March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a day to shine a light on grassroots efforts to advance gender equality in communities across the country.
Indigenous women are often regarded as traditional keepers of language and culture. CBC News speaks with seven women who are making changes, both big and small, in their lives, communities, and nations when it comes to the reclamation, revitalization, and preservation of Indigenous languages.
Mary Ann Naokwegijig-Corbiere
Mary Ann Naokwegijig-Corbiere, originally from Wikwemikong First Nation, is an assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury and has been teaching Nishnaabemwin for the last three decades. She is one of two editors of the Nishnaabemwin: Odawa and Eastern Ojibwe Dictionary. She’s been adding new words to the dictionary since 1997, after consulting with five communities in southern Ontario.
“It’s been a very involved process. I had no idea I’d still be at this over 20 years later,” said Naokwegijig-Corbiere.
She said it’s important to have resources accessible online, especially for her students once they move on from the university.
“They need something. So this is my main focus,” she said. “When I wrote this dictionary, I wanted this to serve learners.”
Karihwiióstha Callie Montour and Marion Konwanénhon Delaronde
Karihwiióstha Callie Montour and Marion Konwanénhon Delaronde are the co-hosts of a weekly radio show called Tewawennakará:tats in Kahnawake, Que. Montour started the program to create a space for learners of Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language).
“A big barrier to learning language is being too afraid to make a mistake, too afraid to embarrass yourself, worrying what others think,” she said.
“On this show we like to show people that it’s OK to make a mistake. It’s OK if you’re not perfect. All that matters is that you try.”
Delaronde is also the artistic director of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center’s children’s show Tóta tánon Ohkwá:ri. Now in its 16th season, Delaronde said the goal is to contribute to a healthier community.
“Having access to language and culture programs, having the reinforcement, visibility that are our language is alive, our culture has always been alive, helps us on a community level to feel good about our identity and to understand our identity,” said Delaronde.
For the past three years, Nikita Larter has been reclaiming her language. She is Sallirmiut Inuvialuk from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., but grew up in a different part of the Northwest Territories and currently is living in Chicago. Her goal is to become fluent in Sallirmiutun Inuvialuktun, and she has been using online resources to learn vocabulary and basic conversational skills. One of the things she’s been challenging herself to do is to replace English greetings in her daily life.
“It’s a simple kind of challenge for yourself,” she said.
“I stopped saying ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Happy birthday’ in my language for about a few months, and I totally forgot how to spell them. I realized how quickly it slips, so I’ve made an effort to integrate basic terminology back into my daily life.”
Larter grew up away from her culture for most of her life, and decided to reclaim her language during her final year of university. When visiting home, a statistic in a book caught her eye. It stated that fewer than 500 people spoke the language, and that was back in 1980.
“That was really scary, and it affected me really personally because my grandma was the person that I knew who spoke it and she passed away a few years ago,” said Larter.
“I’m really determined to learn it because that would have been a really meaningful connection to have with my grandma if she were still here, but also I have younger family members who are beginning to learn it in school. It would be really amazing for us to be able to speak it together.”
Lola Vicaire has been a Mi’kmaw language educator for the last decade. While she currently teaches staff at the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat in Listuguj, Que., outside of her day job she also does translations, hosts workshops, and provides one-on-one lessons with community members.
Last year, she helped published two children’s books for the Alaqsite’w Gitpu School’s immersion program.
“It’s a part of who I am,” said Vicaire.
“When I first started language revitalization work, I didn’t realize how important this work really was until I started to see the number of declining speakers.”
At 31, she’s the youngest fluent speaker in Listuguj who was raised with the Mi’kmaw language as her mother tongue.
“I have a very big responsibility to fight for the language, and share what I know,” she said.
Belinda Daniels, an educator in Saskatoon from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, is the founder of Nehiyawak Language Experience, a grassroots organization in its 16th year in operation offering a summer Cree language camp and monthly language workshops.
“I really believe that the spirit of the Cree language chose me to do this work, and I do this work to create awareness that there are Indigenous Peoples living here still speaking their language,” said Daniels.
Daniels is also a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan finishing up her dissertation this spring in language reclamation. She is also in the middle of co-writing a book, Let’s Bring Cree Home, geared toward families.
“When we reclaim our language, we reclaim who we are and we reinstate that we belong here. So, language is practising sovereignty,” said Daniels.
“Language rights are inherent. The Creator gave us this language. We do not have to wait for Canada’s approval to speak our languages but Canada does have a duty to take the necessary action to protect Indigenous languages.”
Sydney Ma̱lidi Roberts has been studying at the University of British Columbia for the last six years to become a Kwak’wala teacher, with a specialization in Indigenous pedagogy. Her education has also focused on linguistic data preservation, which means learning how to use best practices around recording and preserving her people’s language.
“That’s kind of where I see my role in our people’s language revitalization,” she said.
“I’m an instrument for my ancestors. Every day I work through my ancestors and especially with our language, it’s an everyday effort to save our language.”
In January, she moved back to her community to further her cultural education, and has shared much of her language journey on Instagram.
“I think it’s important that we not just preserve but continue to use our language in the everyday context and even if that means I’m on Instagram using my Kwak’wala all the time,” she said.
“When you learn your language, you’re learning the world view of your ancestors. I really take that to heart and I try to live through that every day.”