By Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, Kanaka Hawaiʻi, Ph.D., Associate Professor, UBC; and Marny Point, Musqueam, Ph.D. student, Adjunct Professor and Program Instructor, UBC, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the hən’q’əmin’əm’ speaking xwməθkwəy’əm (Musqueam) people
Indigenous language frameworks, policies, and initiatives
Within what is now known as Canada there have been a handful of recent policies, frameworks, and international initiatives in the last decade that demonstrate a movement toward support of Indigenous Peoples and their respective Indigenous languages. These include the following:
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action
The TRC made several Calls to Action in 2015 regarding Indigenous languages to remedy the legacy and impact of residential schools on generations of Indigenous families, communities, and nations. This long history has been known and felt by survivors and intergenerational survivors, which has been validated by archived documentation, reports, testimony, and the countless, massive unmarked gravesites of missing children, yet this has only recently been acknowledged and recognized as the truth in this country.
UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) and International Decade of Indigenous Language (IDIL)
The IDIL, which commenced in 2022, was an outcome of the 2019 IYIL. It intends to raise awareness of Indigenous language vitalities, and to protect, promote, and strengthen Indigenous languages locally and globally. This international initiative recognizes and affirms that a sense of urgency is required to revitalize Indigenous languages and to build the capacity within Indigenous communities.
BC and Canada’s legislation
In 2019, Bill C-91 (the Indigenous Languages Act) was passed in Canada stating that the “recognition and implementation of rights related to Indigenous languages are at the core of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and are fundamental to shaping the country.” Later that same year, BC passed Bill 41, known as BC’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), which establishes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as its framework for reconciliation, as called upon by the TRC Calls to Action. In 2021, Bill C-15 (Canada’s DRIPA) was passed into law in Canada. We can anticipate that there will be further changes to existing laws within BC and across Canada to align them with UNDRIP principles.
These policies, frameworks, and initiatives in BC, Canada, and beyond serve as foundational resources that support Indigenous language work and are a crucial reminder that Indigenous Peoples are still here—continuing to fight and advocate for their human rights, cultures, and languages in an unjust and colonial world. These policies indicate that Indigenous Peoples can hold responsible parties and stakeholders to account in an effort to restore and (re)normalize Indigenous languages to their rightful place in the local and global society, and across all domains of life alongside English and French.
Institutions and educational systems
Indigenous Peoples locally and globally are committed to reawakening, reclaiming, revitalizing, and renormalizing their respective Indigenous languages, despite the ongoing mistreatment and current lived realities. While schools were the very institutions and systems that intentionally stripped Indigenous children of their linguistic and cultural knowledge, these educational systems are the very places and spaces that are attempting to, or seeing the need to, teach students Indigenous languages. Though we can say that education has taken a leap forward to diversifying curriculum, there is considerable work to be done. It is important for us as educators to recognize that the foundation of schooling in Canada is still steeped in foreign ideologies that hold, carry, and privilege non-Indigenous perspectives.
While schools may have the resources and wherewithal to teach Indigenous languages, not all students may be receptive. To assume that all Indigenous Peoples should be grateful and eager to (re)learn and engage in (their) Indigenous languages is a blatant disregard to the injustices and trauma that continue to endure in and among communities. We must be aware and raise our consciousness individually and collectively, and not expect students (and families) to always respond positively, excitedly, and with gratitude to potential language learning and teaching that may occur in the classroom.
In addition, while it may appear that non-Indigenous students and peers may be “learning” and picking up the language at a faster pace, it is likely that they are not proficient in cultural understandings of knowing, being, and doing, which is often sustained through blood memory, lived experiences, and culturally grounded worldviews. For Indigenous students, there is undue baggage—burden, responsibility, and trauma—that has persisted, that may in fact hinder their learning. Healing is necessary for the health and well-being of the individual, family, community, and nation, and has no specific timeline. This restorative process to become whole again needs to take place and take root in the love and light that exists in and for Indigenous communities to thrive culturally and linguistically, so that they too may learn unencumbered.
Importance of language
Learning and/or teaching Indigenous languages is more than the grammar structure, sound systems, and literacies. It requires an embodied understanding that language is culture, and culture is language. Language is not just a linguistic code necessary for communication, but it is a critical and necessary part of our well-being—a social determinant of health.
Indigenous languages are a distinct and unique representation of ancestral funds of knowledge that cement us to past generations, bind us to the current generation, and link us to the seven generations ahead. Through our Indigenous languages we are transported through a portal that helps us to understand the origin of our people, genealogical connect-ions, kinship ties to nature and the more-than-human, oral stories, protocols, and ways of knowing, being, doing, learning, and teaching.
Grounded in Indigenous epistemology, our languages are our identity and culture that helps to strengthen us—physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally—as individuals, as part of a family unit, community, nation, and global citizens of the world. Embedded in Indigenous languages are inter-generational teachings or the transmission of Indigenous knowledge that transpire through traditional and cultural practices. These connections through language tie us to specific lands, mountains, oceans, and rivers that remind us of who we are and who/what we are responsible for and accountable to.
Language as kin
It is very important to unlearn the performative practices that “check the box” and are self-serving—that do more harm than good. Learn, establish, and embody the practices of respect, relevance, reciprocity, responsibility,1 relationality,2 and resiliency3 will help in understanding your role as an ally in Indigenous language education, broadly defined.
As educators, we need to move beyond plans, visions, verbal statements, and taking the stance as “perfect stranger”4 actualizing, carrying forward, and bringing to fruition relevant language learning opportunities for resilient students. We all have a role and responsibility to Indigenous language revitalization, reclamation, and education, but we need to learn first and foremost what our role is in regards to language learning, teaching, and sharing, especially when the language is not from a community that claims you. Establish genuine and meaningful relationships grounded in respect and reciprocity that allow your heart and mind to be transformed. These relational connections may lead to language sharing and a glimpse into knowledge systems, cultural practices, and an embodied understanding that can open up to decolonizing and Indigenizing possibilities for your praxis. Together we are bound by relational connections—seen and unseen. Language is our kin.
1 V.J. Kirkness and R. Barnhardt, “First Nations and higher education: The Four Rs—respect, relevance, reciprocity, responsibility,” Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1991, pp. 1–15.
2 J. Carjuzza and J.K. Fenimore-Smith, “The give away spirit: Reaching a shared vision of ethical Indigenous research relationships,” Journal of Educational Controversy, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2010: cedar.www.edu/jec/vol5/iss2/4
3 C.K. Galla, K. Kawai’ae’a, and S.E. Nicholas, “Carrying the torch forward: Indigenous academics building capacity through an intentional collaborative model,” Canadian Journal of Native Education, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2014, pp. 193–217.
4 S. Dion, “Distributing molded images: identities, responsibilities and relationships—teachers and Indigenous subject material,” Teaching Education, Vol. 18, No 4, 2007, pp. 329–342.