“Indigenous rights include Indigenous language rights. Indigenous languages are irreplaceable foundations for individual, community and Nations’ identity, sense of belonging to a place, and well-being.”
Via Kanehsatake Voices / Kanehsatà: ke Kontinónstats ne Kanien’kéha (Mohawk Language Custodian Association, Inc.)
This year marks the United Nations’ observance of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. As we in turn mark National Indigenous Day today in Canada, we’re thinking about the weight and cultural essence of language. The National Inquiry’s MMIWG Final Report, released earlier this month, recognized that assaults on Indigenous cultures were “the starting points for other forms of violence Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people experience today.” The National Inquiry found that the most appropriate term to encompass the breadth of violence imposed by the Canadian state on Indigenous peoples was indeed genocide. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee had also reported,
“It seems logical to conclude that Canada’s actions in forcible transferring Aboriginal children from their racial group to another in order to eliminate or destroy their cultures and languages – and therefore their racial group – could at least amount to a legal wrong cognizable in Canadian law because of Canada’s acceptance of it as a legal wrong in international law.”
With Canada’s acknowledgement of the magnitude of the state’s colonial violence and its generational impacts, grows the urgency for cultural revitalization. Language shapes our essential world-view and our understanding of the impacts of human activities. It is intrinsic to forming identity. How do different languages change the ways we understand our own experiences? What do our languages permit us? What do we not see because we lack the words?
“English doesn’t give as many tools for incorporating respect for animacy. In English, you are either a human or a thing. Our grammar boxes us in by the choice of reducing a nonhuman being to an it, or it must be gendered, inappropriately, as a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. Where are our words for the simple existence of another living being?
One afternoon, I sat with my field ecology students by a wiikwegamaa and shared this idea of animate language. One young man, Andy, splashing his feet in the clear water, asked the big question. “Wait a second,” he said as he wrapped his mind around this linguistic distinction, “doesn’t this mean that speaking English, thinking in English, somehow gives us permission to disrespect nature? By denying everyone else the right to be a person? Wouldn’t things be different if nothing was an ‘it’?”
From Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
During our State of the Arts Activation Conference this past February, we heard from Nadine St-Louis (Executive Director of Sacred Fire Productions) who led a teach-in, “From theory to practice: reclaiming Indigenous narratives within colonial spaces”. Nadine spoke of a shift in awareness of both the contemporary colonial history of Canada and the histories of First Nations before colonization. An essential thread of hope and progress is the resurgence of Indigenous voices reclaiming the stories and languages that are integral to this land.
“Making room for the use of Indigenous languages is forward-thinking.” Nadine St-Louis.
“By highlighting the richness of Indigenous languages as a means of expressing living cultures, the FNQLSDI hopes to contribute to strengthening a sense of belonging and pride among First Nations people, young and less young.”
In response to an audience question on the connections between colonization and climate-change, Nadine St-Louis said, “The Indigenous worldview is: land, community, family. You as an individual are at the bottom. Capitalism and colonialism is the reverse. Money, me-myself-and-I, and the land at the end. … The most important ethic is your responsibility to the land. We need to change how we view wealth, how we invest, how we do ‘development’.”
We recommend: Turtle Island Reads
The Turtle Island Reads initiative is a partnership between CBC Montreal, LEARN, Quebec Writers’ Federation, CODE NGO and McGill Faculty of Education as well as McGill University’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office.