Ojibwe storyteller Isaac Murdoch says language is the foundation of nationhood

His art has been seen around the world and is in the hands of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but Isaac Murdoch says he still enjoys a great deal of anonymity.

“My art is a lot more famous than I am,” says Murdoch, while laughing on the latest episode of Face to Face. “Nobody knows who I am.”

The citizen of Serpent River First Nation, 140 km west of Sudbury, has never copyrighted his art.

“I said this art is for the people; it’s for them to use to fundraise for their own initiatives for the earth and water and don’t even cite me, don’t credit me, just use it,” says Murdoch, who admits it’s still surreal to see his art pop up around the globe.

“If you want to make t-shirts and make money for your cause – go for it. And so the art has always been used that way and I think that’s how it’s gotten to travel so far.”

Murdoch says his mother was a terrific artist who did “doodles.”

“I think art is something that has been used by our people for thousands and thousands of years to showcase the spirit of who we are. And so when you look at the old pictographs that the Anishinabek made, you’ll notice that those pictures that were painted on those rocks are still alive today. They still tell stories today. They still invoke the spirit of who we are today. And I don’t think there’s much difference between art and ceremony,” says Murdoch.

Métis artist Christi Belcourt encourages Murdoch and his art. The two formed the Onaman Collective, a grassroots land-based art initiative with the goal of sharing traditional knowledge and language with youth.

Murdoch says the art and platform were used to fundraise and get things going for Nimkii Aazhibikong, “a place where youth and elders come to connect to the land, each other, and to pass down the language and traditional knowledge to the next generations.”

It’s where Murdoch now calls home. A place, he says, to do cultural practices, rekindle who they are, nourish the Ojibwa language, pick up what was lost, and move forward with it.

Murdoch says the camp has been a “one hundred million per cent success.”

His dream would be to see thousands of similar camps pop up across Turtle Island.

In addition to being a storyteller and artist, Murdoch has also written books and released albums.

Language is at the heart of everything he does.

“My grandparents were very fluent in the language and they were such a big impact on my life, and they always said that whatever you do, include language in it,” says Murdoch.

“So, when I write a book, it’s also in the language. All of the projects that I do, I include the language in it or I’m out. I can’t be a part of it if there’s not language attached to it.”

Murdoch is currently working with an animation team from Japan on a new, Ojibwa-language resource that he’s still keeping under wraps.

“Language is the foundation of our nationhood,” he adds. “It’s who we are, it carries so much ecological knowledge.

“I think that language is magical because it comes from the earth and during a time of massive climate hikes, the language holds the ancient code on how to live here on this earth without driving into an ecological deficit, like what we’ve been doing. So, language isn’t just cool, it’s also a very important part of change.”

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