Anishinaabe Words for “Virus”, and Other (Big/Little) Things

by waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy

Anishinaabe Word(s) for “Virus”

The anishinaabe word for bugs is manidoosheNhsag and this translates as “little spirits”.

The “Nh” indicates a nasal sound and “eNhs” makes the noun diminutive (i.e. little, small).

These things I learned from Doug Williams (Mississauga) and Howard Webkamigad (Odawa), respectively.

I was chatting with another adult language learner the other day, Carmen Craig, and shared with her my musings about what the word for virus might be. I recall from somewhere reading or hearing that we considered viruses to be little bugs but of course compared to bugs, like ants and worms, viruses would be very, very, very little bugs. Humorously, I wondered if the word for virus would be chi chi manidoosheNhs, where the prefix refers to “big” or a kind of emphasis as in chi miigwech (many thanks, much thanks, big thanks, etc.) thereby making this big, big little spirit or very little spirit. Reflecting on the emphasis made through “very, very” I now wonder if maybe the word could be geget manidoosheNhs. Carmen wondered if a word for virus might be mashkimanidoosheNhs, where the prefix mashki, meaning “strong”, turns the meaning of the noun into strong little spirits. We shared this with our language learning community out here in Lekwungen territory which has moved from in-person to online and one idea that came up (or maybe I dreamed it) was the idea of a bad virus which would be majimanidoosheNhs, where the prefix “maji” translates into “bad”. We haven’t come up with anything firm on a word for virus yet. If you know what other words might be created to refer to virus or pandemic or, if you know of any ancestral and old time Anishinaabe words for either, please share.

Other (Big/Little) Things

Speaking of pandemic and viruses, I was thinking about Elder, Lewis Debassige-ban from Manitoulin Island who, in another context, shared a story, an oral history about a kind of virus or sickness that was very powerful but which Anishinaabe had strong medicine for. I have to obtain permission from one of Lewis’ relations to share that story but the point is, we had, and have, medicines for these kinds of things. While there is much grief around the intentional erosion/destruction of our knowledges (i.e. epistemicide), its fragmentation, or its isolation to pockets of people or individuals here and there, these knowledges and stories are still out there and that can give us courage and inspiration; it can motivate us to seek each other out so we can keep us going and growing, and the knowledges—old and new—that continue to work for us.

On the subject of how our people have “been here done this”, I recalled a part of the story in Lee Maracle’s Ravensong that reflects this. An arc in this indigenous Pacific Northwest Coast story portrays how we have a history of, and practices for, dealing with viruses and epidemics within a colonial context. And because our modern history includes what remains of our own healthcare systems and knowledges and a settler healthcare system and knowledges which are reaches of a colonial state, this story, told from the perspective of 17-year-old Stacy, weaves both old time ways, practical ways, and new, necessary ways to deal with an influenza epidemic:

Stacey looked out after her mom, pondering the reticence of the village; like a living organism, it seemed to be gripped in a major sulk. No children hung about in little groups or scampered about.  The whole village was quarantined. No one visited. No one went outside. They hid from each other in isolation. A handful of fearless women about to tend the sick. Momma fashioned masks for those who worked with the fallen. Young women spent hours washing out the homes. Old Dominic kept conducting ceremonies in secrecy each night, hoping to cast out the disease. He regularly sent cougars and bears back to the hilltop homes they people, but he couldn’t speak the language of this virus. It was too small for him to see, he said. Nevertheless, he kept trying. (67)

… For the next ten days, Stacey would not be at school. The sickness drove through the community like a miserable tornado. … Each night the owl, plaintive and sad, called a new name.… Nora’s daughter Martha recovered and leapt into the fracas. Even Judy and Rena rolled their sleeves up… and joined the other women who felt it was their duty to try to save the community.

