have doctor appointments,” he says. “Who is missing?”
Hands go up. He tosses the ball. A girl with dangly bright green triangle earrings says “zhaangswe” (nine). He points to another blank spot on the number grid. Tosses the ball to a boy who struggles with the word for five, then gets it.
Pheasant moves on to household words. “Remember, it might be singular or plural, so you have to be really careful about the ending sound.” He holds up a picture of a coffee cup. A girl in a gray hoodie says the Anishinaabe word. “There you go,” Pheasant says. He has everybody repeat the word. He shows a picture of dinner plates, naaganan, spoons, emkwaanan, knives, mookamaanan, a stove, gizhaapkizigan, a refrigerator, mkwaamii taaswin, a phone, giigadoobii’aapkonhs. The class repeats the words each time.
after the language warm-up, Pheasant announces he wants to give a history lesson today, the story of what his people have endured to survive and hold onto their language.
There’s about 500 years to cover in 30 minutes, so Pheasant is scrolling through time in big chunks, surfing from major point to major point.
He starts with the basics. “Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. We’d been here thousands of years,” he says. Pheasant explains that the tribes had established thriving communities, governing social orders. “Those are fancy words there,” he says. “But that just means our people had a language. Our people had common sense. We could communicate. We could show compassion. We shared love. We cared about each other.” He doesn’t say it outright, but the point is clear, 500 years ago, when Europeans arrived, native people were not savages to be treated like animals. The Anishinaabe culture was so widespread, Pheasant says, that the language was used from the eastern Great Lakes all the way to Saskatchewan and down into Iowa, different dialects, like a Texas dialect versus a Maine dialect in English, but fundamentally the same language.
Pheasant moves on to the first meeting of the Anishinaabe and the French about 1620, in the Mackinac Straits. “This was a big meeting place for Anishinaabic,” he says. Pheasant explains that among the French that day was a man who understood some, but not a lot, of the native language, and that through a series of misunderstandings, the French thought the names of the great tribes of the region were Odawa, Ojibwa and Pottawattamie. But that actually these words mean ‘to trade’, ‘building things’ and ‘fire keepers’. “So we are in the history books as those names, not as the Anishinaabe people. But that is now starting to be changed.”
In 1763, the Anishinaabe became the first recorded victims of germ warfare in North America, he says, when the British officer Lord Amherst shipped blankets infected with small pox from Europe to Detroit. Amherst called a big meeting with Anishinaabe tribes, including people from Northern Michigan, and he gave them all boxes of small pox blankets. “He told them not to open their gifts till they got home,” Pheasant says. “In the Anishinaabe culture, the blanket represents love because of the warmth it gave you. The moms and dads put the blankets on their children. The moms and dads died with their children. Thousands and thousands of people died.”
Soon Pheasant is at 1870 and the formation of residential schools for Indian children—a central purpose of which was the eradication of the native language, he says. Pheasant hands out a picture showing a long line of young children outside an Indian school. “What do you notice about these children?” he asks.
A boy says, “None of them are smiling.”
“Right,” Pheasant says. “I have seen thousands of these photos and I’ve never seen one where a child is smiling. The children were not happy, they wanted to be with their moms and dads.” He says that residential schools are the only schools he’s ever heard of that had their own graveyards because they didn’t have nurses and doctors to care for the kids.
He tells a short anecdote about his own dad. “My dad was 8 when he went to the school, and the first day there, he spoke his language, and a priest picked him up by his shirt and hit him in the face. A grown man hitting an 8-year-old boy in the face for speaking the only language he’d ever known.”
“A priest?” a girl says in disbelief.
“But that was a different time. If I did that to a child in school today, there’d be a state trooper car waiting for me in the parking lot,” Pheasant says.
And then he tells the most troubling story of all, about an elderly woman he once met. When she was about 9 or 10, she was taken from her home and forced to attend a residential school, yet she refused to stop speaking her language. According to her, the teachers decided to make an example of her. At mealtime, they stood her on a cafeteria table, then told the other children to watch. “They took turns hitting her legs with a baseball bat,” Pheasant says. “When she came home, she didn’t have legs because they were amputated.”
A girl raises her hand. “How high up were they cut off?” she asks.
“Up to here,” Pheasant says, and points to about midway between his thigh and knee.
The class is silent as this story settles over them. A Native American girl’s eyes water up and tears run down her cheeks.
“She said to me, ‘Kenny, they took my legs, but they didn’t take my language,’” Pheasant says.