Language is Identity: A Case for Indigenous Language Revitalization

Language is Identity: A Case for Indigenous Language Revitalization

Many thanks to Melanie Lefebvre (@theoriginalmel on Twitter) for this week’s blog post. This paper, “Language is Identity:A Case for Indigenous Language Revitalization” was written for Concordia University’s course INDI 620/2 Language, Land, Identity, taught by Professor Elizabeth Fast. Melanie’s glorious artwork, a watercolour painting of buffalo anatomy is also presented here.

Maarsi for your work, Melanie!


By: Melanie Lefebvre   Concordia University

October 31, 2018


êkoni ê-kî-kiskinohamâkot tâpiskôc onipâwinihk ohci.

it was as if the porcupine had taught her in her sleep.

Sarah Whitecalf Lac La Ronge Lectures

I sat in the James Bay Cree class at Native Montreal feeling a sense of peace. I was among other Natives, we laughed easily together, nothing needed explaining, least of all the context of colonization. We introduced ourselves to each other, shared where we are from and our Nations, and what we do. Although we came from different communities and at varied stages in our lives, we were all there for one reason: Reconnection to our Cree identity.

During the class, I was surprised that more than half of its participants, including myself, expressed that although they are Plains Cree, this was the only access to any Cree dialect available in Montreal. James Bay Cree or iiyiyuu ayimuun as its originally called is spoken by almost 20,000 people in the Eeyou Istchee region (Cree Nation Government, 2018). The fact that we Plains Cree were willing to learn another dialect for lack of access speaks volumes to our desperation to find ourselves and our ancestors.


The Colonizer’s Language

Martiniquais psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer Frantz Fanon says, “Every colonized people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality—finds itself face to face with the language of the mother country” (Fanon, pg. 18). For Indigenous peoples in what some call Canada, this could not be truer. Although built on Indigenous land, Canada’s two official languages are those of the settler colonizers: English and French. With 60 Indigenous languages in so-called Canada and many under threat with as few as a half dozen native speakers (Leavitt, 2018), it is shocking that Indigenous languages remain unofficial. It is estimated that before European contact, the Plains Cree language had 600,000 words – today there are approximately 15,000 (Leavitt, 2018).

Canadian schools have not been required to teach Indigenous languages and as such, most Indigenous children have grown up with a colonizer language being their first. For Indigenous peoples whose languages are steeped in oral history and storytelling since esko togihk aski – time immemorial, their ties to the Land, community and indeed themselves have been abruptly severed. When both language and land are under threat, and in some cases lost forever, this interruption spreads like cracked glass with loss of culture slowly and insidiously erasing entire nations.

Indigenous peoples have faced this erasure since first contact through government policy, residential schools, abrogation of Treaty rights, banning of tradition, restriction and murder of Native bodies, the child welfare system, and genocide (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Vol. 1). Similarly, landscapes have changed since Europeans first arrived in the 15th century with the rise of capitalism, resources industries and eventually, petro-capitalism “founded on the extraction, distribution, and consumption of petroleum” (Oxford, 2018). The success of petro-capitalism is so exploitive of the Land and Indigenous peoples, and so prosperous that it has created an entirely new progeny: the Plastisphere – a community of microbes that live exclusively on plastics (Davis, 2016).


The Link between Language and Land

The Cree worldview, as with other Indigenous Nations, holds that everything that comes from the Land is related: Wahkohtowin – kinship. Cree epistemology, cosmology and kinship systems are reflected in the Medicine Wheel, a representation of the life journey and the values that the Cree live by in relation to all things. The oldest being on the Land is the rock grandfather. The moon is grandmother. The older brother is the bison. The stories told by Elders and Knowledge Holders include these beings and what they have to teach in order to live miyo pimâtisiwin, the good life (Makosis, pg. 14)


(Nehiyawewin Cree Language and Culture Guide to Implementation, 2006)


The Cree language, as with other Indigenous Languages, developed orally over millennia, passed down in stories and experience from generation to generation. As a dynamic language with verbs at its core, each word forms an experience. Words are created by consulting Elders who decide the word to create to best express a particular experience. For example, in Plains Cree, mostosonâhk means in the buffalo country; nâcipahâw means s/he rounds up buffalo to lead to a buffalo jump; tastâpasikêw means s/he makes smoke to drive off insects using buffalo grass. (Plains Cree Dictionary, 2018)



