Porch Talk

Written by T. Marie Bertineau

Indigenous author of the memoir THE MASON HOUSE (Lanternfish Press), a 2021 Michigan Notable Book.

August 24, 2021

I write within a porch in the heart of the Keweenaw. It looks out over a bustling village street, an old railway line, a ball diamond. There’s a Veteran’s memorial down the lane, flags flapping, begonias blooming. One name listed there belongs to a relative I never met, though I knew his Grandpa, my great-uncle. That memorial connects me to half of my family, to mining immigrants, to this place. That’s the way it is around here.

It is in this porch I sit each day, beside a patchwork bird on a wooden pedestal and a tabby cat who lounges in the sun. It’s a feminine space. An old space. Once cold and dark, it has undergone a transformation in recent years. A transition. The walls and floor have been insulated, the thin window replaced, the door repaired. It’s been painted and papered, received fresh lighting, a sturdy boot box, and a line of aged-bronze coat hooks to hold outerwear. It has become a conglomeration of the passing times. Just as I am a conglomeration of ancestry. 

I imagine this old porch was once like many Keweenaw porches. Or sheds. Or mudrooms. The walls were probably lined with wooly coats, peas of ice melting from their cuffs, scant puddles forming in rings below. I envision galoshes strewn about on its bare wood floor, rag rugs soaking up the slushy weep from their soles. Somewhere in its past lies the smell of damp dog. Of coal. Of firewood. Maybe even pasty or pannukakku. There have been times sitting out here I swear I can almost hear the voices of past residents coming from interior rooms—the Finnish or the Cornish or perhaps the French Canadian—chatting over morning coffee or afternoon tea. I imagine the clink of their cups. The slurp of liquid from their spoons. They speak with confidence, with pride, with identity. Unhindered, they raise their voices in their mother tongue. They laugh, sing, whisper. They are who they are and are licensed that freedom.

There are days I sit and think about that. I think about the freedom to speak the language of one’s choosing, and I act upon it. Though on most days I may be writing or editing from this porch, there’s at least one day a week reserved for the study of language—Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people, my maternal blood. I log in remotely to a makeshift classroom hours away. I don my headset, turn on my camera, and join a group of others like me, students of all ages hungry for the words of their ancestors.

It is in this porch once built by immigrants that I’ve come to understand the beauty of an Indigenous language. And the value. It is here, where European descendants have stomped their boots and hung their overcoats, that I have learned another side of me. Beyond the French Canadian that contributed to my father’s blood. Beyond the Cornish of his mother.

My journey began over a year ago, in stutters and stammers. I could hardly speak. I saw my face in a small square on the screen. Other faces, too. Strangers, all of them. All of us wondering who we were. Why we’d come. What had drawn us to that virtual classroom. “Aaniin, boozhoo,” I said, my voice timid, the words foreign. And that was the beginning.

These days I introduce myself in the language with greater ease, a rhythm gradually developing, though still far from adequate. Like a graying toddler, I pick up syllable by syllable, word by word, the elders my teachers. Each week I grow in the culture, learn history, hear stories. The elders tell jokes and tease one another. And we laugh. “We don’t want to make it too heavy,” they say.

Though each member of our class comes from different walks of life, from different locations across the country, many share a similar linguistic history: Our Anishinaabe grandparents didn’t pass down their language, because they feared for their children—and their children’s children. They feared they would be taken away, feared they would be punished, as that is how it was back then. And so our parents grew up hearing the language, but not speaking it. They grew up understanding some of what they heard, but not storing it away. And we, as their children, grew up without it.

So, that is why we gather.

To honor.

To restore.

To revitalize.

I sit on this porch on a Thursday morning caressed by wisps of mashkodewashk, the scent of wiingashk in the air, nibi at my side. Sage, sweetgrass, and water ready me for the day’s teachings. We’re reading a story during this lesson, each slide on the screen a page of the storybook. I review what I see before I’m called on. To my surprise, I recognize the words, understand their meaning. There are tears in my eyes. A lump in my throat.

“Giinitam,” the elder says to me. Your turn. He wants me to read out loud what I see on the screen.

Before this day, I’ve never understood as many words grouped together. I’ve never passed a slide without relying on the English translation for clarification. I’m excited. In disbelief. “Before I begin,” I say, “I just want to tell you that I understood some of this before I read the translation. And that almost makes me cry.” My cheeks are warm. My heart glows.

“Nishin,” the elders say, nodding. “Nishin.” They are happy with my progress, proud of their student, grateful that Anishinaabemowin will not be forgotten from Aki, this Earth. I feel in this instant that somewhere in the distance my Ojibwe ancestors are smiling and nodding, too. En’, they are saying. Nishin, n’doozhisheninaan. Yes. Good, our grandchild.

