In Canada, Indigenous languages are at risk of being lost, but there is hope for revitalization
This article is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th anniversary. Watch for pieces tied to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.
When Chris Buffalo, a Cree student in the Bachelor of Science program, noticed that students in the Bachelor of Arts program were studying Cree at the University of Alberta in order to fulfill their program’s language requirement, she was inspired. “I’ve wanted to improve my Cree for a long time, and felt like I was missing out on a valuable opportunity,” she says.
For three summers, she attended the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute at the U of A, which helped to fill some of the need she felt. But the problem was that the level of the Cree immersion course was an introduction at best and Chris was looking for more advanced knowledge. So when she returned to MacEwan University in the Fall term, she decided to actively encourage more students to share their Indigenous languages, and started an informal initiative to bring them together.
Though Cree is one of the strongest Indigenous languages in Canada, it is still at risk of being lost, as are many of the languages that are indigenous to North America. Several languages are severely endangered because there are very few speakers, the languages are not dominant in the community, and older speakers who are fluent are nearing the ends of their lives.
“A language starts to become endangered when people shift from being bilingual and using the less-common language in various aspects of their life, to using the dominant language more and more,” explains Dr. Sarah Shulist, assistant professor of anthropology. As a linguistic anthropologist, Sarah teaches ANTH 321: Language Endangerment and Revitalization, among other courses.
“You then start seeing the smaller language used by fewer people, in fewer places, for fewer purposes, and eventually that’s going to mean nobody thinks it’s useful. Hypothetically, at that point the language would disappear without action.”
Different world views
Racism and colonization are largely responsible for the disappearance of languages. Sarah explains that in the past, Indigenous languages were historically not recognized by European colonists.
“At the time, it was believed that if you can’t write or create literature in a language, it was not real or complete—this was part of the dehumanization of Indigenous people,” says Sarah. “That attitude was part of the whole system where Indigenous people were discriminated against and seen as inherently less civilized. The entire premise of residential schooling was that in order to be fully ‘civilized,’ you could not speak those languages anymore.”
In Indigenous cultures, language is more than a way of interacting with others; it’s a way of life and understanding one’s self.
As a daughter of a residential school survivor, I understand the direct impact our people have faced by having our language stolen from us through that assimilation process. As a learner, I have come to understand how rich our language is and it is through oral tradition that I began to connect deeper and learn my own history, language and culture.
It’s difficult to explain the importance of oral tradition and the sense of understanding it brings to a person. For example, a ceremonial song written in a book could be just words but if that ceremonial song was sung to you in person and touched your heart, then in some way it has created a connection to who you are. I have felt ceremonial songs make my body tingle, that have made me cry, that have helped heal my grief. I believe that the stories, the songs and the ceremonies are the foundation of who I am as a nehiyaw iskwew (Cree woman) and how I learn.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action include “protecting the rights to Indigenous languages, including the teaching of Indigenous languages as credit courses (10) and we call upon the federal government to enact an Indigenous Languages Act that has guiding principles (14).”
— Terri Suntjens, manager, kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre
Chris says that without Indigenous languages, we would be missing out on many beautiful, innovative and unique points of view.
“Because every language uses its own world view, each has a completely different way of looking at things,” she says. “A facet of understanding the world would be lost, and I think a lot of people don’t put enough importance toward other people’s ways of seeing things.”
Hope for the future
Language revitalization efforts, big and small, across the country are hoping to make a difference.
Though the discourse has shifted from “that’s not a civilized language” to “that language isn’t useful anymore because no one speaks it,” Sarah says that work around revitalization is about acknowledging that everyone has the right to feel that the language they speak is valued.
Revitalization will take work, not only to teach new speakers but also to get both new and current speakers using the language regularly. It’s a challenge that is being addressed around the world—in New Zealand and Hawaii, “language nests” connect children with fluent seniors to address generation gaps in language learning. In Canada, Ontario and Quebec offer immersion schooling in Mohawk. There are also master/apprentice programs that pair adult learners to speak only in the target language. On the tech side, introductory language apps and online studies in endangered languages are emerging.
Sarah also says it helps when people can see the language as relevant. “The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network does a lot of great programming, and one of the things they did was to air the Vancouver Olympics in Indigenous languages, which was designed to make the languages relevant to contemporary audiences. It proved that these are languages you can use in your everyday life.”
Language and cultural revitalization efforts on campus at MacEwan have taken many forms, starting from student-driven language interest groups and encouragement efforts like the ones that Chris humbly took steps to initiate, and continuing with events and support from powerful Indigenous programming put forth by those working in kihȇw waciston, the Indigenous education centre. Revitalization efforts include the creation of spaces for people to connect and learn about what drives the spirit of languages, and the efforts from all levels of caring individuals have shown a passion to not only preserve, but to use Indigenous languages.
“That’s a very meaningful act of revitalization,” says Sarah. “To say, ‘we’re going to use it.’”
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Read more stories in our Canada 150 coverage: