Young Adult Stories

Sounds of the Birchbark House

"Illustration copyright Louise Erdrich from The Birchbark House series."

“Illustration copyright Louise Erdrich from The Birchbark House series.”

This page was created as a companion to the essay “Language Revitalization, Anishinaabemowin, and Erdrich’s The Birchbark House Series” which appears in the book Frontiers in American Children’s Literature. The aim of the essay is to encourage teachers to explore historical literature for young readers and to understand characters in the real context of their times. The following lesson was created to help teachers learn more about the language in Louise Erdrich’s four books in The Birchbark House series.

Ages: 4th grade and up


  1. Students will learn about the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) language
  2. Students will hear and experience producing the sounds of the Anishinaabemowin


  1. Students will learn the sounds and location and current status of Anishinaabemowin.
  2. Students will hear and then produce the words found in the The Birchbark House series.

Materials Required: Copies of The Birchbark House, Chickadee, The Game of Silence or The Porcupine Year. Note: These lessons can be used with any of the books.

Pre-Activities: Students should read and discuss the texts as assigned in class. Many Teacher’s Guides exist to guide research and discussion related to the plot, characters and history included in the books.

Language Related Activities:

1. Listen to the following phrases

Birchbark House – 1

Gidiniwewidamomin maamwibimaadiziyang omaa akiing mii igo ezhi-gikenindizoyang gaye gikenimiyangidwa.
The sounds of our language as we live together on earth are the way we know ourselves and are known by others.

Aaniin i’iw biinji-ayi’iing ishkodeng?
What is that in the fire?

a. Talk about how Anishinaabemowin sounds. Which sounds are different than English? (zh, i’i, shk) Which sounds are not used? (r, n, f, v, l)
b. What do you like about your language? How many languages does your class know?
c. What words do you think have a beautiful sound? Why?

2. View a Language Map

Look at the map that shows where Anishinaabemowin is spoken today.

a. Find where each book takes place.
b. Look at the list of all the nations in Canada ( and the list of all the nations in the United States ( and see if you can find one that is Anishinaabe, Ojibwe or Chippewa.
c. Look up Anishinaabemowin online in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

3. Anishinaabe Words

Listen to and try to say the list of the words that are most commonly used in the stories about Omakayas. Note that each of the books were written in different years and the spelling rules vary for Anishinaabemowin so you may see slightly different spellings in your book. These are the spellings used by many Anishinaabe teachers today.

Birchbark House – 2

Anishinaabeg the original or good people lowered to the earth
Omakayas Little Frog
Nookomis my grandmother
Moningwanaykaning Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker
daga please
ambe come here
aaniin greeting and question
hiyn too bad
minopogwad that tastes good
howah wow! or great!
miigwech to thank someone
gego stop / don’t
geget for sure, certainly
aadizookaanag traditional story spirits
waabooz rabbit
makak box
wiigiwaam birchbark lodge
manoomin wild rice
enya yes
gaawiin no
manidoog spirit being
wiindigoog greedy, selfish being
memegwesiwag little woods people
Gizhe Manidoo the Creator
Nanabozho teacher, trickster
Bwaanag Dakota / Lakota / Nakota people

a. Which words do you remember from the books?
b. Which words would you use in your life today?

4. Verbs

Verbs and action are important in the Anishinaabe language. Listen to and try to say some of the Anishinaabe verbs.

Birchbark House – 3

niibin summer
ziigwan spring
biboon winter
dagwagin fall
mino-ayaa to be feeling good
giiwe go home
zhawenim to bless someone, to love someone
waabam to see someone

a. Some of the words are a sentence all by themselves.
Niibin. It is summer.
Ziigwan. It is spring.

How would you say: “It is winter.”
How would you say: “It is fall.”

b. Some of the words need only a little more to be a sentence.

Ni + mino-ayaa = I am feeling good. Nimino-ayaa.
Gi + mino-ayaa = You are feeling good. Nimino-ayaa.

How would you say: “I am going home.””
How would you say: “You are going home.””

c. Some words need both prefixes in front and suffixes in back to be a sentence.

Gi + zhawenim + in = I love you. Gizhawenimin.
Ni + waabam + aa = I see him/her. Niwaabamaa. (Note: There is no “he” or “she”)

How would you say: “I see you.”
How would you say: “I love him/her.”

5. Different Ideas

It is important to think about the ways we all do things differently. Many languages have a word for an idea represented by the English word “God.” Here are a few of the different ways to think about this in Anishinaabemowin:

Gizhemanidoo – Creator or Energy Spirit

Notice the way “gizhe” appears in this word and other words including:

  • “gizhaate” (warm weather)
  • “gizhaatabii” (to work quickly)
  • “gizhaadizi” (to be kind or generous)
  • “gizhaazh” (to guard someone)

What do you see as common in these words? How would you draw these ideas? Or sing about them?

Gichimanidoo – Greatest Spirit

“Gichi” is often used in many ways to say something is big, important or special. (Look where “gichi” appears in this examples and circle the “gichi.”)

Ingii-gichiniim miidash gichi-bakadeyaan.
I did dance hard then I ate a lot.

Chidibenjiged – All Belonging One

The words related to this word are:

  • dibendaagwad – it belongs
  • dibenjige – to be in charge
  • dibendan – to own something
  • dibenim – to control someone
  • dibendaagozi – to be a member of a group

Make a small drawing representing each word, maybe a picture of someone you know doing these things. Can you connect your drawings to other people’s drawings? Can you mix them up and tell stories connecting your drawings to each other or connecting your drawings to other people’s drawings?

A simple prayer might begin by saying: Gimiigwechwigo Gizhemanidoo (We all thank you, Creator)

Do you or your family have a word for God? How many different words can the people in your classroom right now list?

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