In the process of naming, one can get a full sense of the Indigenous relationship to the Land. Consider the original name for Lake Manitoba: Manitowapow, the strait of the spirit or manitobau. This name refers to the roaring sound produced by pebbles on a beach on Manitoba Island in Lake Manitoba. The Cree believe the noise sounds like a manito, a spirit, beating a drum. It has also been suggested that the name comes from the Assiniboine words mini and tobow, meaning lake of the Prairie. An additional source is Manitoo Ahbee, from the Ojibway meaning Where the Creator sits. Direct experience on the land shapes Cree words and thus, the

Cree worldview (Sinclair, M., Storm, K., & Forman, K., 2008).

If we compare Anishnaabemowin words with those of Plains Cree for specific occurrences throughout the seasonal year, we can see that language is directly affected by the location, landscape, animals, plants, solar system: universe.


(BigCanoe, Ingram, Manitowabi, 2017)


What happens if an animal or plant is forced into extinction, or disconnection from the Land occurs as in the case of urban Natives, the words for those relationships to animals and plants become lost, and thus culture and specific social and behavioral knowledge: essentially, nêhiýâwiwin – ᓀᐦᐃᔮᐃᐧᐃᐧᐣ – Creeness.

At the end of the first James Bay Cree class, one Plains Cree student mentioned how unlike this dialect is from that of the Plains and that was unsettling. The Plains Cree students looked around at each other, unsure of what to do. At this very moment, the centre’s coordinator informed us that a Plains Cree person living in Montreal had offered to create a talking circle and although not a teacher, she could offer what she had learned in her first Plains Cree classes. We all jumped at the chance to be part of the talking circle and invited other Nêhiyawak (Plains Cree people) to join. In the first class we were three; by the fourth we were eight.

ohcitaw ~   ᐦᒋᑕᐤ ~   destiny

Forced Assimilation & Language Loss

Disconnection from language/culture due to colonization has affected Indigenous peoples in all aspects of their lives leading to loss of identity, addiction, mental illness, disease, the disintegration of family, community and nations (Kirmayer, Simpson, & Cargo, 2003). Colonization is thus a significant determinant of Indigenous health and well-being. Without language/culture, Indigenous peoples experience “disruption or severance of ties… to their land,

weakening or destroying closely associated cultural practices and participation in the traditional economy essential for health and well being” (Mowbray, 2007).

A 2007 study of 150 Indigenous B.C. communities with at least half of citizens at a conversational level of their traditional language, suicides among youth were so low that in some cases it was zero. This is compared to communities with less than 50% of citizens having traditional language knowledge: Youth suicide is six times higher on average (Hallett, Chandler, & Lalonde, 2007).

Like Cree peoples, many Indigenous worldviews hold the individual as an extension of the Land, community, animals, plants and the elements. The ongoing colonial project has always endeavored to cut the ties Indigenous individuals have with their communities, to weaken them through violence and oppression, so each individual succumbs to assimilation within the larger urban body politic. Capitalist entities like governments and corporations have forced Indigenous peoples into unnatural settled conditions to claim geographic sovereignty in the arctic (Watson, 2009), to exploit the earth’s resources (Sandlos & Keeling, 2016), as well as “employ security forces to “protect” the extractive projects, and in doing so often commit various human rights abuses including sexual violence as a silencing strategy against Indigenous women” (Simmons, 2016).

As a tool of continued colonization, stereotypes masquerading as identities of Indigenous peoples are perpetuated throughout colonial society (think the noble savage and the drunken Indian; medicine men, warriors). Racism is a constant challenge in the face of efforts to reclaim or at least maintain identity (Durie, Milroy, & Hunter, 2009) and the representation of Indigenously-healthy identities is at a major deficit within mainstream media.

Challenges to Language Revitalization

The need and desire to learn Indigenous languages is alive, however the challenges are real.

