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Chelsea Vowel is a Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She is the mother of two energetic girls and holds a BEd and an LLB from the University of Alberta. She moved to Montreal a few years ago, fell in love with Roller Derby and decided to stay permanently. Her passions are the Cree language, strapping on roller skates and smashing into other women, and attacking the shroud of ignorance surrounding indigenous issues in Canada. She blogs at apihtawikosisan.com. Follow her on Twitter @apihtawikosisan.

Indigenous languages crucial to cultural flourishing

| December 4, 2013
Image: wikimedia commons

To hear non-Indigenous people tell it, we've been teetering on the edge of extinction since not too long after Contact. That narrative hasn't changed much over the years, though the cause of our cultural and perhaps even physical demise has varied somewhat in the details. There have been moments of colonial guilt over past policies, but in every age the contemporary opinion is focused on the inherent inability of Indigenous peoples to survive in the supposedly modern world.

Whether this belief is held by those who mourn our slow disappearance or by those who wish we'd hurry up and vanish already, our continued presence must indeed be puzzling. Ours is the slowest apocalypse in human history it seems, because over 500 years later, millions of Indigenous peoples continue to exist all throughout the Americas.

That's not to say the situation isn't grim. British Columbia is home to over half of the sixty distinct Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, and in B.C. every one of those languages is considered at extreme risk. In some cases, the number of fluent speakers can be counted on one hand.

Now, why would I bring up language first, when twenty percent of First Nations in Canada lack safe drinking water? Why discuss language before the five-to-seven per cent higher suicide rate among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth? Why not talk about how Indigenous people make up twenty-three per cent of the prison inmates in Canada, despite only being four percent of the total population?

The answer I must give you is that I believe our languages to be so central to who we are as Indigenous peoples, that I cannot discuss our present or our future without reference to languages.

The oppression we have faced, and continue to face, does not define us in the way our languages do. Our resilience, and the fact that we have not disappeared all the times it was predicted that our end was just around the corner, is very much rooted in our languages. The ability to transmit our languages to our children has been actively interfered with for generations, and remains greatly threatened. The fact that anyone remains at all to speak our languages is a cause for celebration, and such tenacity in the face of unimaginable adversity warrants admiration.Think about that for a moment.

Regardless of the fervent wishes of the architects of policies intended to eliminate our languages and cultures, there is no sudden transformation from Indigenous to non-Indigenous when a single person is denied the opportunity to learn her own language. I would argue, however, that if our languages were lost completely, our collective identities would be at risk of being lost. Such loss would not be immediate, but in my opinion, the extinction of our languages would make it impossible to grow as peoples. We would become stagnant and rootless. How many generations beyond complete language loss would render us non-Indigenous, I hesitate to even guess. Next to losing the land, I cannot think of a factor that more threatens our collective existence as Indigenous peoples than no longer being able to talk our talk.

To explain why I believe this to be so, it is important to understand what our languages do for us besides allowing us to communicate with one another. It makes sense to use examples from my own language, but before I do that, I would like to provide a bit of context. I am from a historic Métis community on the shore of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. The founders of that community were Iroquois (Mohawk) traders and Métis with roots in the Red River. There are Cree and Nakota Sioux communities in close proximity to my own, and intermarriage remains common. Speakers of various other Cree dialects as well as Dene peoples had been making annual journeys to this lake for many generations, and continue to do so.

Linguistic diversity in that area is the norm. Over the years, the Mohawk language fell out of use and was replaced by Michif and Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin). It has been easier for me to learn Cree than Michif, simply because of the availability of speakers and materials in Cree versus Michif. When I say "my language," I refer to Cree, but perhaps I should be saying, "one of my languages."

In any case, in order to begin demonstrating what language can do besides allowing us to communicate, let me use the example of the nêhiyawêwin word, wîtaskîwin. Most easily translated as "peace," wîtaskîwin actually has a much more complex meaning. It can be better translated as "truce or alliance" or best yet, "living together on the land," and it is a foundational principle of Cree law.

There are a number of Indigenous scholars who are working to reclaim and restore Indigenous law. Let me diverge yet again for a moment to explain the difference between Aboriginal and Indigenous law. Aboriginal law is the name given to the body of law that defines the relationship between the colonial state and Indigenous peoples. Indigenous law is the traditional law of our many nations, and only rarely is it ever acknowledged within Aboriginal law. Indigenous law is the body of law that defines the reciprocal obligations between human beings, animal and plant beings, spirit beings and the land.

