February 16, 2003

Basil H. Johnson: Ojibway Author,Story-Teller and Scholar


KEYWORDS: Basil Johnston Johnson Ojibway author Ojibwe storyteller Ojibwa scholar Chippewa linguist Ojibwe language fluent speakers of the ancient Ojibway language Ojibway culture Cape Crocker Ojibway Reserve Canadian reserves Ojibway reservations Ojibway oral tradition Ojibway people First Nation Garnier Residential School for Indian Boys St. Peter Claver’s Indian Residential School Spanish Indian School Anishinaubae Cape Croker First Nation limited edition art print David C. Behrens art print storyteller art print Robert Rivera art prints

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.

Robert Rivera - Storyteller Gourd

Storyteller Gourd

Robert Rivera

Buy this storyteller art print by Robert Rivera

After spending the following months at miscellaneous jobs, including fishing, farming, and trapping, Johnston found it difficult to support himself. He describes his decision to return to school in his childhood memoir,Indian School Days: “Maybe it would be better to go back to school. I had heard vague rumors that Spanish was offering a high-school program. If it were true, I would return. It was my only chance to escape a life of cutting wood.”

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.

David C. Behrens - Five Cent Peace (LE)

Five Cent Peace (LE)

David C. Behrens

Buy this limited edition David C. Behrens art print

In 1950 Johnston graduated valedictorian from Garnier and then attended Loyola College in Montreal. Again graduating with honors, he earned a B.A. from Loyola in 1954.

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.

David C. Behrens - When Colors Bleed II (LE)

When Colors Bleed II (LE)

David C. Behrens

Buy this limited edition art print by David C. Behrens

Johnston writes, “Men like to be judged not only by the great men and great works they have fostered, but also for standards of courage, perseverance, and endurance. Indian people in addition to these attributes like to be known for magnanimity, fortitude and resourcefulness.”

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:

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.

Native Authors->A-L
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply