How a canoe trip on the Thames is reviving an endangered Indigenous language

When Ian McCallum put a canoe in the Thames River for the first time last August, he was looking for more than an adventure. He hoped it would help him see the river through the cultural and historical lens of his ancestors.

Now, the two-day journey from London to Munsee, Ont. has inspired a book as part of a wider effort to revitalize the endangered Lunaape language, also called Munsee.

The new language resource is called Asiiskusiipuw wiichkuneew Munsiiwak, translated to Canoe Trip on the Thames River. It teaches basic Lunaape vocabulary by highlighting the sights and sounds along the river.

“It’s a language that’s under a lot of pressure for survival,” said McCallum, a language educator for the Munsee-Delaware Nation, located about 20 km southwest of London bordering the Chippewas of the Thames reserve.

He’s one of two intermediate Lanaape language speakers on the reserve of the language that UNESCO say is critically endangered. The organization says there are fewer than 10 fluent speakers. 

McCallum says his book is a “reversal process of naming,” which he describes as an opportunity to “take back those naming rights for ourselves.” His goal is to help build an understanding of the river in the traditional vocabulary for readers of all ages. 

Read more: CBC

Regina podcast aims to revitalize Indigenous languages

People can learn different Indigenous languages through a recently launched podcast called pîkiskwêwin which means ‘language’ in Cree.

The Indigenous Communication Arts (INCA) program, at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) has worked on the pîkiskwêwin project, which is an Indigenous and community-led initiative to preserve, protect and interpret the history, language, culture, and artistic heritage of First Nations. The pîkiskwêwin’s family of podcasts are produced in Indigenous languages.

“We have joined an amazing circle of language teachers and language keepers,” said Shannon Avison, project supervisor and FNUniv INCA Assistant Professor, in a media release. “For most of them, podcasting is a new format to use. Some of our podcasters are fluent but some pîkiskwêwin podcasters are language learners. It’s so exciting to give them training and technology to do interviews in their ancestral languages for the first time.”

The project is funded through Heritage Canada on a $600,000 grant for two years. The podcast team ran their first episodes in January 2022. Podcasters who participate in the project are Knowledge Keepers, language teachers, and students. Three episodes are released every week and funding for the project will continue until March 2023.

Read more: Global News

American linguist develops braille alphabet for traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people

Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, B.C., but he has left his touch there.

Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer based in California, in collaboration with Prince Rupert resident and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom, has created a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast.

According to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which works to preserve B.C. Indigenous languages, Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old. 

Eshom, in an effort to revitalize the language, has operated the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019.

It was through Eshom’s website and app that Mowbray learned about the language in early 2021 and offered his services. 

Mowbray has previously created braille alphabets for the Chamorro and Carolinian languages of the Mariana Islands, the Kashubian and Silesian languages of Poland, and others and was looking for his next project.

“I think it’s really important that blind people, or people who are near-sighted or have some visual issues should be able to participate in languages as much as everyone else,” said Mowbray.

“The development of a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax increases the number of people who can experience the knowledge and heritage of B.C.’s North Coast — literally first-hand,” Eshom said in a statement.

“People with visual challenges who are fluent in braille will be able to learn the language as readily as those who have access to printed reference materials. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative, which have enabled an exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”

Read more: CBC/Radio-Canada

Ancestral languages are essential to Indigenous identities in Canada

Recent protests against the federal government’s approach to Indigenous language legislation is the latest manifestation of concern regarding the maintenance and flourishing of Indigenous languages and culture.

Although these latest protests are centred around jurisdiction and funding, the fundamental issue for Indigenous peoples is support for an essential part of their identity.

My work in the area of Indigenous education and languages leads me to believe what is core to the concern for language support is the meanings and narratives that are reflected in language.

The breadth of issues and potential initiatives reflected in the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) cover many areas that are germane to the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

The general aim of reconciliation that has emerged from the activities of the TRC is the development of a new relationship amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Such a new relationship must acknowledge harms of the past and their impact into present.

It is now clear that the reconciliatory journey must recognize, affirm and follow up on prescriptions for change that aim to rectify many wrongs affecting many areas of the Indigenous peoples’ experience.

One of those areas that is of particular interest to educators at numerous levels is that of language and culture.

Read more: The Conversation

Alberta teacher races to save dying Indigenous language before time runs out

A teacher in northern Alberta is racing to piece together a dying Indigenous language before the last few people who speak it are gone.

For the past two years, Victoria Wanihadie has travelled the Peace River area to find people who remember the Beaver culture and language.

She jots down their memories and records the sounds of words that might otherwise be forgotten.

“I think this is my purpose,” said Wanihadie, a part-time high school teacher and Indigenous educator in Grande Prairie, Alta.

“Our stories haven’t been told, and I want to share our history with others.”

Eighty people in Alberta reported they can speak Beaver, according to 2016 census data released in October by Statistics Canada.

Fewer than 50 identified the language as their mother tongue.

“We have to find a way to bring the language back to this area,” Wanihadie said. “So that we can all heal from the past.”

Wanihadie grew up in the hamlet of Grovedale, Alta., believing she was Cree. Her parents rarely spoke about their Indigenous roots.

“My parents moved away from the reserve and they did not share their Beaver history with us,” she said. “I think that my parents wanted to protect us from being hurt, and from being discriminated against.”

Two years ago, Wanihadie decided to learn more about her heritage. That’s when she discovered her family was Beaver, not Cree.

Her grandparents had been cut off from their Beaver language and culture at residential school.

After returning to the community, they adopted the Cree dialect spoken by members of the nearby Horse Lake First Nation, Wanihadie said.

Read more: CBC News

With fewer fluent speakers, demand for teachers of Indigenous languages is on the rise

A trend toward “Indigenizing” programming in schools by bringing Indigenous culture and languages into the classroom has led to a demand for teachers who are fluent in Indigenous languages. But with the number of Indigenous language speakers on the decline, school divisions have had a hard time finding qualified and certified teachers.

“We had some difficulty, looking for Dakota language teachers. Not a lot of people are seeing that as a career,” said Kevin Tacan.

Tacan, is a Dakota knowledge keeper, and has been working with the Brandon School Division in Manitoba for 21 years. The school division is in its second year of offering high school courses on Indigenous languages, but they’ve had a hard time filling the Dakota language position in time for the new year.

“We’re trying to bring that self-esteem and confidence back to our youth, because at that age — just a little bit behind puberty — our young people are supposed to be doing their vision quests and ceremonies. Their language is important for those types of things,” said Tacan.

“If they don’t have those, they’re not going to understand the importance of them.”

Read more: CBC News

Saving languages

An entire community had cause to celebrate when 11 Six Nations Polytechnic students graduated with the first bachelor of arts degree in Ogwehoweh languages.

“It’s been a long road to get here, involving countless people over many years of hard work, long hours of curriculum development, and not to mention weeks of studying by each student, but we finally made it,” Rebecca Jamieson, CEO and president of Six Nations Polytechnic, told about 100 people gathered this week in the Ohsweken school’s main hall.

In front of family, community elders and school faculty, seven students were conferred with degrees in Cayuga and four with degrees in Mohawk during a ceremony conducted in Mohawk, Cayuga and English.

Also present were Six Nations elected Chief Ava Hill and several Six Nations councillors, and Brantford councillors John Utley and Richard Carpenter.

Jamieson traced the path from 2012 when the school began work to mount the unique degree program to 2015 when it was accepted by the provincial government. Then she lauded the students for taking their places in the frontlines in effort reclaim the traditional six languages of the Ogwehoweh people. Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca are the other four.

They are languages that a report by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says are critically endangered and could be lost.