Stacy too felt this duty. … (68)

[She] dared to suggest they try intravenous—makeshift intravenous of their own. Her mom agreed to go to the hospital to look at the patients who had the flu. Two of the women said their boys would steal the plasma and the equipment needed to save their villagers. …They hooked up the sickest to the three intravenous apparatuses. Like a miracle it worked. …

The boys went after more…. Within days those treated with intravenous recovered. It made the women furious that they should be left in total ignorance about how easily the disease could be treated. (69)

I’m biased for the detail of womxn’s and teenage girls’ labouring care work and the presence of enduring indigenous epistemological processes as portrayed by Old Dominic. I was floored by the truth of extremes we have to go to in order to survive and the withholding of live-saving knowledge and material items from us. There are additional important elements to this story but I don’t want to give it away. The wisdom portrayed within the characters and the relationships throughout the whole story elicits my admiration for Maracle’s writing skill and her own wisdom because she wrote this novel herself as a young woman. As Maracle states in the Preface in Ravensong’s newly reprinted life,

Although I had it in my head to write a comedy, this tale of the last epidemic in which we were not permitted to go to any hospital of our choice was born… Ravensong takes place on a fictitious reserve. … The community it was set in used to exist though. It is one of those many west coast communities where everyone died. The Canadian government was continuously amalgamating reserves or villages from early settlement until around 1916. Our shrinking population led to many rounds of such amalgamations. All of the consolidations were due to epidemic loss.” (xii-xiii).

If you have the resources, Ravensong can be ordered here. First published in 1993 by a press that no longer exists, it was republished in 2012 and 2017. Cecilia’s Song, published in 2014, carries on with the story of Celia, who first appeared in Ravensong. It can be purchased here.


Here is a resource on immune and respiratory herbs meant for these times: “Immune & Respiratory Herbs: A Resource for Tribal Communities During COVID-19”. Prepared by Elise Krohn, Valerie Segrest, Reneee Davis, Rhonda Grantham, and Sofie Geist, they say, “The knowledge and information included in this resource is not protected, and is intended to be shared. Please share with your community. This information is not intended to diagnose or prescribe.”. I’m not able to find a link to this resource online but if you are interested in this resource please send me your email and I will pass it along.


I, like others in Canada and abroad have been thinking about the risk for increased domestic, family, and/or intimate partner violence during this time. Increased stress and social contact as well as decreased options for diffusing or escaping any situation are just some of the risks. Also, police or child welfare workers who arrive to such situations in the present context, may also be employing particular measures that exacerbate tensions or limit being able to respond and interact “effectively” with anyone involved. (I place effectively in scare quotes because I question whether and/or how settler police and child welfare are even already “effective” with our people.) NWAC, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, has posted a webpage on resources about COVID-19. Unfortunately, at the time of posting they haven’t addressed the topic of increased risk of violence for women, non-binary people and Two-Spirit people, transgendered people, children, or youth and ways to protect oneself or strengthen a support network. They do provide phone access to three different Elders however the numbers do not seem to be toll-free. Further, Mi’kmaw lawyer and educator, Pam Palmater, recently wrote extensively and broadly about how governments need to be paying attention to this matter right now, calling for an Indigenous gendered pandemic plan. It seems to me that women, Two-spirit, non-binary, and transgendered people as well as youth and children will continue to do for themselves in times of need. However, if networks of trusted, caring, and safe people who have extra room could be established to support people in need of safety or ideally are able to provide a place for those who are causing the violence so they can depart the home—a subject that requires much more attention and blog space) this may be one way to anyways-and-already respond to this need. Again, if anyone knows of any specific resources or strategies in this area, please share.


The Indigenous Action Climate community has gathered and recently updated this expansive list of resources entitled, “Responding to COVID19: Building Communities of Care”. The sources they include are varied but if you want to see and hear fellow Indigenous folx speak about COVID19 in relation to our communities, check out the link to a webinar, “COVID19 and Indigenous Communities” which aired in partnership with Idle No More and NDN Collective fellows. It’s approximately 1hr30min long so provides some good “social time”. I mean honestly, seeing and hearing other Indigenous folx, even if only in a one-way online “relationship” can be a powerful medicine during these times.


My sugar bush chum, Damien Lee, prompts us to think about youth during COVID-19. A few weeks ago, he gathered and blogged a short and sweet list of resources in this vein called, “Youth-Focused COVID-19 Resources”. While there, check out some of his other posts.


