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Basil Johnston is perhaps one of the leading Indian authors and scholars in Canada and the US. He has written thirteen books including "The Manitous," "Ojibway Heritage," "Ojibway Ceremonies," "Ojibway Tales," and "Indian School Days," among others, and numerous essays.
Basil Johnston is one of the few fluent speakers of the ancient Ojibway language who also writes in that language.Johnston is a linguist and lecturer in the Department of Ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
Johnston was born on July 13, 1929, to Rufus and Mary Lafreniere Johnston on the Parry Island Indian Reserve in Ontario. There, he attended elementary school at the Cape Croker Indian Reserve school until the age of 10.
By this time, his parents had separated and Basil Johnston, his mother, and four sisters were living with his grandmother. Basil and one sister were "selected" by an Indian agent and the local priest to attend residential school in Spanish, Ontario.
Basil Johnston attended St. Peter Claver's Indian Residential School, commonly referred to as "Spanish" after the town where it was located. The school, run by Jesuit priests, offered discipline, education, and taught the boys trades that they could pursue once they were released at the age of 16.
Subsidized by the government, the boys generally performed every task necessary to keep the institution running. Under the guidance of the Jesuits, they grew their own vegetables, helped to bake and prepare food, made their clothes and shoes, maintained the buildings and grounds, and raised and sold cattle, chickens, and hogs.
Johnston was released from St. Peter Claver's in 1944 to enter secondary school. Three months short of completing the ninth grade, he dropped out of Regiopolis College in Kingston at the end of March 1945.
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During Johnston's absence, many changes had taken place at St. Peter Claver's. The trades the boys were previously taught had become obsolete. Jobs for chicken farmers, cobblers, and tailors were scarce due to machines and equipment that had replaced human labor.
The new Father Superior, R. J. Oliver, appointed in 1945, believed that the boys needed a solid secondary school program if they were to have any advantage in life. He began to institute changes to prepare for a high school curriculum and interscholastic sporting events.
Johnston wrote to the Father Superior, requesting to return to the institution. He re-enrolled in what was now called the Garnier Residential School for Indian Boys in 1947.
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From 1955 through 1961 Basil Johnston was employed by the Toronto Board of Trade. After receiving a Secondary School Teaching Certificate from the Ontario College of Education in 1962, he took a position teaching history at the Earl Haig Secondary School in North York until 1969.
Mr. Johnston then joined the Ethnology Department of the Royal Ontario Museum where he worked for the next 25 years with a mandate to record and celebrate Ojibway (Anishinaubae) heritage, especially language and mythology.
Johnston's writings began appearing in print in 1970. His first essay, "Bread Before Books or Books Before Bread," which appeared in The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians, recounts events contributing to the deterioration of the Native American culture.
The essay concludes with a summary stressing the accomplishments of the Native people from the Incas through the North American Indians.
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For the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs Johnston wrote the Ojibway Language Course Outline and the Ojibway Language Lexicon in 1978. He is often sought as a translator, perhaps because his translations display a sensitivity to both the Ojibway and English languages.
A respected author, many of his books have been credited with presenting his tribal mythology in a way that both renews and reveals the Ojibway attitudes and insights toward life.
His writings include:
- THE MANITOUS: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway, HarperCollins US/95, Key Porter CAN/95, Minnesota Historical Society Press/Reissue 2001
- "Bread Before Books or Books Before Bread," in The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians, edited by Waubageshig, Chicago, New Press, 1970; 126-141.
- "Zhomin and Mandamin," Toronto Native Times, 5:11, 1974; 11-12.
- Ojibway Heritage
Illustrated by David Beyer (Paperback - April 1990), Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1976; New York, Columbia University, 1976.
- Moose Meat and Wild Rice (Hardcover - June 1987), Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1978; as Ojibway Tales, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
- How the Birds Got Their Colours, Toronto, Kids Can Press, 1978.
- Ojibway Language Course Outline, Ottawa, Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, 1978.
- Ojibway Language Lexicon for Beginners, Ottawa, Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, 1978.
- Tales the Elders Told: Ojibway Legends
Illustrated by Shirley Cheechoo (Hardcover - March 1995), Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, 1981.
- Ojibway Ceremonies Illustrated by David Beyer, (Paperback - April 1990), Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1982.
- By Canoe and Moccasin Some Native Place Names of the Great Lakes Illustrated by David BeyerOut of Print--Limited Availability, Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, 1986; Lakefield, Ontario, Waapoone Publishing & Promotion, 1992.
- Indian School Days Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1988; Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
- Ojibway Tales (Paperback - October 1993)
- The Bear-Walker and Other Stories
Illustrated by David A. Johnson (Hardcover - August 1995)
- Dancing With a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality
by Rupert Ross and Basil H. Johnston (Paperback - May 1997)
- The Star-Man: And Other Tales
Basil H. Johnston, et al (Hardcover - April 1997)
- Tales of the Anishinaubaek
Illustrated by Maxine Noel (Hardcover - January 1998)
- Mermaids and Medicine Women: Native Myths and Legends
Illustrated by Maxine Noel (Hardcover - January 1998)
Mr. Johnston travels extensively throughout Canada and the US to speak about the Ojibway culture and language.
Basil Johnston often visits Canadian and U.S. Ojibway reserves and reservations and schools where he continues to pass down the stories, customs, and history of the Ojibway people in the Ojibway oral tradition.
Basil Johnston is an Anishinaubae member of the Cape Croker First Nation in Ontario.
Book Review: THE MANITOUS: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway by Basil Johnston
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers Since 1960, Second Series, 60, Detroit, Gale Research, 1987; 146-149.
- Johnston, Basil H., "Bread Before Books or Books Before Bread," in The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians, edited by Waubageshig, Chicago, New Press, 1970; 126-141.
- Johnston, Basil H., Ojibway Heritage, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1976; New York, Columbia University, 1976.
- Johnston, Basil H., Indian School Days, Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1988; Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
- Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, Gale Research, 1994; 1079.
- Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian, sixth edition, edited by Barry T. Klein, West Nyak, New York, Todd Publications, 1993; 553.