Language is central to the reclamation of Indigenous law because translation fails us — not only because so much is lost in translation, but also because so much is added. It is nearly impossible for me to use the English term law and not have you immediately form images in your head of what law is. Your understanding of this term is probably rooted in a specific Anglo-cultural history. Whether you form pictures in your mind of lawyers in powdered wigs, or monarchs passing judgement, or of weary Crown prosecutors desperately trying to make it through a stack of files three feet high, the term is inextricably linked to an Anglo–common law tradition which stretches back for centuries. Millennia, if we want to really get to the roots of it.

Because of this, when I talk about Cree law I cannot avoid evoking a system and a history that is quite antithetical to what Cree law actually is. This distortion is a problem no matter what Cree term I would try to translate. That is not to say I cannot eventually help you to understand what a term means, without you first having to learn Cree. Going back to the word wîtaskîwin, we could drink many cups of tea and discuss what "living on the land together"means. There would be many misunderstandings to overcome, many cultural assumptions to address, but eventually we could come to an understanding using the English language.

If you were to learn Cree, you would not just be learning new words, you would also be learning a worldview. It would still be possible for you to misunderstand this worldview, and to apply your own cultural understandings to the terms you learn, but this is less likely to happen than when we use translation.

Aside from allowing us to communicate with one another, our languages express our laws and sociopolitical principles. When we lose our language, we can no longer tap into those things that make us a whole culture. We must rely on translations that are inescapably influenced by foreign cultural understandings. We cannot help but experience an erosion of our cultural foundations when we cannot access these principles in their pure form, in our languages and in our territories. On the flip side, even when our traditions and cultures have been eroded, we can use the language to reclaim foundational principles that may have been forgotten or erased on purpose by the overlay of colonially imposed governance in our communities.

Our languages also contain the history of our peoples, which is the history of all those who live in what is now called Canada. I chose the Cree word wîtaskîwin because it is the name of a town in Alberta, anglicised to Wetaskiwin (and made notorious for a long-running jingle, "Cars cost less in Wetaskiwin!"). If all that remains of the language is that word, with no understanding of its meaning, the place becomes disconnected from its history.

The town's name originates from a legendary peace made between the Cree and the Blackfoot. Understanding from this, first of all, that the history of Canada did not begin with Europeans, is an important step in reclaiming our collective histories, whether we are Indigenous or not. Understanding that Indigenous peoples have been making treaties with one another for thousands of years is an important step in recognising that we have always exercised self-determination.

Acknowledging these two truths in a real way would be breaking new ground in a country that has worked for centuries to overwrite us with colonial narratives. Canada is literally bursting with such history, marked by Indigenous words for physical features and historic events. Unfortunately, much of this history has been ignored. The stories continue to exist in oral form, but because orality is not respected in the way that written literacy is, these stories are in danger of being lost completely. Though some would say that the solution is to write down the stories or in other ways record them for future generations, I argue the complete opposite. I want us to maintain our orality.

Orality is often framed as a lack, or an absence, specifically of a system of writing. Drawing a line between societies with a system of writing and those without is too simplistic by far. A number of Indigenous nations had a system of writing, but remained oral cultures. Rather than being an absence of something, orality is in fact a very well-stocked cultural tool-kit.

Orality is a way of accessing knowledge in a way that is fundamentally different from the way we access written knowledge. Transmission of oral knowledge requires great discipline: repetition, patience, attention to nuance and an expansive understanding of cultural and historic context, among many other skills. (I use the term historic here, despite the fact that the word history is often limited to refer to written history.)

Many European cultures were once oral cultures as well, and it doesn't take much scratching to reveal those roots. Imagine if you will, the skill it took to master some of the epic poems (Beowulf or The Lusiads) that reside now only between the pages of bound books. While still stirring tales, something vital is lost when the storyteller is taken out of the picture.

When we lose our languages, we lose our orality as well, because the dominant culture is very much based on written literacy. This loss requires a fundamental shift in how we see the world and understand our relationship to it. That shift takes us away from our Indigeneity and furthers our colonisation. Rather than building on the strengths within our oral cultures, we are forced to operate within a system of knowledge transmission that is fundamentally at odds with our own.