Indigenous Physicians (who are also TV-and-Film famous), have some wise words for us as well. Read what Dr. James Makokis (who specializes in medical care for Two-Spirited and transgendered people and who won Amazing Race Canada in 2019) and Dr. Evan Adams (who played Thomas Build-the-Fire in Smoke Signals) have to say about us and COVID-19.


For some academic thought and writing, which is not necessarily (or even) Indigenous (I don’t know for sure as I don’t recognize any authors as being Indigenous and haven’t read anything from it yet) see a recent publication of COVID-19 essays by TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies. Also, see Verso Books for free access to 5 e-books and significant discounts for other books for “reading in these times of social isolation”. To access the free books, you will need to click on the e-book tab, sign up/register, and select how you want the source delivered (to a reader, IPhone/IPad, or your email. The deadline to obtain the free books or discounts is April 2. Finally, Films for Action has many (many, many) free documentaries. It also includes a section on Indigenous Knowledges. miigwech to my friend Rita Dhamoon for sharing all these resources. Note: I’m not sure if these resources are accessible from anywhere or if they are limited to access within Canada.


 I was thinking about how social isolation is new and difficult for many. I was also thinking about how social isolation, with all its’ problems, is also very much the daily and chronic norm for many. The thing of it and the affect. The fact is there are already many socially isolated people out there and this is just a new, and temporary, reality for many. I was thinking about the emerging ritual of clanging pots and pans outside every evening at 7 pm for the healthcare workers. This is really important. I was also thinking what if we banged our pots and pans at 8 pm every night to show support to the people who suffer daily in this world—stuck in a relentless, merciless structural position of poverty, exploitation, forced migration, violence, detention, neglect? After all, whatever comforts any of us before, during or after this epidemic is because of a construction of hierarchies that are structured into a complex relationship of privileges and disadvantages. I was thinking about how this Cree woman who was in the same MA program as I many years ago (and whose name evades me) shared how her grandmother told her that when the Depression hit, the only thing different was that her people were no longer the only people suffering. Maybe it is the same for the context we are in. Regardless, the structures we live in, and how we are located in them, or how we work to be located in them, are a big problem and while many hope that things will not go back to normal when this is done, I’m fairly sure that the big structural issues are not going to change. They are going to morph to feed even more powerfully to recuperate themselves because you know without a doubt all that crisis money being necessarily disseminated to people, businesses, and yes, corporations are going to have to be recuperated somehow. I’m not sure how we change the structures, the war-mongers, the international monetary fund, the world bank, the focus on the GDP and growth and wealth and progress but I am sure we, like Old Dominic, have to just keep on keeping on as we look out for each other and commit to a refusal to be passive, apathetic, and easily seduced into complacency. For now, let’s put our tobacco down or up or into the fire or onto the water for our people who are burdened either due to the pandemic or were and will continue to be burdened when it’s all over.


 And, I was thinking about the Italians and how early on in their isolation their cultural proclivities for socializing manifested as collective singing from neighbourhood balconies. I really admired this. I wondered what songs would “we” collectively sing from our balconies, and doorsteps, and windows. I felt sad that the only song I could think that might be collectively sung “together” would be “Oh Canada” or some hockey jam. My friend Chris Wright cheered me up with his suggestion that it might be a Drake Song. That said, I can’t imagine myself or my girl participating in such performances of social cohesion in the urban setting where we live. I certainly don’t feel as a part of a “we” when it comes to Canada. Now, if folx pulled out hand drums I would be more than happy to be a part of it. I also read articles portraying how families or individual family members were going to nursing homes and singing to their beloveds or playing instruments outside the nursing home. If I could be back home, I would blast some music from Bell Island radio for my Dad. I would stand outside any number of my beloved Elder friends’ homes and drum a song or two for them. And what about this: wouldn’t it be just good if a group of people got their drums and shakers out—and whatever other kind of instrument—and, walking 6 feet apart, went door to door singing songs for their fellow neechies? Geez. That would also be just ever.


