Image Credit: Raymond Boisjoly, The Writing Lesson: Clayoquot (2012). Sunlight, construction paper, acrylic glass. 20 x 24 inches (61 x 51 cm). Image courtesy of the artist.
By Chelsea Vowel
The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36-3 (Summer 2013). In order to read the full text, purchase the article below.
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 BC 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 percent higher suicide rate among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth? Why not talk about how Indigenous people make up twenty-three percent 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. 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 Nakoda 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 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 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.
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Chelsea Vowel is Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She and her partner have four girls who keep them extremely busy. Chelsea has a BEd and an LLB and moved to Montreal in 2009. She has taught in the Northwest Territories, Alberta and now Quebec where she currently teaches Inuit youth under Child Protection. With all that spare time kicking around, she also blogs as âpihtawikosisân. Passionate about law, culture and language, she tries to deconstruct harmful myths with the hope that there can be a restructuring and renewal of the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.