I bring up the issue of orality as an essential component of our cultures and pedagogies, but it is also a language-learning tool. As babies, none of us were given paper and a writing implement and taught to write words before we learned them. Children are often likened to sponges, soaking up knowledge without having to endure the kind of nineteenth-century banking-style education that somehow remains the norm in Canada. Some sort of intellectual calcification of our sponge-like abilities seems to render us incapable of learning languages that way as we age, or so the experts claim.


Yet Indigenous language resurgence has been most successful when done in settings that favour traditional language transmission. By traditional, I refer to Indigenous pedagogy as well as the kind of teaching we receive as infants. As little sponge-babies, we receive our grammar from context rather than from texts designed by linguists. Indigenous language resurgence has focused on providing that context, without worrying too much about the linguists. After all, as Khelsilem Rivers of the Skwxwú7mesh/Kwakwaka'wakw nations likes to put it, "if linguists were going to save, reclaim and restore our languages, they'd have done it by now!" (at Concordia's Study in Action panel on "Culture and Race: Languages of Resistance," 17 March 2013).

Language resurgence has been a central focus for a number of Indigenous nations worldwide for some time now. In the seventies and early eighties, the Maori launched what they call the Kōhanga Reo, translated as "the language nest." These language nests are rooted in traditional Maori pedagogy and culture, putting fluent elders and child learners together in immersion settings.

These programs became wildly successful, and reversed the drastic decline of the Maori language as well as revitalizing Maori traditions. This model has been adopted in communities all over the world, including First Nations here. While most successful when begun as early as possible, the language nest model also gives adults the opportunity to become fluent in their languages. Increasing the number of fluent speakers requires immersion settings, and it is more and more likely that the language nest model will become the standard in Indigenous communities.

In some cases, languages that have gone extinct through the loss of all fluent speakers have nonetheless been brought back. A notable example is the Chochenyo language, spoken by the Muwekma Ohlone in California. The last fluent speakers died in the 1930s, and the Chochenyo language was not spoken again for seventy years. With great community-wide effort, fluent speakers were created in a few short years, bringing the language out of extinction and back into spoken life. While I previously stated that linguists are not the ones who will save languages and bring them back, the work linguists do in recording and understanding language does have a place, particularly in a situation like that faced by the Ohlone Chochenyo.

Indigenous languages also need official recognition and serious financial commitment to flourish. Recently, Nunavut's Official Languages Act of 2008 finally came into force, making Inuktitut an official language along with French and English. Some people have misunderstood the importance of this, as the Official Languages Act of the Northwest Territories (which up to this point had applied to Nunavut as well) already lists nine Indigenous languages.

Legislation without investment and guidelines is merely lip service. In practical terms, not all government services are available in every Indigenous language listed in that Act in the NWT, while in Nunavut a significant amount of time and money has been spent to ensure access and compliance. Also passed in 2008 was the Inuit Language Protection Act, which has not yet come into force. It protects the right of parents to have their children educated in Inuktitut. Currently, Inuktitut-language instruction exists until grade three, but should be available in all grade levels within the next decade.

What would it take to bring all of our Indigenous languages back to good health? I believe it would take an apocalypse -- an end to colonialism as we know it! Our languages and cultures would have to be valued in truth, by all peoples living in Canada. I believe that such a shift in perception is possible. Perhaps Indigenous language resurgence can help bring this end about. We can start small, and word by word begin dismantling the colonial narratives that obscure the true potential of all peoples living here.

We live in turbulent times, and the current sociopolitical model that dominates the landscape has not always been up to the challenge. There is a willingness to believe that while we do not have the perfect system, we have the best system possible, despite the fact that so many groups are deeply unhappy with things as they are.

Indigenous peoples remember that things have not always been this way for all peoples, and that they need not always be this way. Many of the social advances Canada has experienced in the past few generations, such as working towards equality, acceptance of fluid sexualities and genders, and a greater awareness and respect for the environment, are principles that have existed for thousands of years among many of our nations. Overturning the colonial narrative would allow more people to become aware of how these principles need not be new floors we add to our existing home, but are instead the foundation upon which all else can be built.

