ALLENDALE — George Martin is a quiet kind of guy with a slow smile who travels a great deal because of a deep-felt calling.
Martin, who retired in 1993 as a machine operator at Rockwell International in Allendale, carries his mission to public schools, private schools, church groups, prisons, museums, libraries, and colleges and universities throughout the upper Midwest.
His calling is to teach about the people who lived in these parts first — and whose descendants remain here, very much a part of American life, but who also are busily re-learning the culture of their aboriginal forebears.
And it’s a mission for which SBC Ameritech and Central Michigan University Public TV recently honored Martin. He was one of six Michigan citizens the two firms honored Nov. 8 at Soaring Eagle Resort in Mt. Pleasant. Martin was recognized in particular for his educational contributions.
And to make those contributions, he said, grinning, he first had to go to school. He spent two months each summer for five years learning Anishinaabe, the language spoken by the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwe nations whose ancestral homelands were what now is the upper Midwestern United States and lower central Canada.
The language program, which is the total immersion type, is a course for instructors conducted by Bay Mills Community College in Brimley, Mich., a reservation town. Martin was no stranger to reservation life. He was born and reared on the Lac Courte Orielles Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin.
But though he lived among speakers of Anishinaabe in his youth and subjected himself to force-feeding in the tongue starting in 1995, he’s quick to stress, “I’m not a fluent speaker.”
He greets fellow speakers with a liquid “Ahneesh na?” (How are you?), and he calls himself Odawa, roughly meaning “place of serenity.”
But he said those are mere conversational sprigs of a thick linguistic forest. “We hear,” he said with wry grin, “that Anishinaabe is one of the most difficult languages there is.
“With English,” he explained, tracing his finger repeatedly across a page, “you’re going from left to right, left to right. But in Anishinaabe, you’re working from the middle outward.” He explained that meaning is built up in words using prefixes, suffixes, and inserted syllables.
“You add a T in the middle of a word and it will change the whole meaning.”
But beyond the profound differences between Anishinaabe and English grammar, he said the two tongues carry utterly different cultural baggage.
“One of the first things they tell you,” he said, “is not to try translating to English in your mind. They tell you to just forget about English.”
As an example of what faces the student, he pointed out that the Anishinaabe language contains well over 150 ways to express what an American conveys with the phrase “thank you.”
An Anishinaabe expression of gratitude is a single term, but with complex adjustments of prefixes, suffixes and internally added syllables, it embraces a reference to the gift or service or favor for which one is grateful.
In fact, Anishinaabe is so dense a language that its single-term expression of gratitude includes everything that one finds in, say, the several sentences which comprise an American’s formal thank-you note. The language lends itself to debate, loquacity and extremely subtle shades of meaning.
“And it gets more difficult,” he noted, pointing out that the construction of a phrase can differ depending upon the exact number of people one addresses or even speaks about.
“You really can’t translate Anishinaabe to English,” he added, “because when you do, you lose about three-fourths the meaning.” He said the difficulty in translation is one of the frustrations with which he deals in his presentations, regardless of his listeners’ backgrounds.
“But I keep doing it anyway,” he said, “because even if you can only can get across a quarter of it, that’s better than nothing.”
And what makes him happy is that his audiences — regardless of whether they’re elementary pupils, inmates, college students, adults, American Indian, full-blooded Native Americans or people with no trace of Indian ancestry — all seem fascinated in hearing some of the reality behind Hollywood myths about American Indian culture.
And, he added, he never encounters the slightest evidence of hostility, even among the chagnash (pale people) who also are still known by the term chumokman (long knives).
He speaks to any group that invites him and that pays enough of an honorarium to defray his expenses.
So why undertake such a study and such a mission?
“This language was given to us by our creator,” he said, “and if we let it disappear, we let our whole heritage and culture disappear with it.”
But he says that he believes the chances now are improving that Anishinaabe will survive. “Some of the young people are learning it,” he said, nodding approvingly, “and they speak it well.”
Among the myths he routinely must dispel is that there is a single Indian language. The Anishinaabe speech of the Three Fires Confederation (Ottawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi) is incomprehensible, say, to the Indians of the Great Plains, southwest and far West.
Martin met with the Business Journal recently in the field house at Grand Valley State University. As the local council’s head veteran, he was one of the leaders of a celebration and dance observing Veterans’ Day. (Martin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and served well into the cold war, after that starting his 30-year career at Rockwell.)
As is the case every Veterans’ Day, the Grand Rapids area Native Americans invited all veterans to the gathering, including local VFW residents. To newcomers, such a gathering sounds very much like a Hollywood portrayal of Indian culture — hours of highly intricate drumming together with long chants in minor keys, all of which come from the singers’ memories.
Martin himself doesn’t sing.
“I can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” he said, laughing.