Read more: The Brantford Expositor

Reconciliation Is Canada Embracing Its Many Indigenous Languages

“I was angry at my grandparents for a long time.”

Onowa McIvor grew up in northern Saskatchewan, where her grandparents feared prejudice against indigenous peoples and did everything they could to bury their Cree roots. They refused to teach the language to their children and grandchildren. McIvor felt robbed of her heritage.

As McIvor learned more about the history of residential schools and the discrimination indigenous peoples faced, she understood the fear that drove them. Now, as director of indigenous education at the University of Victoria, she works to revitalize Canada’s indigenous tongues. As Canadians mark 150 years since Confederation and reflect on our complicated history, it’s a goal all Canadians should share.

“If you are Canadian, indigenous languages are part of your heritage, and it should matter to you if they survive,” says McIvor.

Language trees like Algonquian, Athapaskan and Inuktitut drove their roots into this country millennia before a word of English or French was spoken here. Today, there are more than 60 distinct indigenous languages in Canada. Tens of thousands still speak Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut. Other languages are on the brink of extinction. The 2011 census (the most recent data available) recorded just 45 Mohawk speakers in all of Canada.

Read more: Huffington Post Canada

Looking for new ways to revitalize Yukon’s Indigenous languages

Organizers at a gathering this week in Whitehorse say it’s time to find new ways to preserve First Nation languages.

Yukon’s Indigenous languages are in critical decline and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is looking for different approaches to a long-standing concern — how to ensure those languages survive.

About 60 people gathered at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse over two days to share their ideas at the “Voices For Change” gathering.

Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations says the Southern Tutchone language is in decline. He says simply learning the language is different from hearing it and using it in daily life.

It’s a small group of individuals who actually have Southern Tutchone as a first language, and those who actually grew up in the language — that’s a big difference from speaking it from a more learned-type approach.” he said.

Read more: CBC News

The fight is on to save Toronto’s endangered languages

From Harari, spoken in eastern Ethiopia, to Bukhori, spoken by Bukharan Jews in central Asia, an organization is looking to record Toronto’s linguistic diversity before it’s too late.

Anastasia Riehl, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, spoke on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning about the race against time to capture and preserve the languages of small communities.

“About 6000 to 7000 languages are spoken today, and we expect about half of those will be lost in the next 100 years,” she said. “Many of these languages have never been documented.”

Riehl said that by working in Toronto, they have a natural advantage.

“While linguists are scrambling to get to these remote parts of the world and do documentation, we can do a number of recordings right here in Toronto,” she said.

Read more: CBC News

University of Toronto professors fight to save dying Indigenous languages

The Indigenous language Ryan DeCaire is fighting to save isn’t one he spoke regularly — or fluently — while growing up on Wahta Mohawk territory.

“People [with Mohawk ancestry] are saying words like, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, 1,2,3′ but is that all there is?,” DeCaire asked himself.

The questions spurred him to realize that the only people who spoke fluent Mohawk were elders in the community and that time is running out to preserve the language.

“If we don’t do something about that, we’re probably going to witness [the language’s] death in my own lifetime.”

DeCaire is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies. The faculty focuses on teaching Indigenous history, language and customs to students.

Read more: CBC News

Justin Trudeau’s proposed Indigenous languages act will need teeth to succeed

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act.

Few details are yet available about what this act might look like, but the Northwest Territories can perhaps shed some light on such language legislation because we have had an Official Languages Act here since 1984 that grants official status, not only to English and French, but also to nine Indigenous languages.

The act creates certain rights for citizens as well as obligations for the N.W.T. legislature and its government offices, schools, courts, health centres, election officials, boards and agencies. A person can choose the language in which they want to communicate with and participate in these institutions, subject to certain regulations.

A head office, for example, must provide services in all official languages, while community offices must do so in the local languages. Municipalities, however, are not obligated by the act to do so, nor are Indigenous organizations or the federal government.

Read more: CBC News