Indigenous peoples are not generally seen as a fountain of resilience and adaptation, despite a history that shows these traits are precisely what have kept us alive for so long. Despite the way we have been portrayed, as primitive and incapable of living in the modern world, the foundational principles of our peoples are absolutely suited to whatever gets thrown at us. Unfortunately, few people understand that we even have such foundational principles, much less know what they are.

Language resurgence gives us access to those principles. The beginning lies with the principles as expressed in our languages -- principles such as wîtaskêwin, miyo-wîcêhtowin (how to manage our relationships with others to achieve mutually beneficial living), and askîwipimâcihowascikêwina (the way in which we must create arrangements to live well together, to be self-sufficient and interconnected at the same time).

The more important work is in applying these principles to current circumstances, in a way that acknowledges the world we live in today. This of course requires that we come together as peoples, to make decisions together as equals rather than as superiors to inferiors.

An example of how these principles are applied to contemporary situations can be found in the adaptation of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ, the Inuit way of doing things) to all aspects of governance in Nunavut, from education and health to environment and economic development. You can find these principles stated and explained on the Nunavut government website, but also woven through every curricular document and every piece of legislation passed in the territory. For example, a synthesis of IQ and Western science is being used in Nunavut to better understand, and help find solutions to, the extreme climatic changes being experienced by Inuit peoples. Consensus-based decision making and learning-through- doing are two of the principles that inform the application of IQ to contemporary issues.

Understanding these principles as expressed first in our own languages, contradicts the status quo of assuming our beliefs function only in a pre-Contact utopia populated by noble savages. When only lip service is paid to understanding Indigenous principles, and we accept token references to Turtle Island, Mother Earth, the Four Directions and other such pan-Indian terms and phrases, we perpetuate a two-dimensional view of our Indigeneity. This becomes particularly dangerous given that seventy percent of Indigenous peoples in Canada are living in urban centres now. If we three dimensional beings fail to conform to two-dimensional standards by living in cities and wearing jeans and using smartphones, then it is often assumed we have abandoned our Indigenous principles.

This view can only exist when those principles are understood so poorly and so superficially. Using our own languages first, and providing translations only when necessary, forces us and others to interact with these concepts in a deeper way -- hopefully a more meaningful way.

I see language as the hook that will draw people in to the good relationships described by our foundational principles. I would like to see every person in Canada learn at least some of the language of the people within whose territory they reside. It is my hope that this would allow them to grasp the importance of some of the place names that escaped notice before. It is my hope that this would allow all people living here to better locate themselves within a wider history that has been ignored and downplayed for too long. It is my hope that in this way, we can collectively reclaim our humanity.

Indigenous peoples essentially face two futures: one which continues to be dominated by colonialism and paternalism, where we are unable to make fundamental decisions about our own lives; and another where we exercise self-determination based on the foundational principles of our sociopolitical orders, in cooperation with all those who share these lands with us.

The first scenario is comfortable for non-Indigenous peoples, and maintains the status quo. Eventually, as we are underfunded and mismanaged into deeper ill health in the physical, social and spiritual senses, we may indeed finally experience the apocalypse that has been so repeatedly predicted for us. I can assure you, however, that the end is not so close as certain non-Indigenous peoples believe it to be.

The second scenario is inherently uncomfortable, requiring great effort on the part of all peoples living here to decolonize themselves and the familiar institutions that have existed here for generations. It is understandable that there is a reluctance to do this work, particularly when the outcome is not something we can truly see until the process is further along. A colonized mind cannot escape its mental limits in order to peek into a decolonised future; not for longer than a few uncertain heartbeats.

The discomfort to which I refer is so great, that perhaps not even the appeal to our continued existence as Indigenous peoples is enough persuasion to do the work needed. We are already facing death from many fronts, at rates so much higher than the general population. If these facts do not sway the majority into re-examining the relationship that exists between Canada and Indigenous peoples, then what else can be said?

As for us, we will continue to do what we can to revitalise and restore our languages. We will continue to fight for our lands, with our words and our bodies. We will continue to hold on to our foundational principles. We will not ask for permission to exist. We will face obstacles put in our path the way we have faced them for thousands of years: with humour, humility, courage and strength. I can only hope that our continued efforts to reach out to our neighbours will be met with honesty, integrity and compassion so that we can all experience what wîtaskîwin truly means.


This article was originally published in FUSE  Magazine.

Image: wikimedia commons



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