My girl and I made a list of no-cost things that we have done or that we will/may do during these pandemic times. Extra: these things are free of internet dependency:

Walking. In the sunshine. Better in the rain. Because fun.

Reading. Anything. Including palms. Make it up if you have to.

Reading out loud to each other. Poems are fun. They quickly lead to performance. The performance of the thing you are reading to a beloved. Yes. Fun. Silly. Yay.

Blowing bubbles. If you have them. Blow them outside on a gently windy day or blow them inside while lying in your bed. Yes, you and your things will get a little bubble-wet. The magic outweighs this little annoyance. J I think bubbles can be made with just water and dish soap. How to make a bubble maker thing? I don’t know. Figuring that out will be part of the challenge.

Go outside and watch the day go by. And watch all the things in the day as it goes by. Or, do this from a window. See what you can see wherever you are. Even if you have to close your eyes to do it.

Find a natural space away from people and stare up at the sky. If there are clouds, what do they look like?


Find a place where there are people and where you can perch at a very safe distance. People watch. If you have a daaban, all the better. (This may sound odd during times of social isolation but where we live, people are still out and about down by the ocean and here and there. There are definitely enough people about to people watch).

While people-watching, make up stories about the people you see. What are their names? Where are they going? Who are their parents? Why are they together? How did they meet? Why do they wear their hair like that? Where did they get that funky hat? And on and on.

Ah. Play an instrument. Remember, spoons can be an instrument, too.

Cut your hair. Make bangs. (I think you really should use hair-cutting shears but I recently watched a person cut their hair using kitchen shears—you know, the thing you use to cut up a whole baakaakweNh, er, chicken). Braid beloveds, braid!

Paint your nails. Paint designs on your nails.

Get dolled up. For no reason.

Have a fashion show.

Do each other’s make-up. Especially if you think your gender precludes you from wearing make-up.

Write. Anything. A poem, a diary about these pandemic days, a love letter. Maybe do some therapy writing where you write letters to someone (or plural or nation) to whom you have strong things to say but can’t, or won’t, for whatever reason. Burn them, bury them, or tuck them away somewhere private.

Love your pet up.

And, your plants.

Damn—clean. Organize. Cull. Re-arrange.


Tell each other stories—like, from inside your body. Yea. Do storytelling. Make it up, pull it out of your memory, retell oral histories and traditional narratives. Do them all.

Make a play. Perform it. Record it. Watch it. Laugh or cringe at your wondrous selves.

Record yourself talking out your creative ideas. Or, ramblings. Or, processing of stuff.

Play cards or whatever other games you have.

Play hide and seek.

Make a blanket fort. Go in there.

Have a pillow fight.

Lounge around with each other and tell each other all the things you like and love and admire about each other.

Call people. Call all the people. Visit-talk. Talk-visit.

Prank call people? J No. Never.

Toss a ball around. Against a wall. At a hoop. Or, be a support to the person in your family/home who is athletic. Help them do the exercises particular to their sport by just giving them pep talks or whatever they particularly need. Or, just kick a darn ball around.

Exercise. Stretch. Meditate. Visualize.

Daydream. Make art. Make love/lust. Do it with (an)other(s). Do it solo. It’s all good.


Finally, here are some internet resources that some may find interesting for education and/or entertainment:

