Let’s all learn an indigenous language

, in a historic first, a speech was made before Parliament in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language.

[Photo of Marc Miller.]

Marc Miller

The speech was made to mark the start of National Aboriginal History Month. The speaker was Liberal MP for Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœurs in Québec, Marc Miller. Miller is not Mohawk, and has, in fact, only been learning the language via an online course since . His speech was understandably basic stuff, but nevertheless history making.

[Photo of Robert-Falcon Ouellette.]

Robert-Falcon Ouellette

Miller’s speech was the first time Kanien’kéha was spoken in Parliament, but not the first time for any indigenous language. In fact, , Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre in Manitoba Robert-Falcon Ouellette gave a speech about missing and murdered indigenous women in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (nēhiyawēwin), or Plains Cree.

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in Canada right now, following a couple of recent, high-profile incidents. In one case, a Toronto artist had her exhibition cancelled after complaints that her work was appropriating the work of the famous Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau (although some commentators said it was not so much a case of cultural appropriation as much as it was simply plagiarism); she was later found to have made racist YouTube videos. In another case, the editor of a niche writing magazine wrote a piece – in an issue focused on indigenous writing – mocking the idea of cultural appropriation, which was then bizarrely championed by a number of major (white) voices in Canadian media, leading to massive fallout.

It’s fair to ask whether Miller’s use of Kanien’kéha could be considered cultural appropriation. (This is less of a concern for Ouellette’s case, not only because Ouellette himself has Cree roots, but also because Ouellette’s speech was about raising awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women.) Cultural appropriation happens when you take something from a minority culture, and use it for your own benefit, without regard for the source culture. “Without regard” refers both to not providing any benefit to the source culture for using their “stuff”, and to not caring about the context of the “stuff” you’re taking. For example, if I sampled the music from an indigenous ceremony and used it in my own music, I would both be profiting off the culture while providing nothing to them, and I would be ignoring the cultural context of the music I’d swiped (which may have religious significance, for example); that would be a cultural appropriation double-whammy.

The consensus seems to be that Miller’s use of Kanien’kéha was not cultural appropriation. The logic is that learning to speak the language, and using it, is of enormous benefit to the source culture. Kanien’kéha, like so many Canadian indigenous languages, is endangered. Several of the calls to action in the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential school system dealt with concerns about language revitalization. Generally, everyone who learns an indigenous language is helping to save these languages from extinction.

Indeed, this seems to be a situation were all sides can benefit. Learning another language is always beneficial to the learner. It not only helps deepen your understanding of your own language(s), it opens up entirely new cultures. Hearing the stories of a culture in their own language is an entirely different experience from hearing them translated; often layers of nuance get lost in translation.

Recently I’ve started learning ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ – Inuktitut, specifically the South Baffin dialect (ᕿᑭᖅᑖᓗᒃ ᓂᒋᐊᓂ). I was inspired to learn the language as part of the project I am working on to create a site with documents of importance to Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism, and freethought translated to all Canadian languages. I’ve already finished the Inuktitut version of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (ᑲᓇᑕᒥᐅᓄᑦ ᓇᓗᓇᐃᒃᑯᑕᖅ ᐱᔪᖕᓇᕐᓂᕐᓄᑦ ᐃᓱᒪᖅᑦᑎᕐᑲᕐᓂᕐᒧᓪᓗ), and I’m working on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᕐᒥᐅᑦ ᓇᓗᓇᐃᖅᓯᐅᑎᖓ ᑭᓇᒃᑯᑐᐃᓐᓇᐃᑦ ᐱᔪᓐᓇᐅᑎᖏᑦ); both in Inuktitut written in Canadian syllabilics and Latin script, as well as Inuktitut Braille.

I’d like to encourage readers to take up learning a Canadian indigenous language, for a number of reasons:

  1. You would be doing a service to protect an endangered language, and thus helping to preserve cultural artifacts – like stories and even just jokes – that are on the verge of being lost forever.

  2. You would be raising the status of Canadian indigenous languages, many of which deserve far more respect than they currently get. Both Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Marc Miller ran into the problem that Parliamentary translators either couldn’t or wouldn’t translate their speeches; they had to do it themselves. That’s kinda sad considering these languages are not only the original languages of Canada, they’re even the source of the word “Canada”.

  3. You would be discovering whole new cultures hidden within our own borders. Who knows what’s waiting for you to discover!

  4. You could help with various translation projects. Of course I have to plug my own SHAFT document project (which I’ll be making the first bits public in a few weeks) – even after I finish translating the Charter and the UDHR into Inuktitut, there are several other documents that need to be translated. And, of course, in addition to Inuktitut, all of the documents will have be translated into Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, etc.. Translating SHAFT documents opens up the possibility of an exchange of ideas on equal terms; there’s nothing colonialist about wanting to share your ideas with the people of another culture, so long as you are willing to consider their opinions and ideas. (And if you’re not interested in translating SHAFT documents, there are plenty of other places you could help, such as translating computer programs to indigenous languages.)

