Building a Common Vocabulary: A Cornerstone of Community-Engaged Research

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Research focused on crop restoration, cultural revitalization, and treaty living. Researchers who believe in collaboration and knowledge sharing. Learn more about the Manomin Research Project.

Composed by Brittany Luby, Andrea Bradford, and Samantha Mehltretter with Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation
Transcribed by Gabrielle Goldhar

Words are powerful tools. They allow us to communicate our vision of the world with others. Words are also amorphous things. The meaning intended by the speaker can be misinterpreted by the listener, particularly if they understand keywords differently. An individual who utters “pass me the pot,” for example, could receive a cooking utensil or marijuana in return (depending on context and perceived need). The Manomin Research Team – which includes members from the University of Guelph (UoG) and Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation (NAN) – has been building a common vocabulary to develop shared meanings and, by so doing, to improve communication between ourselves and with the public.

We discovered the need for a common vocabulary early in our research: at our first community meeting in 2018. Barry Henry, the Economic Development Officer at NAN and translator, co-organized with the UoG team, an event during which Dr. Andrea Bradford, a water resources engineer, and Dr. Brittany Luby, an Anishinaabe historian, presented the proposed research program and requested feedback.[1] During this presentation, Bradford used the term “flow regime.” For water resources engineers, “flow regime” refers to the range of flows (flow being a measure of how quickly a volume of water moves past a point) that occur in a river or similar water body. This includes the magnitude (how much), frequency (how often), duration (how long), and timing (when) of all of the flows experienced in the river.[2] Flow regimes describe the range of flows over time (through the year, and from year to year) under natural conditions, or under conditions affected by humans (e.g., using control structures such as dams). The word “regime” is used to reflect the variability of flows experienced on the river, whether natural or modified, including the regularity with which particular conditions occur. But, Anishinaabe Knowledge Keepers quickly rejected this term as inappropriate. It had a different meaning to band members.

Knowledge Keeper Theresa Jourdain explained that “regime” is associated with Nazi rule and the Holocaust. It is associated more broadly with race-based hate. Jourdain explained that Canada has a “colonial regime.” Other Knowledge Keepers agreed. At Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, “regime” is linked to residential schools and federal policies intended to eradicate Anishinaabe culture and assimilate First Nations into the Canadian body politic. For NAN, “regime’ has nothing to do with water regulation and everything to do with colonial violence. We needed a new word, a shared meaning. Bradford began brainstorming out loud. A substitution was required quickly to ensure dialogue could continue without triggering painful memories. Since Day 1, the Manomin Research Team adopted “flow pattern” to describe the range of flows that are unique to each river system. This choice is essential to dissociating our findings from violence that impacted almost all the Elders’ lives.

A year later we discovered that “Specific Interest Group” also required substitution in a discussion about the Lake of the Woods Control Board (LWCB).[3] Samantha Mehltretter, a graduate research assistant, had observed that the LWCB had no First Nations advisors in winter 2018.[4] Luby relayed this information during a community meeting, suggesting that NAN appoint a representative and apply to the LWCB for a seat as a “Specific Interest Group.” Luby believed this position could be used to advocate for manomin and other living beings on the river. It would also allow NAN to share research findings directly with the LWCB. Band members firmly rejected this suggestion, explaining the terms like “Specific Interest Group” and “stakeholder” downplay the Treaty Rights of the Anishinabeg and the Treaty Responsibilities of Canadians. The Anishinabeg are not like H2O Power Limited Partnership or Sioux Lookout Hudson Tourism Association or Whiteshell Cottagers Association Inc. Industrialists, business operators, and cottagers who enter Lake of the Woods enter Treaty 3 and become subject to its terms. But, the Anishinabeg are Treaty Signatories. Therefore, they do not have simple “interests” in the territory; they have Aboriginal Right. NAN explained that a refusal to apply for the LWCB was a strategic choice, a political decision. They would not apply to sit on board when the label attached to that seat suggested a disregard for Treaty 3.