  • These Native You-Tubers giving a shout out to other Native-You-Tubers is a good waboose-hole to get lost in (two of my favourites who are not listed here are Siaosi and Victoria, a Samoan het-couple, and Toniajo Hall with her character Aunty Beachress). Also, since we’re here, make your own You Tube channel because why not;
  • Ryan McMahon’s Clarence Two Toes has returned to Facebook (live) to help us all out during these pandemic times and all I can say is Clarence Two Toes still makes my heart swoon in that ever deadleh way—check out RM’s facebook page to scout it out and tune in because Ryan also gives plenty of shout-outs to other Indigenous-created live or archived content that is happening at the moment such as online pow-wows and Indigenous curated playlists;
  • The National Film Board, which is only accessible in Canada, has many free documentaries and films many of which include Indigenous directors, actors, and/or content;
  • The Knowledge Network also has free documentaries and films;
  • Thirza Jean Cuthand, a filmmaker, performance artist, and writer makes “short experimental narrative videos and films about sexuality, madness, Queer identity and love, and Indigeneity” short experimental narrative videos and films about sexuality, madness, Queer identity and love, and Indigeneity”, has a wide selection of their videos available on their website, and has been recently blogging about social isolation;
  • On Netflix, “Burden of Truth” is a Canadian legal drama series whose setting is small-town Manitoba (and Winnipeg) and whose storyline includes Indigenous peoples, relationships between Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships with complexity, nuance and in my mind, insight. The best part about this series is that the story includes a Two-Spirit teen whose character and role is pretty rad. Where the lead actor in this series is a mixed race Asian Canadian woman who is white passing, there is another great legal drama called “Diggstown” whose main character is a Black Canadian woman lawyer. Airing through CBC Gem, “Diggstown” is set in Halifax and has commercials (unless you want to pay for a subscription). The story hinges on power and difference across diversity (mostly racial and class); and, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous and Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships, and indigeneity are present in ways that, to me, seem to be accurate contemporary realities in Canada and at times are quite satisfying and compelling. Finally, back to Netflix, “Frontier”, which airs in both Canada and the US (I think) is a story about 18th century trading relations in Indigenous-HBC territory. Filmed in Newfoundland, the terrain is gorgeous; set in early trading relations, the exchanges portray extreme violence bordering on what I would say is gore. Indigeneity, Indigenous actors portraying Indigenous characters, complex relationships, racial and sexual diversity, class, feminist, and indigenous feminist proclivities, exist in this series. The extreme violence unsettled me right away and had I not been reading about the contemporary violence of global trading against women and the way men prioritize economy, money, power, and ego above the well-being of women, including Indigenous women, I likely would not have endured watching the series. I think that the violence portrayed is gratuitous at times but for the most part is quite likely a reflection of the toxic masculinities and colonial-corporate economic frenzy operating at the time. I kept watching but would not watch the violent scenes. The representation of diversity and complexity of relationalities and relationships, truth of indigenous territorial sovereignty, the gender representations (aside from the toxic masculinities) and the portrayal of how capitalist economics f*cked with everything, is what I stayed for. Also, I’ve just begun reading Afua Cooper’s, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal, and the sick racist-sexist-classist brutality of 18th century settler Montreal, a place of significance in “Frontier”, affirms that the violence portrayed is likely not off the mark. (I also compared the violence in “Frontier” to the violence against Indigenous women portrayed in Joseph Boyden’s I experienced Boyden’s inclusion of violence against Indigenous women as gratuitous and therefore disturbing. When I could not reconcile why he included this in the story, doing so very early on, I closed the book and never opened it again.) Finally, for three excellent films still showing on Netflix that fall under the rubric of indigeneity in some way shape or form, watch: Roma (2018) which is set in Mexico; Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018) which is set in New Zealand and has some transnational indigenous feminist connections with Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin in Canada; and, Atlantique (2019), which is set in West Africa;
  • There are many Indigenous podcasts. Closing your eyes and just listening to Indigenous voices is a beautiful thing;
  • Apparently, DJ DNice hosts darn good dance parties on Instagram; not sure when but the kid followed him so we can figure out what the what;
  • Finally, this is not necessarily Indigenous but it is not necessarily NOT Indigenous either but, learning TikTok dances can be fun and a good way to move your body. J Are there any famous Indigenous TikTok-ers or Instagrammers out there that we can follow? Let me know.


Take care. Be as safe as you can. Seek out moments of joy. Lend a hand when you can, accept a hand when offered, and ask for help if needed. And, of course, wash your hands (or, watch You Tube videos on how to wash your hands to avoid the spread of germs—they’re Totally White but oddly meditative and hey, this is another thing to add to the things to do during a pandemic list: making how-to-wash-your-hand-you-tube-vids showcasing our beautiful skin).