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The preservation and use of our languages : respecting the natural order of the creator Kirkness, Verna J. Feb 23, 2001

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THE PRESERVATION AND USE OF OUR LANGUAGES: RESPECTING THE  NATURAL ORDER OF THE CREATOR  BARRIE AREA NATIVE ADVISORY CIRCLE LAGUAGE CONFERENCE  MNJIKANING FIRST NATION (RAMA)  FEBRUARY 23, 2001  VERNA J. KIRKNESS  ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR EMERITA  UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA  The Preservation and Use ofOur Languages:Respecting the Natural Order of the Creator The importance of language as an expression ofculture, ofwho we are as a people, must be upheld by each individual, each family, each community and each nation. "Language is the mind, spirit and soul ofa people" (Fishman, 1996). Every effort must be made to protect, preserve, promote and practice our Indigenous/Aboriginallanguages. We must gather into the circle all the knowledge, wisdom and energy we possess to ensure their survival. Over the last thirty years, various programs and projects have been initiated in an attempt to keep our languages alive. We must, especially, recognize and thank our Elders and language teachers, for their efforts and their perseverance to save our languages despite the lack ofsupport given to them. As Indigenous people, throughout the world, we are faced with many challenges as we attempt to maintain the vitality ofour respective languages and as we strive to honour "the natural order ofthe Creator".The preservation and use ofour languages is dependent upon our communities. "When the smallest ofour communities hang on to their language ... the community continues to develop and to recreate itself ... (as it links) one generation to another"(Crombie:1988). The challenge we face today is to ensure that the work being done at all levels to protect and preserve our languages is to provide for the needs ofthe communities. The following are ten directions that I consider to be critical to the task. 1.We must bank our languages. To save what remains ofour languages, it is crucial that we preserve our languages immediately by recording on audio or video tape (CD-ROM), all ofour fluent speakers, most ofwhom are our Elders. We must capture the purest oral form ofour languages to ensure that they will be available to future generations. While it may not be important to many ofour people to speak their ancesterallanguage today, when the "wake-up" call does come, as I am sure it will, the languages that we "bank" today will make possible a new period ofcultural renaissance among our people. The very act of recording our languages may produce the spark that moves the community to begin the process of revival and maintenance of their language. At the current rate ofdecline, only four ofour original 60 Aboriginal languages in Canada have a reasonable chance ofsurviving over the next century. Cree, along with Ojibwa, Inuktitut and Dakota are the languages predicted to survive (UBC, 1996). The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP, 1996) reported that Cree speakers make up 43% ofall those with an Aboriginal mother tongue. While this may simply be a reflection ofthe population, it nonetheless presents a frightening picture of the remaining Aboriginal languages. 1  For those ofus who are Cree, it is difficult for us to take any great comfort in this fact as we experience our own lack of fluency in the language and see fewer and fewer ofthe younger generation speaking the Cree language. RCAP also states that five ofour languages have already become extinct and six more are near extinction ( Haida, Kutena~ Tsimshian, Tlingit, most Salishan and Wakashan languages). 2. We must raise the consciousness level ofour people. To save our languages, there is a need to ensure that our people know why our languages are nearing extinction and why our languages are so important to our lives and to who we are. To do this we can employ two strategies. First, we must do as Paulo Freire, the radical Brazilian educator who spent a lifetime working with the oppressed in Brazil and Africa, has done. We must ensure that every Aboriginal man, woman and child knows of their oppression. They must know how the oppressors "stole" their language and culture through schooling, both residential schools and day schools; how the Indian Act has conspired to destroy our identity; and how all this has contributed to the weakening of Our People and their communities." Only through knowing can the oppressed recognize the ideological distortion that influence and shape their understanding ofsocial and political reality" (Freire, 1978). The impact ofyears ofbrainwashing must be revealed and understood. Secondly, we must ensure that every Aboriginal man, woman and child knows the affect language has in their lives. Language is what gives us our identity and expresses our unique world view. Language is the ultimate symbol ofbelonging. It is through language