‘When I spoke Ojibwe at the ceremonies, I felt the Spirit in me. Language was the catalyst that let the healing come through, without a doubt.’ — Vicki Monague, language student and member of the Beausoleil First Nation. (Photo by Kelly Moss)
‘When I spoke Ojibwe at the ceremonies, I felt the Spirit in me. Language was the catalyst that let the healing come through, without a doubt.’ — Vicki Monague, language student and member of the Beausoleil First Nation. (Photo by Kelly Moss)

Topics: Justice | Society

As Indigenous elders die, a new generation turns to technology to keep languages alive

“Someone once said to me that if you lose your language and culture, you are just a descendant of Ojibwe people, but not Ojibwe.” “I want to be Ojibwe.”


Vicki Monague’s mantra, in the Ojibwe language, is Aapji go n’miigwechwendaan nishnaabe inweywin kinomaagoyaan ji-mno-bmaadziyaan; in English, “I am so grateful for this language that teaches me how to live a good life.” She might also express some gratitude for the various programs and applications she accesses through her laptop computer for helping her to learn this life-enhancing language.

But 10 years ago, Monague, who grew up on the Beausoleil First Nation reserve near Midland, Ont., couldn’t hold a conversation in her ancestral tongue — and she was struggling to live a “good life.” Addicted to crack cocaine, she was depressed and suicidal.

While “home-detoxing” — as she calls her use of traditional methods such as sweat lodges and fasting camps to overcome addiction — her uncle Hector Copegog taught her to repeat Ojibwe prayers and incantations. The soothing, liquid sounds were medicine for her soul.

“At the time, I couldn’t really understand what I was saying,” Monague admits. “I was learning and repeating by rote. But when I spoke at the ceremonies, I felt the Spirit in me. . . . Language was the catalyst that let the healing come through, without a doubt. It was through this great healing work that I learned the importance of our sacred Ojibwe language.”

Interest piqued, Monague began to learn Ojibwe from her uncle, a 63-year-old Aboriginal elder and ceremonial chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. “My life has improved light years by learning the language,” she says. Now 36, Monague lives with her teenaged children in Penetanguishene, Ont., not far from the Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay’s Christian Island. “I’m proud to say that I am now smoke-free, drug-free and alcohol-free.”

In recent years, Monague has begun to see learning her ancestral language not just as a healing balm, but as an instrument for realizing her full potential as an Ojibwe woman. “Someone once said to me that if you lose your language and culture, you are just a descendant of Ojibwe people, but not Ojibwe,” she says. “I want to be Ojibwe.”

How to reconnect? In the past, Indigenous languages were passed down from generation to generation. But the residential school system disrupted the natural order of things, its proponents shrewdly gauging that killing the language would be critically important to killing First Nations culture.

Today, most Indigenous languages in the country are in a precarious state. At one time, there were 70 distinct, thriving languages. By 2016 (the year of the most recent census), only a few of the 60 or so languages listed in the census were still strong, including Ojibwe, Oji-Cree and Dene. Of the 213,225 people in all of Canada who reported an Indigenous language as their mother tongue, only 137,515 spoke that language most often at home. Cree, the biggest language group with 96,260 native speakers, was relatively healthy. Inuktitut, with 36,185 native speakers, was a distant second. Mohawk, once widely spoken, registered only 1,295 native speakers. Southern Tutchone, an ancestral language of the 1,200-member Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse, is down to about 80 native speakers, with three or four dying each year.

Beyond offering Indigenous language instruction in schools, many of today’s preservation efforts are focused on something that may, on the face of it, seem antithetical to traditional Aboriginal culture: digital technology.

But don’t make too much of the apparent incongruity of ultra-modern tech yoked to ancient languages, warns Marie-Odile Junker, a linguistics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “Indigenous languages are no more ‘ancient’ than English or French. . . . Don’t treat them like ancient Greek or Latin, sitting on a bookshelf gathering dust. For a language to be alive,” she says, “it has to talk about the world we live in.” And since the world in which we live — and communicate — is pervasively digital, Indigenous languages need to join the online world.

The digital tools available to Monague and other learners are multiplying at breakneck speed, with projects under way from coast to coast to coast. In 2016, FirstVoices, a web-based project in British Columbia to support Aboriginal peoples’ teaching and archiving of language and culture, released a keyboard app for Apple and Android mobile devices that allows people to email and text in more than 100 Indigenous languages. It was developed in response to “multiple requests from First Nations youth who wanted to be able to type in their own languages on their mobile devices,” according to the FirstVoices website.

Student John Allen of Yukon’s Kwanlin Dün First Nation holds a new laptop programmed with digital content in the Southern Tutchone language. Photo courtesy of One Laptop Per Child Canada
Student John Allen of Yukon’s Kwanlin Dün First Nation holds a new laptop programmed with digital content in the Southern Tutchone language. Photo courtesy of One Laptop Per Child Canada

Junker and her team are working on innovative digital resources to facilitate the preservation and use of Indigenous languages, mainly in Quebec, including dictionaries of Atikamekw, East Cree, Innu and Algonquin languages, as well as other teaching and learning tools. Their linguistic atlas, for example, is an interactive map of North American Indigenous languages that gives users access to 21 topics of conversation addressed in 16 languages by 52 speakers. “It was intended originally as a self-teaching tool,” Junker says, “but it is being used inventively in lots of different ways, as for example, by Blackfoot speakers in a language camp as an instructional aid.”

When it was first launched in 2007, the atlas attracted 4,000 users, but quickly reached 55,000 users a year. “Between 2015 and 2016, there was another precipitous escalation to 99,000 users,” Junker says.