I’d really be interested in hearing if there are any downsides to learning an indigenous language. I certainly can’t see any. It helps indigenous Canadians, it’s good for you, and you can help share secular, humanist, atheist, and freethought ideas and philosophy with indigenous communities. Don’t discount the last point either; you’d be surprised how overlooked indigenous communities are. Inuktitut is the second most popular indigenous language in Canada, and the Bible is the most translated text, yet the Bible was only finally translated to Inuktitut in 2012.

I’m not suggesting you strive for conversational fluency. Merely being able to read the language (using its own orthography) would be a huge step. If you learn some key phrases, they might even come in handy in practice, should you ever happen to travel to an area where the language is dominant.

So consider learning a Canadian indigenous language!

4 thoughts on “Let’s all learn an indigenous language

  1. Laudable sentiment. But (you knew there was a but right) which one? For an MP to speak in a language of their constituents sure great. But you can’t take your new found skill of Inuktitut and start speaking it to someone on say Vancouver Island. You’d be resorting to charades or English in moments after the blank Homer stare you’d get.

    • Whichever one strikes your fancy. You could choose one based on whether it’s useful in the area you live in, I suppose, but that’s hardly the only criterion. You could pick one because the culture it’s attached to interests you, or you could pick one because it’s used in some show or game you like – for example, you could learn Mohawk because you’re a fan of Thayendanegea, or because it’s in Assassin’s Creed. I won’t be able to use Inuktitut to chat with people on the street where I live, but I can certainly get books, music, film, and other resources.

  2. I don’t see learning that particular language has value.

    First, by the left’s own standards, this is cultural appropriation. Aboriginal languages are for aboriginals, not other indigenous people (and to be clear, if your family has history here, you’re as indigenous as they are… you simply aren’t aboriginal).

    Second, these languages have no written history before Europeans came to write it. So, while indigenous, we cannot pretend they’re aboriginal, when written this way. There is no way of telling whether any particular story comes from the distant past, or was just made up recently. Even with the best efforts and intentions, we know that oral histories are not reliable, even for purposes as mundane as court trials.

    Now, about that art… I reject the whole concept of cultural appropriation because that concept is racist. And there is no plagiarism in art. Artists recognize that nobody owns a style, technique, or method. The whole endeavour is about remixing what you experience to produce something of your own. Maybe you do something better, or faster, or in another location. It’s all good.

    You mention some YouTube videoS, but I see reference to only one (conveniently gone now). Some “Chief Lady Bird” took offence because nobody else did, and she thought although she wasn’t a member of the group she thought was targeted, she ought to complain anyway. More likely, Chief Lady Bird is simply not bright enough to understand the humour. We’ll never know, because the video is gone, thanks to her.

    Then you say “This is less of a concern for Ouellette’s case, not only because Ouellette himself has Cree roots, but also because Ouellette’s speech was about raising awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women.”. This statement is racist, genetically prejudiced, and sexist. The trifecta!

    “Recently I’ve started learning ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ”. Go for it. But to be honest, your time would be better spent learning the language of the Pirahã. You have a problem with empiricism.

    “I’d really be interested in hearing if there are any downsides to learning an indigenous language.” The alert will notice this is the same argument for prayer. You need to tell us what specifically makes this language one that is worth learning, rather than simply importing a word or two into English, like we do any time we encounter a concept that isn’t already covered. That means something about the grammar, then. I’m pretty sure we don’t gain much, if anything, from sentence-words (a word that is a sentence) like ᖃᖓᑕᓲᒃᑯᕕᒻᒨᕆᐊᖃᓛᖅᑐᖓ or ᑐᓵᑦᓯᐊᕈᓐᓇᖖᒋᑦᑐᐊᓘᔪᖓ, which means that most words (near 90%) might only be used once, over years. Nor do we gain much from having singular, plural and dual (referring to exactly two). But the emphasis on seeing people in pairs might have something to say to our society. Who knows. I suspect the feminist left would hate it. The fourth person (a different third person) is a nice, but not necessary, language feature. And the gender neutrality of the language is quite pleasing (but you can get this in languages like Chinese and Korean as well). I don’t see what sets this language apart as worth learning, except to demonstrate your moral correctness to a small group of people.

  3. “Cultural appropriation happens when….” someone claims to own speech, and not only their own speech, but other people’s speech as well, when it resembles theirs in some way.

    Generally this ownership is based on race or ethnicity, which makes it inherently a racist concept.

    Charges of “cultural appropriation” like charges of “race mixing” are a disgusting holdover from the past, and should be left in the past.

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