that cuhure is shared and transmitted. "Ifwe lose our language, we are essentially losing a way of life, a way ofthought, a way ofvaluing and a particular human reality. Ifyou take language away from the culture, you take away its greetings, its praises, its curses, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers" (Fishman, 1996). Without our Aboriginal languages we are not remaining true to "the natural order of the Creator". At the 1988 Aboriginal Language Policy Conference, Grand Chief Mike Mitchell related the following words ofhis grandfather: "What would happen to the Creator's law ifthe robin couldn't sing its song anymore? We would feel very bad: we would understand that something snapped in nature's law. What would happen ifyou saw a robin and you heard a different song, ifit was singing the song ofthe sea gull? You would say, "Robin that's not your language; that's not your song". To this Chief Mitchell added, "It was not meant for us to lose our language; we broke the cycle, and today we have nothing to stand on ifour language is going to die." 2 3. We must mobilize our resources. The most important and valuable resource we have to save our languages today is our human resource. Our speakers of the language, whether totally or marginally fluent, are the key to enabling us to maintain the "Creator's natural order". As stated by Timote Karetu, the New Zealand Maori Language Commissioner, "The revitalization ofa language is dependant upon the will its speakers". To set up a language bank, for instance, it will take speakers who may not consider themselves to be fluent but have sufficient command of the language to interview the more fluent speakers. The onus and responsibility falls on the youngest generation ofspeakers who have the education, vitality and stamina to pursue the range ofactivity that is needed to save our languages. Ways and means must be identified to enable them to play an active role in revitalizing our languages. The other critical resource needed is money. While not all initiatives require money, many do. We must get the government and the churches to acknowledge their responsibility for the demise ofour languages and to provide the financial resources required to enable us to save our languages. As monies become available, Aboriginal people with language expertise and a passion for language renewal must have a voice in organizing a plan of action that will be ofbenefit to all language groups. 4. We must provide training and certification. To save our languages, we must have appropriate, certifiable training programs available to enable our people to become language teachers, linguists, interpreters, translators, curriculum developers and researchers. It is not sufficient to have language training workshops or short courses. It is not sufficient to have isolated courses provided by various colleges or universities. It is not sufficient to include even a range ofcourses in a degree in Native Studies, education or any other degree. What is required is a full scale training program leading to a certificate, degree and/or diploma in Indigenous! Aboriginal languages or even better in a partiCUlar language or language family. Building in a "prior learning assessment" will give the fluent speakers an an advantage. As the Maori ofNew Zealand are doing, our own qualification boards can be established to provide descriptors for standards to be obtained in the various categories. Ifarticulation with institutions ofhigher learning is desired, the qualification boards can be affiliated with the provinciallterritorial certification authorities. The training of teachers to teach the language through either immersion or as a second language requires particular skills. Current approaches are basically ineffective as they are based on the old grammar teaching methods used to teach English which is the only model known to many ofour fluent speakers. Of greatest importance is the need to identifY "best practice pedagogy" based on the traditions ofour people. 3 5. We must develop a comprehensive and appropriate curriculum. Curriculum development is necessary ifwe are to be successful in re-creating an inter­ generational transmission process. It is only through passing the language on from parent to child that languages can truly survive. Iftwo successive generations do not speak: the language, it will be lost if there is no planned intervention. A community approach to developing language curriculum would be the most effective way to ensure that there is an opportunity for everyone to get involved in learning the language. It cannot be left up to the schools, it must be a family/community responsibility. To effectively teach our languages, planning is critical. In the case ofplanning language programs community-wide, it is important that an overall plan is prepared which would encompass preschool through to adult learning in both formal institutions (schools) and community programs. This will ensure that learning is continuous and will avoid unnecessary duplication. The community must take the lead and be prepared to be actively involved in planning and implementing language programs. Only the people ofthe community are able to put the plan into an appropriate contextual framework. The plan must be based on the philosophy of the people and the goals must be clearly articulated by them. For example, is the goal to be able to converse in the language? Is it to attain literacy? How will this be accomplished stage by stage? Who will be the teachers? What materials will be required? What teaching methods will be employed? How will progress be assessed? 