In a similar fashion, her online Innu dictionary was used to look up the meanings of more than 75,000 words in the first half of 2016 alone, she reports. “I do see an enormous explosion of interest, and I see that as positive, especially among communities which have lost their languages and want them back.” Junker’s efforts to help preserve endangered Indigenous languages recently earned her a Governor General’s Innovation Award.

Vicki Monague’s go-to tech is the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, a searchable, talking Ojibwe dictionary that features the voices of Ojibwe speakers. “It’s my bible,” she says. She also visits KUMD.org, the website for a radio station in Duluth, Minn., which posts Ojibwe-language content. “That teaches me to hear. And since too few of my age peers are able to converse with me, I reach out to a big community of Ojibwe speakers through social media. I’m Facebook friends with Ojibwe speakers all over northern Ontario and the States.”

If a language’s survival depends, in part, on its capacity “to talk about the world we live in,” as Junker puts it, many Indigenous languages are already evolving, creating new nouns by combining words from the existing vocabulary to describe the function of new phenomena. According to Mike Parkhill, founder of SayITFirst, an Indigenous language revitalization organization based in Halifax, the word for “computer” in Inuktitut, literally translated, is “the box that thinks.” In Mohawk, there is no word for “box,” so “computer” is “the vessel that communicates.” Among the Passamaquoddy people in New Brunswick and Maine, a computer is “that f—ing thing that pisses me off” (a description that may resonate). The Ojibwe word for “computer” is “the place where teenagers go to gossip.”

As to the more fundamental question: Why even try to save a dying language? University of Toronto linguistics professor Keren Rice says that the revitalization of language can have a huge impact on the problems that haunt many Indigenous communities. “Speaking their first language can be a sort of medicine,” says Rice, who was named a Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and Aboriginal Studies in 2003. Rice, who is not Indigenous, spent four decades studying the Dene language of the Northwest Territories and has been deeply involved in work to maintain and revitalize it. This has not been merely a career-long academic exercise. She is convinced of the power for good arising from the desire to cultivate and nourish Indigenous languages.

“There is empirical evidence to show that language exposure can be critically positive. Crisis and youth suicide rates are lower [in communities] where kids are exposed to their first language,” she says, citing a 2007 study on Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide.

“Also,” Rice says, referencing a 2012 study of Aboriginal language and school outcomes, “where some kids are exposed to their language and some are not, the kids getting exposure are doing better academically.”

Parkhill, also non-Indigenous, is convinced that language is key. “I got bit by [that conviction] at age 46 when I found out I could help,” he says. Until then, he had worked for Microsoft Corporation as director of the academic sector. His job with Microsoft was to facilitate the marriage of Windows and MS Office to the Indigenous languages of the Far North. He left Microsoft in 2009 — impelled by what he came to see as a “race against time” for the remaining Indigenous languages — to work for and with First Nations to preserve and revitalize endangered languages using computer technology. Following the Indigenous method of coining new terms, he calls what he does “Indigitization.” His projects include Sesame Street-style videos available on YouTube, mainly in Indigenous languages of Eastern Canada: Mi’kmaw, Maliseet and Ojibwe.

Parkhill also writes and illustrates children’s books. Hide and Peek, for example, has been translated into seven Indigenous languages, including Southern Tutchone. That version features William, a moose, hunting for his son, George. (The characters’ names honour Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his son, Prince George. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended the launch in September 2016. The Prince’s Charities Canada helped fund the book’s creation.)

Kwanlin Dün elder Lorraine Allen translated Parkhill’s text into Southern Tutchone and also voiced the story for SayITFirst’s app, which lets readers see and hear native speakers say the words as they read along with Parkhill’s books. Hide and Peek was given to each schoolchild, Indigenous or not, in Whitehorse from kindergarten to Grade 3.

Kwanlin Dün band councillor Sean Smith has read the book with his children, and he appreciates the app. His own language skills are just “intermediate,” he admits, “but growing.” When he was young, he started learning from his grandmother. His own mother lost her language in residential school, where she was taught to think of it as “a limiting factor,” Smith says. His great-grandfather hid his grandmother from the residential school agents and raised her in the bush, and so she proudly retained her ancestral tongue. The fact that his ancestral tongue could cease to exist as elders die is definitely on his mind; his grandmother died in 2010 at age 82.

Smith’s goal is “fluent young speakers,” he says. He pins his hopes on immersion-style schools. Technology can help too. “It’s good for engaging young people,” he says. “Young people are tech-savvy, and they’ll utilize whatever they can get.”

Despite media hype, some experts warn not to put too much stock in technology. “If you’re thinking this [technology itself] is going to save the language, [my response is] no,” says Keren Rice. “It may be an instrument, but it’s not enough. Just because you computerize, that, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll save the language. It’s people choosing to use it, however they choose to use it.”

Rice wonders about the goals people attach to language revitalization. Full fluency is a goal “for some,” she says, “but for others, the goals have to do with establishing a sense of who one is and where they come from. Many speak of language as medicine, or as something that can help with healing from trauma.”

Rice reflects, “For many, whatever they can say or understand in their language is a sign of health, whether it is introducing themselves, saying a prayer, helping an elder [or] using social media. . . . These are all important, and perhaps can be called victories.”

Sean Smith recalls that his grandmother, who was hidden in the Yukon bush to protect her language and culture, once told him, pragmatically, that he needs to “have a care to keep one foot in western culture and the other in my own culture and traditions.”

For her part, Monague, along with her laptop, perseveres. Registered full time in the Anishnaabemowin (Ojibwe language) program at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., she wins scholarships, earns bursaries and makes the dean’s list every semester. Her youngest son, Dominique, 13, already speaks the language as well as she does. And that, she believes, is a good thing.

This story first appeared in The Observer’s October 2017 issue with the title “Language lifeline.”

Richard Wright is a journalist in Toronto.


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