August 3, 2012

How Do You Say 'Quality' In Your Native Language?

I will be sitting on a panel in just 2 weeks at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market. The panel discussion is co-hosted by NMAI and SWAIA, and this year's topic is "What is Quality?" In particular, we will be discussing Native American art quality and quality at Indian Market. I will be joining Kevin Gover, Andrea Hanley, Joe Horse Capture, Charles King, and Bruce Bernstein to discuss this topic.

Ever since I was asked to join the panel, the word 'quality' has been nipping away at my subconscious. What the heck is this word anyways? See, language fascinates me. I think the words we use say a lot about us as a people. So I got to thinking, what would be the equivalent to the term 'quality' in Anishinaabemowin? How do we say 'quality' in our Native languages?

So, just to start off, here's an English definition of 'quality':
- The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.

When I went over to the super cool Ojibwe Dictionary, I searched 'quality', and came up empty. But then I search similar or related terms, and came up with 'maanaadad.'

'Maanaadad' is a cool word, it means "it is bad, is no good, is ugly." When you break apart this word, you get these parts:

maaN = bad, malformed
-aad- = way of being or life, character, nature;
-ad = it is in a state or condition;

When judging if a painting, for example, is high-quality or not, we look to see if the condition or the overall character of the object is 'malformed' - which suggests that 1) art has a 'life' or 'character' to it, and 2) whether or not it is malformed or not (or, perhaps, 'flawless?') determines if it is good or bad (or, in a sense, desirable or not)

In fact, the Ojibwe dictionary provides this cool example:

"Ingii-pi-waabanda'igoo iwe zhizhoobii'igan. Maanaadad. Gaawiin ingii-minwendanziin." or
"They came and showed me that painting. It's no good. I didn't like it."

Ha, that's awesome. "Maanaadad. It's no good." You know I'm going to be saying this word all the time now.

On the flip side, we have the cool word 'wawiingetoon,' which means to make something skillfully. It's connected to these ideas of knowledge, talent, precision and exactness, and doing a good job (wow, my odd dedication to good work ethic is starting to make sense now).

A final example is the word 'onizhishin,' which roughly translates to mean 'it is nice, pretty.' I wanted to end with this one because of the example sentence provided:

"Gaawiin ganage onizhishinzinoon iwe gaa-mamiikwaajigaadeg." or
"That thing you were bragging about is not so good after all."

So clearly we have ideas and concepts of standards of defining what is good or bad, what is skillfully made or not, and what is pretty or malformed; and, possibly most important, we have these amazing concepts of humility. The examples above are about being humble with your work and doing a good job.

I'm going to keep digging around for other cool Anishinaabe words that might connect to the English concept of quality, but in the mean time I'd really like to hear from you all - how do you say 'quality' in your Native languages? Please comment below or post links to online dictionaries so I can dig around!:)


  1. Via Patricia Ningewance, "Onizhishin also means good useful intact (not broken)."

  2.  I just found out that we are on the panel together. Jeez.

  3. In Passamaquoddy, the word "wolikon" means that something is good, or made with good quality, or being made correctly.  "Mocinaqot" means something is ugly, or of poor quality, or looks bad.