6. We must engage in meaningful research. The purpose ofresearch is to find answers to questions. This may well be the most critical area that must be addressed ifwe are to save our languages. The most glaring being the need to research successful/effective models of language renewal. In an article entitled "At a Loss for Words" written by Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun (May 2, 1998), he writes "Why were the Hungarians able to preserve their language for over 5,000 years despite repeated reinvention oftheir original culture and social structure ... ? Why is Welsh undergoing an explosive renaissance among teenagers and young adults?" Knowing the answers to these two questions would provide us with a weahh ofunderstanding and direction in addressing our situation.. Other languages that have successfully been rescued from near extinction are Hebrew in Israel, Catlan in Spain, and Maori in New Zealand? Learning about the process they used to revive their languages would answer a number ofour questions. This information is critical to curriculum development, teaching methodology, training and certification of teachers and other language professionals, and to our understanding of language acquisition .. We really know very little about our languages. Little is known about how English or French are learned and less is known about how Indigenous languages are learned. Will knowledge ofour traditions help us to understand how we learn? We talk about building 4 on cultural traditions, yet little research has been done in this area. Carl Urion and Walter Lightning (1995) suggest that traditions can't be written down. Does this suggest an oral approach to research? This is an exciting possibility. We have to get inside our language for deeper meaning. As Earle Claxton stated in Hume's article "The more you get into language, the more you get to the very heart of the culture and spirit". How words/sentences are constructed gives us information about our culture, our way of thinking. How our stories were told, how knowledge was imparted, all shed light on who we are as a people. How often have we said, "It is difficult to translate this into English". That tells us that there is a uniqueness to our language. Only by expanding our knowledge about our languages can we begin a meaningful process of language revival and preservation. 7. We must inform public opinion Canadian society as a whole must be informed about the state ofour languages. Articles, such as the one by Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun, must appear in all forms of media. While non-Aboriginal advocates write articles, books, give interviews, there is a need for us, as Indigenous/Aboriginal people, to do more to promote an understanding of the state ofour languages to the general public. We, too, could place articles in magazines and newspapers and take advantage ofradio or television talk shows to get our message out. Public opinion is important to influencing government support. The more understanding there is about the critical state ofour languages, the reasons for this predicament and our efforts to save our languages, the greater the empathy will be for our situation. 8. We must eliminate artificial boundaries. When it comes to saving our languages, we must use a "natural order ofthe Creator" approach. That is, we must not succumb to boundaries that have no significance to language. Basing Aboriginal languages within provincial boundaries makes little sense when the Cree span at least six provinces, the Sioux, at least two and on into the United States. Working within these boundaries creates duplication ofeffort and resources. In the case ofBritish Columbia, the boundary between Canada and Alaska should be disregarded because both share common languages. We must also avoid using political boundaries determined by our national Aboriginal organizations. For example, the Assembly ofFirst Nations, the Metis National Council, the Congress ofAboriginal Peoples or the Native Women's Association ofCanada and their provincial/territorial affiliates, all represent Cree speakers. Again, as in the instance of provinciaVterritorial boundaries, there is duplication ofeffort and resources. The "natural order of the Creator" suggests that we should use the eleven language families that have been identified as a starting point. Surely, the family should make decisions about its future. Just as in the real world, the language families vary in size with Algonkian and Athapaskan being the largest and the six language families in British 5 -------- Columbia being the smallest. The large families may well sub-divide but only after the family has had an opportunity to assess its situation. This approach to saving our language would ensure that our efforts are more concentrated, with more sharing ofresources both human and financial. 