Herizons Commentary

Speaking Indigenously  by Lianne Leddy
Speaking Indigenously

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented changes to our lives, the restrictions we continue to face have led to many challenges such as social isolation, mental health struggles and childcare issues.

I have a lot to be grateful for, and I am reminded of that often. One of my main challenges during the pandemic has been not being able to visit my family in Elliot Lake and Serpent River First Nation. Surprisingly, though, despite my physical separation from my homeland, the pandemic brought me closer to it virtually.

Twice a week in December, I logged on to an Anishinaabemowin online course offered by Serpent River First Nation Cultural Program. I was able to learn safely with people in the community, allowing me, as an off-reserve member, to connect with my language rooted in my home territory, and to be taught by a fluent speaker in our own dialect. Although traditionally our languages are learned in person, this was one example of the resilience Indigenous communities have displayed during difficult times.

Many Indigenous people and organizations throughout Turtle Island have been connecting with each other online to learn their language. Lenard Monkman explored one such example in a podcast entitled, “Paul Anishinaabemo (Speaks Ojibwe).” In it, Sophia Rabliauskas teaches Anishinaabemowin to her son, comedian Paul Rabliauskas. Ben Mussett reported for CBC that North Island College moved its Kwak’wala course online due to COVID-19 in order to keep elders safe. It also made language learning more geographically accessible. Urban centres are also offering online language classes. Language revitalization is vital for Indigenous communities as we rebuild our nations and look to our children’s future. I want to stress the importance of language: it is the gateway to a culture’s worldview. It is not as simple as directly translating a word, as, crucially, cultural concepts can be lost along with languages, making meaningful cross-cultural understanding nearly impossible.

The loss of First Nations languages can be directly linked to the legacies of the residential school system and

day schools—a loss still felt in our communities. Given this history, learning a First language is a powerful

way to confront the colonial notion that Canada has only the two official languages of its “founding” nations.

The requirement in residential schools and day schools that Indigenous children be taught in either English or French meant that students were punished harshly when they spoke their own language. Banning our languages was a cornerstone of assimilationist practices that were widespread in Canada. When you erase a people’s language, it is an attempt to erase them.

All of this led to the fact that, with some exceptions, not many people of my generation grew up as fluent speakers of their own languages. In my own case, I grew up hearing my grandparents and others of their generation speaking Anishinaabemowin, but I could not speak it myself, nor could I really understand what they were saying, with the exception of a few words here or there.

This can make it emotionally difficult for an Indigenous person to learn their own language later in life. I still feel embarrassed by my rudimentary understanding of Anishinaabemowin, and that shame is sometimes made public when someone speaks to me expecting an answer to a question I don’t always fully understand.

And yet, unexpectedly, this strange time has brought an opportunity for me to work on my connection to Anishinaabemowin, and as early as I am in my learning journey, I am not alone. While our current COVID-19 context has meant living every aspect of our lives a little differently, it has also provided an opportunity to learn and reclaim our own languages and concepts rooted in our territories with the help of new technologies.

It has also created opportunities to connect with people across geographical distances in our homes, in ways that are safe. Perhaps it isn’t ideal, and technology brings its own challenges and inequalities, but at this moment in time, Nimiigwechiwendam (I am thankful).  ▼