Basil H. Johnston

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Basil H. Johnston (13 Jul 1929) O.Ont, Anishinaabe writer, storyteller, language teacher and scholar, was born on the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, Canada, on July 13, 1929, to Mary (Lafreniere) and Rufus Johnston. He is a member of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation (formerly known as the Cape Croker Band of Ojibwa).

He graduated from Loyola College, Montreal, Quebec, cum laude in 1954. In 1969, he joined the ethnology department of Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, until his retirement. From 1970 onward, as an ethnologist, non-fiction writer, essayist, short-story writer, autobiographer, and educator, Johnston became a prolific writer. His topics are predominantly concerned with the preservation of his native Ojibwa culture.


He attended elementary school at the Cape Croker Indian Reserve school until the age of 10, after which he attended St. Peter Claver's Indian Residential School in Spanish, Ontario. He left school for a time before finishing the ninth grade, but soon learned that it would be difficult to support himself without further education. In the meantime, St. Peter Claver's had gained a new Father Superior who reorganized the school as Garnier Residential School for Indian Boys to deliver a secondary school education, instead of as a trade school. In 1950, Johnston graduated valedictorian from Garnier and then attended Loyola College in Montreal where he graduated with honors, earning a B.A. in 1954. An account of his school years can be read in Indian School Days.

From 1955 through 1961, Basil Johnston was employed by the Toronto Board of Trade. He received his Secondary School Teaching Certificate from the Ontario College of Education in 1962, and took a position teaching history at the Earl Haig Secondary School in North York until 1969. He 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 Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) heritage, especially language and mythology. His writings began appearing in print in 1970. The 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. For the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Johnston wrote the Ojibway Language Course Outline and the Ojibway Language Lexicon in 1978. Basil is a fluent speaker, scholar, and teacher of the Anishinaabe language who writes in both English and Anishinaabemowin. He is often sought as a translator, perhaps because his translations display a sensitivity to both the Ojibwa and English languages. Since the key to understanding culture is language, to provide this key, Basil Johnston has developed audio programs on cassette and CD.

Back in 1968 a grade 5 student, after studying Indians in-depth for five weeks, asked Basil Johnston, a visitor to the school, "Is that all there is to Indians, Sir?" Since that time Basil has written 15 books in English and 5 in Ojibwemowin to show that there is much more to North American Indian life than social organization, hunting and fishing, food preparation, clothing, dwellings and transportation. In addition, he has written numerous articles that have been published in newspapers, anthologies and periodicals. In 1978, he developed the script for the film, The Man, the Snake and the Fox, still available from the National Film Board of Canada. Basil travels extensively throughout Canada and the U.S. to speak about the Ojibwa culture and language. He often visits Canadian and U.S. Ojibwa reserves and reservations and schools where he continues to pass down the stories, customs, and history of the Ojibwa people in the Ojibwa oral tradition. He currently resides on Cape Croker First Nation and continues to write daily and publish books.


For his work in preserving Ojibwa language and culture, he has received the Order of Ontario and Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toronto and Laurentian University. Basil has also received the 2004 Aboriginal Achievement Award for Heritage and Spirituality.


  • North American Indians: outline. Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada (Toronto: 1971).
  • Ojibway heritage. Columbia University Press (New York: 1976).
  • Canada: Discovering Our Heritage. Pearson Custom Publishing (Boston: 1977). By David Smith, Chris Andreae, Basil Johnston, E. Mitchner and Ann MacKenzie.
  • How the birds got their colours: Gah w'indinimowaut binaesheehnyuk w'idinauziwin-wauh. Kids Can Press (Toronto: 1978).
  • Moose meat and wild rice. McClelland and Stewart (Toronto: 1978).
  • Ojibway Language Course Outline for beginners. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1978).
  • Ojibway Language Lexicon for beginners. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1978).
  • Tales the elders told: Ojibway legends. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1981).
  • Brève histoire du Collège Saint-Alexandre. Collège Saint-Alexandre (Touraine: 1981).
  • Grosser Weisser Falke : der Lebenskreis eines Ojibwa. Eugen Diederichs Verlag (Köln: 1982).
  • Und Manitu erschuf die Welt : Mythen und Visionen der Ojibwa. Diederichs (München: 1984).
  • Nanabusch und Grosser Geist : Geschichten der Odschibwä Indianer (Kanada). Verlag St. Gabriel (Mödling-Wien: 1985). By Basil Johnston; Shirley Cheechoo; Käthe Recheis.
  • By Canoe & Moccasin: Some Native Place Names of the Great Lakes. Waapoone Publishing and Promotion (Lakefield: 1986). Illustrated by David Beyer.
  • Ojibway ceremonies. McClelland and Stewart (Toronto: 1987).
  • Indian school days. Key Porter Books (Toronto: 1988).
  • "One Generation from Extinction" in Native Writers and Canadian Literature. University of British Columbia Press (Vancouver: 1990).
  • Hudson Bay Watershed: a photographic memoir of the Ojibway, Cree, and Oji-Cree. Dundurn Press (Toronto: 1991). By John MacFie and Basil H. Johnston.
  • Hudson Bay portraits: native peoples of the Hudson Bay watershed. Dundurn Press (Toronto: 1992). By John Macfie and Basil Johnston.
  • Tales of the Anishinaubaek. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1993). By Basil H. Johnston and Maxine Noel.
  • The Manitous: the spiritual world of the Ojibway. HarperCollins Publishers (New York: 1995).
  • The bear-walker and other stories. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1995).
  • Readings: selections from HarperCollins Spring/Summer 1995 nonfiction list. HarperCollins Publishers (New York: 1995). By Annie Dillard; Basil Johnston; Ellis Cose; Philip Langdon; Emma Donoghue; Lawrence Graham; Paul Solotaroff; Eleanor Anne Lanahan; HarperCollins (Firm)
  • American film stories. P. Reclam (Stuttgart: 1996). By Reingard M. Nischik; Sam Shepard; Basil Johnston; Tom Clark; Richard Brautigan; Jayne Anne Phillips; T Coraghessan Boyle; Ray Bradbury; William Saroyan; Charles Johnson
  • The star man and other tales. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1997). By Basil H. Johnston and Ken Syrette.
  • Mermaids and Medicine Women. Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: 1998).
  • The Art of Norval Morrisseau, The Writings of Basil H. Johnston. The Glenbow Museum (Calgary: 1999).
  • Crazy Dave. Key Porter Books (Toronto: 1999).
  • The nature of plants: excerpted from Ojibway heritage by Basil Johnston. Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (Odanah, WI: 199X).
  • Honour Earth Mother: Mino-audjaudauh Mizzu-Kummik-Quae. University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln: 2003).
  • Anishinaubae Thesaurus. Michigan State University Press (East Lansing: 2007).
  • Think Indian: languages are beyond price. Kegedonce Press (Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Ontario: 2011).
  • Living in Harmony: Mino-nawae-indawaewin. Kegedonce Press (Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Ontario: 2012).


  • The Man, the Snake and the Fox. National Film Board of Canada (Montreal: 1978). Directed and produced by Tony Snowsill, written by Basil Johnston.
  • Native Indian folklore. National Film Board of Canada (Montreal: 1993). By Alanis Obomsawin; Wolf Koenig; Brian McLeod; Tony Westman; Tony Snowsill; Basil Johnston; Les Krizson; Francois Hartman; Eunice Macaulay; Tex Kong; National Film Board of Canada.

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