9. We must press for Aboriginal language legislation. It is the position of the Aboriginal peoples ofCanada that the protection and use ofour languages is an inherent right, a treaty right, a constitutional right, an Aboriginal right as well as a human right. There is both a legal and a moral obligation for the Government of Canada to recognize our language rights. There are precedents for legislation to protect and maintain indigenous languages. The First Nations Confederacy ofCultural Education Centres has proposed an Aboriginal Languages Act with a provision for an Aboriginal Languages Foundation. The Act would bring into law the recognition of the rights and freedom ofAboriginal peoples to protect, revitalize, maintain and use of their languages. The Act will include a provision for the appropriation offunds through the establishment ofan incorporated, endowed Aboriginal Languages Foundation (Kirkness, 1998). There is not only the right to protection and restoration ofour languages but there is also the effective right. The effective right means access to knowledge, strategies, and resources necessary to rebuild/revive our languages. The legal right without the effective right is of little value. (Reyner, in Cantoni, 1996). In other words, the government must commit substantial funding to the Foundation to enable us to develop and control the process, resources and activities needed to protect, preserve, promote and practice our languages. 10. WE MUST WORK TOGETHER. To accomplish the previous nine suggestions as to how we might save our languages, we must work together whether it be as a family, a community or on a national level. We must take stock ofwhere we stand in respect to our languages. Ifwe are "for saving our languages", then we must assess what each ofus is prepared to do about it. Is it going to be a family effort? How can our commitment/passion become a community effort? Are we willing to help to get the language family together to make long range decisions about the languages? How are we going to ensure that the political will ofgovernment and our political leadership coincide for the benefit ofall our languages? We do not have any time to lose. We, as Indigenous/Aboriginal people, must get behind the work that has been done over the last twenty-five years and support and accelerate these efforts in a coordinated way. We must engage in a common strategy to make our languages living, vibrant languages once again. When this happens, we will be following the "natural order ofthe Creator" and we can expect a better life for ourselves and for future generations. 6 ---....... ... -~--- ~- I would like to leave you with the words of the Maliseet Honour Code written by Imelda Perley who presents us all with the ultimate challenge. Grandmothers And Grandfathers Thank You For Our Language That You Have Saved For Us. It Is Now Our Turn To Save It For The Ones Who Are Not Yet Born. May That Be The Truth References Claxton, Earle. In "At a Loss for Words" by Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, May 2, 1998. Crombie, David. In tlAboriginal Languages Foundation: A Mechanism for Language Renewal by Verna J. Kirkness", Canadian Journal ofNative Education, Vol. 16, No.2. Fishman, Joshua. "What do you lose when you lose your language?" in Gina Cantoni (Ed.), Stabalizing Indigenous Languages, Centre for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona, Flagstaff: 1996. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy in Process, the letters to Guinea -- Bissau, New York, Seabury Press, 1978. Hume, Stephen. "At a Loss for Words", Vancouver Sun, May 2, 1998. Karetu, Timote. Lecture at Taurangawaewae Marae, Hamilton, New Zealand, Nov., 1997. Kirkness, Verna J. Aboriginal Languages - A Collection ofTalks and Papers, Self­ published, Vancouver, BC, 1998. Mitchell, Mike. Proceedings ofthe Aboriginal Language Policy Conference, Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa, ON, 1988. Perley, Imelda. Maliseet Honour Code, NS, 1997. Reyner, Jon. "Rationale and Needs for Stabilizing Indigenous Languages". In Cantoni (Ed.), Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, Centre for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona, Flagstaff: 1996. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Minister ofSupply and Services Canada, 7 Ottawa, ON, 1996. UBC (University ofBritish Columbia). Case Statement, Institute for Aboriginal languages and Literatures, 1996. Urion, Carl. Roundtable Discussion #1, Canadian Journal ofNative Education, Volume 21, Supplement, 1995. 8 


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