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The Chat with 2022 Governor General's Award Winner Eli Baxter


Eli Baxter is this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award winner for Non-fiction for his memoir Aki-wayn-zih: A Person as Worthy as the Earth (McGill-Queens University Press).

The 2022 peer assessment committee says:


"Eli Baxter’s indelible memoir, Aki-wayn-zih, takes readers deep into Anishinaabay culture, language, and history to reveal a rich and complex world, while showing how the link between language and land is crucial for survival and growth. At a time when he worries that the fires of Indigenous languages are going out, his simple and beautiful book, written across languages, cultures, and generations, radiates a radical kind of hope."

Eli Baxter is a teacher, an Anishinaabay Knowledge Keeper, an elder, a published author, a fluent Ojibway language speaker, and a residential school survivor. After earning a degree and teaching certificate from Lakehead University, he taught for seven years in Whitedog, Ontario, then going on to teach the Ojibway language for 20 years on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. He also built the Anishinaabay Language and Culture course at Western University, which he taught for 17 years. In 2018, he translated and voiced colonial poems into Ojibway for Franco-Canadian visual artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s installation, Clearing, at Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant in Brantford, Ontario. A married man and a father to two grown daughters, Eli Baxter lives in London, Ontario.


Imagine you could spend a day with any author, living or dead. Who would you choose, what would you do, and what would you learn?

The authors I would choose to spend the day with would be the ones who wrote the Anishinaabay birch bark scrolls. I would learn about the scared writings of our Anishinaabay knowledge keepers. I would learn about the ancestral language and thoughts of long ago.

What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?

My advice to my ten-year-old-self would be to learn the Ojibway language and speak it like the way of our ancestors.

Your memoir looks at the history of the Anishinaabayg, bringing together thousands of years of history with your own personal story of growing up on the land, trapping and fishing, and your experience being forced to attend residential school. Can you tell us more about how and when you began to work on the book, and how it evolved over time?

The book originated from my talks with a friend of mine who wanted to learn more about my history and how I was able to speak the Ojibway language. I told him about growing up in the wilderness and my generation was the last fluent speaking Ojibways from the hunting and gathering society. He became interested in my story and started looking for publishers. I wrote the manuscript and my friend edited it.

Who has been the biggest inspiration in your journey as a writer?

My journey as a writer started with the oral stories from my parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins. I listened to their stories all in Ojibway as I was growing up. They were all great orators.

What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way?

The last book by a Canadian author that changed me was by Richard Wagamese (i-bun). The book is One Native Life and I was moved by his storytelling of his life.


Excerpt from Aki-wayn-zih: A Person as Worthy as the Earth

“Eli Baxter nin-dih-zhin-nih-kaaz” translates to "Eli Baxter is my name" in English. I did not use my Anishinaabay ceremonial name because I did not receive one from my parents. My siblings and I did not get our names in the naming ceremony we were supposed to have when we were infants. Our parents did this for our own protection. They did not want us to use any Anishinaabay ceremonies when we went to residential school because we could be punished. It was left to us to get our names when we became adults. I still haven’t got around to it yet. It is said that you can’t enter into the spirit world when it is time for you to go – you need to have your Anishinaabay name or they won’t recognize you.

"A-goh-keeng nin-doon-jih-baa" means "I am from Ogoki Post." Ogoki Post is a reserve community in Northern Ontario. It is situated on the shores of the Albany River, which flows from Lake St Joseph into James Bay. Our people call it Kih-chi Zii-bii, or "Big River." This river was one of the main waterways used by the Hudson’s Bay Company as their trading route. At the mouth of the river live the Mush-kee-goog, the People of the Swamp. The Cree have lived here since the time when the ice left from the last ice age. I am saying "Wa-chi-yay! Wa-chi-yay!" (Hello! Hello!) to them. We are one of the most northern Ojibway nations. The other community is Eabametoong, also called Fort Hope, which is further up the river than we are. The headwater for the Albany River is in the area known as Sioux Lookout.

"At-tick nih-do-daym" means "My Clan is the Caribou." We follow our father’s Clan. The Caribou Clan belongs to the Hoof family of Clans, meaning that we are also related to the Deer, Elk, and Bison Clans. We consider our Clans as family.

The Anishinaabay introduction is used to tell people our names, where we are from, and what our Clan is. Telling people where you are from also informs them of your personal history and your people’s history. It also tells those you meet the spirit protectors of where you’re from. Your Clan tells them what kind of responsibilities you have within your community; for example, if you are from the Hoof family of Clans, like I am, you are seen by others as being gentle and kind, like the deer or caribou. Traditionally, we are the poets and peacemakers because we choose our words carefully and seek to avoid violence. There are seven original Clans: Crane, Loon, Fish, Bear, Marten, Caribou, and Bird. Each one has its own character and role in the community.

This is the traditional introduction of the Anishinaabayg, the People. At the present time, it is used only by fluent speakers of the Anishinaabay language when talking to other fluent speakers. The language we heard was the traditional language used by our parents, who were taught by their parents. It is the language that was used by only the Anishinaabayg. The language spoken before European contact was still being used by our parents and our grandparents. Many of our grandparents did not speak a word of English. Our parents had limited command of the English language. My generation, here on Turtle Island, are the last of the hunting and gathering society. We are the last speakers.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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