I was coming back to Thunder Bay last Christmas and was passing through Sudbury.
I was standing outside the Greyhound terminal with a big green backpack – one I use for hunting – when a Native man approached me with a joke: A Native man is with politicians on a plane that is going down with limited parachutes on hand. The politicians assert their importance before jumping out. With three men and two parachutes left, the last politician takes one and jumps out. Then the Native man turns to the other guy and says, “It’s OK, he jumped out with my backpack.”
We laughed and the man said, “Always funny seeing a Nish traveling with a bush backpack.”
“Nish” is a term I began to hear and use in my early teens. It’s derived from the Anishnaabe word … well, Anishnaabe. Nish can generally refer to any Native person since Anishnaabe is Ojibwe for “the people.”
Being a Cree from the James Bay coast, it might seem odd that the term Nish is used where I’m from, but I think that can be attributed to the presence of Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service and Nishnawbe Aski Nation in the area.
When my friends and I would say Nish, however, it usually referred to someone appearing, acting or talking in a way unique to Native people.
So, to the guy I met at the terminal, I was pretty Nish to be traveling through the city with my big green bush backpack.
When I moved to Thunder Bay for school, I had not used the term in a while. Then I met my classmate Tyler, who grew up in Sioux Lookout, Ont. It wasn’t long after that we began to talk about Nish things. We’d joke about eating Klik, using bed sheets as curtains or speaking in broken grammar. We’d talk with our Nish accents (“Jish stug, ever deadly”). Tyler suggested I grow my hair, wear a bandana, put on rubber boots and walk around the city as the “ultimate Nish.”
Naturally, this term raised a lot of questions among our non-Native classmates.
“You guys keep using this word, Nish,” one said. “What does it mean?”
And we’d try to define it but found it very difficult to do. We’d list off characteristics, use it in context and at times I’d want to briefly give a bit of socio-political history to explain why these characteristics exist. But we found that they didn’t “get it.” They’d still look confused or look blankly at us or pretend they understood. It’s pretty hard to explain our humour to which they can’t identify with.
In our second year in the film production program at the college, we had to make a documentary. I struggled with ideas at first then it hit me: why not do it on being Nish?
So I teamed up with Tyler and we interviewed seven Nish youth who live in Thunder Bay. They are from different reserves or communities and each were able to offer similar definitions of the word. We asked them what Nish means, what are the characteristics and why we laugh about it.
It was a very fun experience for us. For one interview, it was a Sunday and I was grumpy having been editing other projects all day. I felt annoyed when Tyler said we had to do another interview. The interview was with two friends who were too shy to be interviewed on camera separately, so they asked to be interviewed together. We agreed and set up. It turned into the best interview we had. They described the things I could identify with and they were able to feed off each other’s comments and energy. I struggled not to laugh as I asked questions and I would look over and see Tyler hunched over by the camera trying to stifle his laughter. After the interview, my stomach hurt from all the laughing and I was in a great mood for the rest of the day.
There were also some very insightful comments about our humour during some interviews. One girl commented that we joke about these characteristics because “to laugh at others is to laugh at yourself.”
We handed the documentary in to our professor and he – having lived in Peawanuck, Ont. for a year and understanding and appreciating Aboriginal culture – loved it.
The Nish people we showed it to laughed throughout. I showed it to a few of the non-Natives in my class who had asked what Nish was. Obviously, they didn’t laugh as much but I sensed in them a better understanding of our culture.
Hearing the positive reception and encouragement, I submitted Ever Nish to some film festivals and it has been accepted to two of them.
It’s set to screen at the Biindigaate Film Festival on Saturday, Sept. 24 here in Thunder Bay. Then it will play at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto Oct. 23.
Tyler and I are very excited to be able share this documentary with a wider audience. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make more Nish’s laugh and more non-Nish’s understand a bit more about us as a people.
I grew up in my home community of Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast and there were a lot of challenges living in the far north.
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