Older people within Indigenous communities were subjected to the horrors of residential schools and socio-economic racism, erasing and forcing their languages and identity underground. For elders who link their identity to shame and fear, passing language/culture on to younger generations may feel harmful. However, bridging the gap between generations is necessary to revive languages as well as instill pride in Native youth (Saba, 2017).

Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson sees Indigenous middle-agers as having the opportunity to build this bridge, helping Elders understand the contemporary world to better connect with the Indigenous youth of today (Simpson, 2018).

Of course, nurturing Indigenous languages requires money and chronic underfunding of Indigenous children is no secret. At the ­federal level, the combined annual budget for all Indigenous language programs in Canada is $9.1 million, compared to funding for the promotion of English and French was $348.2 million 2014–2015. As official languages of Nunavut, Inuktitut and ­Inuinnaqtun language programs received approximately $44 per person, per year. Contrast this with the province’s francophone minority receive about $4,000 per person every year (Besner, 2016).

Statistics provided by the Assembly of First Nations show that the cost of incarcerating one Aboriginal person for one year is $100,000 – almost ten times the amount of what it costs to send an Indigenous person to university for one year: $13,200 (AFN, 2010). Mi’kmaq lawyer, scholar and activist Pamela Palmater points out that First Nation post-secondary education funds have been capped since 1996 and if these were raised to $20,000 per person per year, equal to what other Canadian children receive, even a four-year degree would be cheaper than one year of prison (Palmater, 2011).

If we are serious about Indigenizing the academy and supporting language revitalization, funding and access must be part of the approach as well as settler responsibility and accountability: Actively supporting and making space for Indigenous content creators and educators, recognizing the value of and implementing Indigenous lifeways and systems of governance, and championing Indigenous learners.

Perhaps developing urban reserves, like those of Peguis First Nation (Santin, 2010), will provide important links to community for Indigenous peoples, particularly youth – the future of Indigenous languages. With more Indigenous language classes, software applications, websites, recordings, online dictionaries and language learning books, access to languages is broader than in the past, which provides hope.

The larger Canadian settler society needs to recognize that Indigenous language learning is not simply learning a second language as a past-time, for travel or business, but it is instead to find what is lost, to heal that which is broken, and to nurture those who are to come.

In Plains Cree class, a student who recently joined the talking circle is a direct descendant of Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, Chief Poundmaker. Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was named “Poundmaker” because of his skill in hunting bison and making buffalo pounds used to trap bison and bring food to the people – one of the most important people in the community. Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was also known as a great orator. I wonder if his descendent who sits before me will one day be able to read his words and know the true meaning within the context of a vibrant, thriving Nîhiyaw Tâpisinowin – Cree worldview (Napoleon & Saxon, 2011).


Diorama of a buffalo pound at the Royal Alberta Museum


Indigenous communities are working hard to maintain and revitalize their languages. In Kahnawake, Kanienkehaka territory, local language immersion programs are well underway as well as a five-year strategic plan for language revitalization (Deer, 2018). Kwi Awt Stelmexw is an arts & education organization on traditional Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory built to foster a society of culturally and artistically fluent Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Kwi Awt Stelmexw, 2015). Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Yellowknife is a community-led initiative giving access to land-based experience rooted in Indigenous knowledge, values and laws (Dechinta, 2018). Native Montreal, founded by Indigenous people for Indigenous people supporting the holistic health, cultural strength and success of Montreal’s Indigenous community, offers traditional Indigenous language courses, at no cost, with priority given to Indigenous students (Indigenous language classes, 2018).

These are just a few examples among many of Indigenous communities taking the reins to provide their peoples a way to return home, to find their songs, stories, and ceremonies. Through this, they will once again be free to live miyo pimâtisiwin, the good life (Makosis, pg. 14). Western civilization is young and thought of in terms of years, decades, centuries, whereas Indigenous lifeways have been here since esko togihk aski. And so, perhaps Indigenous peoples would benefit from remembering: Natives have a much longer time frame and we know that the one thing we have to do as Native peoples is to keep our communities alive long enough, keep our peoples alive and thriving long enough, and we will win (Jago, 2018).


It is time, she said, we have strayed far enough and need a light to guide us home,

will you hold up your life so we can see?

(Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, 2013)




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