Why Language Revitalization is Crucial to Self-Determination and Indigenization
*originally posted to elainealec.com
Not many people stop and think about the language they speak and how it shapes their view of the world, but you can actually tell a lot about a culture by analyzing its language structure. Things like a language's vocabulary, grammar and word order are massive indications of what a culture values and how its people think. Simply put: language is culture, and culture is stored in language. Unfortunately, colonizers quickly figured this out, which is why the colonial governments attacked our languages and our parenting so aggressively through legislation of residential schools and criminalization of speaking our Indigenous tongues. Bit by bit our cultures were stripped away, but the main attack was on our ability to transmit our knowledge and our stories to our children through our own language. It's had devastating consequences.
Of course, there are many individuals who question why language revitalization is so important? After all, can English really be so different from the Indigenous languages of Turtle Island that it actually affects our ability to decolonize? In short, yes it can, but like all things to do with identity and self-determination, we have to dig deeper and explain the nuance because the reality is different for every Indigenous individual, community and Nation.
As I said, a language's structure holds clues to its values and the ways that it teaches its speakers to see the world. English is a noun-based language, which makes sense for being part of a group of Western cultures that colonized Indigenous Lands in search of more things and more resources to fuel their capitalism. English sentences also require subjects in order to be a complete sentence, making it difficult to remove oneself from the sentence. For many English speakers learning other languages, it may be confusing to speak without a subject, but requiring a subject for a complete sentence is actually a characteristic of individualistic cultures - cultures that value individuals over the collective. The subject-centred and noun-based characteristics of English paired with its word order, most often placing the subject at the beginning of the sentence to indicate subconsciously which is most important, all lend to English inherently imposing an egocentric worldview upon its speakers. Even in English class, we are taught to write with an active voice, ensuring that speakers are enacting action upon a passive, recipient world.
Further issues arise when we concede that English also lacks the vocabulary to describe deep feelings in the same ways that many Indigenous languages do. It also completely fails to address, once again due to worldview, the world of animacy and Beings that exist outside of the human experience. There are no words to describe the autonomy of Land, Water, Plants or Animals, let alone to acknowledge their presence as Knowledge Keepers and Relations. English teaches its speakers that the only Beings whose experiences are valid or worth acknowledging are Human, and the only way to be animate is to be human or Animal. Some will even concede a plant, but that's a stretch. Looking at it in this light, English has developed a way to teach its speakers that they have permission to view the Land and Water as dead and exploitable, and Animals and Plants as mindless. English has taught its speakers, without even trying, to view all but humans as incapable and undeserving of autonomy, and in some cases even animacy.
In comparison to English, and yes I agree that it is dangerous to make generalizations, most Indigenous languages of Turtle Island are verb-based or process-based in grammar, and use word orders that eliminate the speaker from the sentence. Verbs are conjugated in complex manners to indicate who is performing the action or process, and unnecessary gendering isn't included. Animacy and autonomy of all Beings are acknowledged and respected, regardless of whether they are human or not. In addition, the vocabulary of Indigenous languages is rich and specific, so much so that translating our stories and history into English often leads to many mistranslations and Knowledge loss because English simply doesn't have the vocabulary yet to make a one-to-one translation of our vast information. Lastly, our languages indicate the importance of Relations and the strength of the collective. Everything about our culture, our stories and our histories stored in our language reinforce that we live as a group, and we are stronger, wiser and healthier when we protect the group as a whole.
Rebuilding our Nations, reclaiming our history and protecting our Knowledge relies upon ensuring our languages are protected and revitalized. How are we supposed to get to know our cultures again, and get to know ourselves within those cultures, while being forced to do it through a foggy English lens? It certainly can be done, but it's a lot harder and we will struggle to get the clearest vision.
This is why language revitalization programs are so vital, regardless of the size and scope. For many Nations, small camps for Land kids are emerging, or tea and beading with Elders. Ideally, we as Nations and community members should be shooting for immersion schools for our children, but I have to concede that not every Nation or community has the capacity for that, monetary or otherwise. In addition, many older generations still fear the makings of a separate "Indian School" even if it is for immersion purposes because of the trauma and scars left from residential schools. With that, we have to honour and respect that not every Nation or community has the emotional or spiritual capacity for immersion programs, and even in the cases where a Nation or community has a program, not every individual has the capacity or access to that immersion. Again, be the reason a physical limitation, monetary exclusion, a trauma aversion, etc., there are legitimate reasons why our People may be hesitant or unable to use language immersion or language revitalization programs to their fullest extent. These are example cases of where nuance to decolonization through English must be respected.
As I said, decolonizing with English isn't impossible. However, it does limit the scope of how far our minds can reach when we use a language that inherently teaches us to think in a colonizer worldview while possessing such a limited and lagging vocabulary for our advanced spirituality and scientific relationships with the Land, Water, Plants and Animals. English simply doesn't have all the words, the grammar or the nuance to teach us the lessons of our ancestors, but speaking English doesn't make us any less Indigenous to this Land as long as we are upholding our teachings and our values as Indigenous Peoples.
However, if we do have the ability and the access, we should be increasing our contact with our languages. Don't be shy of having an accent, and don't be nervous about messing up your words. Our ancestors fought hard to keep our languages alive because they knew they held our culture, our teachings and our worldview. Our Elders hold them still, but the fire is dwindling. Decolonizing the Land requires decolonizing our minds, and the best way to do that is by revitalizing our languages. We're the last breath and it's our job to gently blow on each of the low burning embers of each surviving word, breathing life back into them, and calling them home.