This condition has since changed. The LWCB website now reads: “Grand Council Treaty #3, the political territorial organization for 28 First Nations in the Treaty #3 area, was recognized by the Board as a ‘Specific Interest Group’ in 1980. Since then, based on the affirmation of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in the Canadian Constitution (1982, s 35), the governments of Canada, Ontario and Manitoba have moved towards greater recognition of, and new relationships with, First Nations. Accordingly, and after discussions between staff of the Board and Grand Council Treaty #3 in 2005, the Board decided to no longer consider Grand Council Treaty #3 as a Specific Interest Group but instead to seek interaction with First Nations in their own right.” Water Resources, a branch of Grand Council Treaty #3, is now listed as a contact on the website. However, First Nations remain separated from key decision-makers, Canada and the United States, because of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The ability of Anishinaabe leaders to advocate for their peoples remains compromised by a colonial agreement negotiated without First Nations consultation and applied to Treaty #3 lands.

Dr. Luby has composed a blog post rejecting the term “wild rice.” We feel it is important to reiterate that “wild” discounts the labour and ceremony required to maintain manomin fields for future generations. Consider the hawk stands that Anishinaabe families erected to attract predatory birds who helped manage other-than-human beings with a taste for manomin.[5] Anishinaabe families monitored and seeded fields for generations, ensuring future generations could survive winters on the Shield. We must reject colonial vocabularies that prevent people from seeing the care the Anishinabeg afforded (and afford) their crops. Anishinaabemowin teaches us that manomin is no ordinary plant. It is a “spirit berry” that must be cared for as a gift from the Creator.

The last word we use purposely and politically is “Anishinabeg.” Canadians and Americans are more likely to refer to the peoples living in the upper Winnipeg River drainage basin – like the people of NAN – as “Ojibwe” (a subgroup of the Anishinabeg). According to Charles Bishop,“[t]he term Ojibwe derives from Outchibou, the 17th-century name of a group living north of present-day Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.” This term was then applied by European explorers and traders to “closely related but distinct groups residing between northeastern Georgian Bay and eastern Lake Superior.”[6] Growing up, Canadian youth may have been taught that “Ojibwe” refers to the puckered moccasins worn by these members of the Anishinaabe Nation; however, the sources for this interpretation are slim.[7] If “Ojibwe” does refer to clothing, what is missing is a sense of territorial belonging that is coded into “Anishinabeg.” Cultural educator Edward Benton-Banai breaks down the name as follows: ani means “whence.” Nishina means “lowered” and abe refers to “the male of the species.”[8] When we use “Anishinaabe” or “Anishinabeg” we remind readers that the Nation originated on Turtle Island. By choosing words that emphasize territorial belonging, we affirm Aboriginal Title to those lands.

In this way, we have discovered that building a common vocabulary not only improves communication, but prompts reflections on Treaty Rights and Responsibilities. May we all choose words that call into being a future that mitigates colonial violence and affirms Aboriginal Title.


[1] In 2017, NAN asked Dr. Bradford and Dr. Luby to develop a research program to help make sense of manomin loss in ancestral fields and to co-investigate restoration options. This presentation allowed Bradford and Luby to share their draft plan for addressing community research needs with band members and to revise it collectively. It is hoped that the success of the Manomin Research Project will allow us to expand our research into Anishinaabe food systems more generally, attracting funders and research partners.
[2] See Andrea Bradford, “An Ecological Flow Assessment Framework: Building a Bridge to Implementation in Canada,” Canadian Water Resources Journal 33, no. 3 (2008): 215–232.
[3] The Lake of the Woods Control (LWCB) board manages the water levels of Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul, along with the flows of the Winnipeg and English Rivers until the rivers converge. The LWCB must regulate these bodies of water with control structures (dams), while balancing numerous needs and interests in the watershed. Representatives from Canada (x1), Ontario (x2) and Manitoba (x1) make up the four professional engineers on the board (each member also has an alternate).For more detail, see LWCB, “Board Description,” accessed 7 May 2020, [].
[4] This condition has since changed. See LWCB, “First Nations and their First Nations Advisors,” Board Description, 26 May 2020, [].
[5] Kathi Avery Kinew, “Manito Gitigaan: Governing in the Great Spirit’s Garden, Wild Rice in Treaty #3” (doctoral thesis, University of Manitoba, 1995), 93.
[6] Charles Bishop, “Ojibwe,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 September 2019,
[7] “Ojibwe,” Wikitionary, 17 April 2020,
[8] Edward Benton-Banai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press with Indian Country Communications Inc., 1988), 3.

Image by Akira Hojo made available on Unsplash.

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