It is Wednesday now, a writing day. Beyond my Keweenaw porch cars pass, children call, neighbors mow their lawns. My keyboard clacks amidst the delicate snore of the cat. I often grumble about the noise, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. I know, if I wait, there’ll come a lull in the din. The cars will quiet. The children will go home. The lawns will be tidy, and the cat will rouse herself and wander off in search of kibble. I’ll pause my typing in those moments. The click-clack of the keys will fall silent. And I’ll listen. I’ll listen for the sounds of those familiar voices—the voices of the Keweenaw immigrants. The miners and the railway workers and the lumbermen. The Finnish. The Cornish. The French-Canadian. But these days, if I listen close enough, I’ll hear another voice, too. One fresh to my ear, like a robin’s spring call. It rises from an inner space. Claims a place in the dialogue. Adds to the melody of my history. “En’,” I’ll say, for I know who it is. It is the voice of my other half. The voice of the Anishinaabeg. And I’ll smile.

Photo by Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.

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  1. Charli Mills

    Miigwech! Your words touch many, Theresa. I was in the Finlandia bookstore today and the manager told me what a good choice your book was for class. There’s a stirring beyond your porch. I think others feel and maybe hear it in the wind, too. Your book is so popular, customers have returned to ask if you will return for an event. They say Angeline Boulley is going to come up to the Keweenaw, too this fall. And Joy Harjo is reading and talking virtually at the Rosza this spring. Language is returning and literary art a vehicle. Beautiful post!

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Oh, Charli, you have really touched on what that post is all about. The language IS returning, and it’s an incredible time to be here on this planet sharing in that experience, doing my small part to make it happen. And so true that literature contributes to this movement in leaps. There is such a momentum and I hope it continues. Thank you so much for all your support of The Mason House and of my writing in general. G’chimiigwechiwendam, Chalii! I am grateful, Charli! (p.s.: I didn’t misspell your name; there are no r’s in Anishinaabemowin ; ))

  2. Norah

    Theresa, may I call you that? This is such a beautiful and moving post. It is one of connection. Connection with the past and across the world. It is important that these languages are saved. I feel your joy when the ancient language sings for you and you no longer have to translate. It feels grounded. Unified.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Mino gizhigad, Norah! Yes, you may call me Theresa. Absolutely. Thank you for taking time to read the post and for your kind comments. And yes! There is connection in this post. A connection to the past. A global connection. And thankfully, there’s a connection within myself as well. All my parts are becoming as one. And for that I am truly grateful. I do still rely heavily on translations, but I’m picking out more and more words as time goes on. It’s so fulfilling. I appreciate that you recognized that.

      Chi miigwech, Norah! Thank you very much! Have a wonderful day!

      • Norah

        Thank you, Theresa. You too. ????

  3. Michael

    How beautiful A post is this!

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Chi miigwech, Michael, proud Yorkshireman! Thank you very much! It is still unnerving to me to know that somewhere across the vast seas, people can see these posts. I never dreamed I would be writing in such a way, but it’s wonderful to connect with so many people. Thank you for joining Norah above and being one of those people. I appreciate you taking time to read my work. And thank you for your lovely comment. I’m glad you stopped by! Have a wonderful day!

  4. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I’ll repeat what has been said: This is a beautiful post. You had me at the porch, and the descriptions of its past. Where I come from we have those porches and those wool coats. I have returned home To that place and besides the sights sounds and smells of an old porch I just grin sometimes to hear the language of this place, which is English but with a familiar accent and manner, a certain humor. It is a comforting sound to my long gone ears, it’s so good to be back where people speak of normal things, like firewood and weather and deer hunting.
    I do know also that the region’s indigenous people are offering courses and making efforts to keep the Abenaki language alive. I suspect that there are fewer homes where French Canadian is spoken as when I was a child. I do not speak other languages but enjoy language. It’s great that you are getting that connection back. I remember some of my students being proud to have picked up English but also being alarmed when they began dreaming in English, realizing then that they were also losing something.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      D, is sounds like you were able to make a heartfelt connection! Thank you for taking time to read the post and for sharing with me your experiences. Porches have their own unique spirits and I’m glad to be adding my own stamp onto this one : ) And you’re so right on the fear of losing something. There is that fine line between an accomplishment and a loss. For me, I am by no means conversational, I find my brain working continually to make the leaps between the words I was raised on and the words I am learning. I don’t know that I will ever dream in Anishinaabemowin, but now that you’ve told me that about your students, I do wonder how that would feel overall . . . Chi miigwech, D! Have a great day!

  5. Jules

    My ancestry was the same, my grandparents would not teach me the language. They believed “We are in America and we will speak American English” – Eventually I would like to know the language of my heritage. I have a CD some one was going to help me with (BP = Before the Pandemic) – but they are a skittish lot and would rather not mingle just yet – it’s been a year and a half.

    I know some of the language of my faith. I can read some of the letters of the limited printed version, but not the script. Another goal for another time.

    For the moment I just write – because I was told that desire too ran in my veins…

    Continued success with your listening, learning and speaking 😀

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you, Jules. And to you!

  6. robertawrites235681907

    It is an amazing accomplishment to learn a language basically from scratch outside of childhood. It is not easy to do this as an adult or even as a teenager. I am delighted to know you are doing so well.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Chi miigwech, Roberta! Thank you very much! Years to go, but I’m trying!

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