Indigenous language learners share bright hope for revitalization

By Odette Auger
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Windspeaker.com

Clarification made to comments made by XLAXELWET Kiona Bob.

​The theme of the 30th annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium (SILS) was “Kinship, Connections, & Leadership in Indigenous Language Revitalization.”

The international conference was held June 5 to June 7 on WSÁNEĆ and lək̓ʷəŋən territory in Victoria, B.C. and hosted by NEȾOLṈEW̱̱ Research Partnerships with the University of Victoria (UVic).

SILS has been bringing together language workers, learners and community members to share and learn language teaching strategies and practices for language revitalization. Workshops highlight “emerging and promising” teaching methods, along with holistic approaches, community-led interventions, and the pivotal role of technology, reads the symposium website at https://web.cvent.com/event/77ec82fd-2a46-40a5-8f16-335bfe352904/summary.

Dr. Onowa McIvor (Swampy Cree) is a language learner. She is a professor of Indigenous Education at UVic and the project director of NEȾOLṈEW̱ Research Partnership, which engages with and studies the multiple contexts in which adults learn languages and contribute.

Among the NEȾOLṈEW̱ initiatives is the creation of a digital hub which connects people involved in Indigenous language work, and the development of an assessment tool for measuring language advancement.

Indigenous language revitalization is more than just the revival of words. It is the rekindling of cultural identity and communal bonds, said McIvor. McIvor co-presented at the symposium exploring Self-Directed Indigenous Language Learning Assessment Tools.

She spoke about the importance of traditional skills and knowledge, emphasizing the necessity of passing this wisdom down to younger generations.

“Learning from Elders and passing knowledge to younger generations is crucial,” McIvor said in an interview with Windspeaker.

Her presentation shared a sense of hope and positivity in the field of language revitalization and emphasized the need to focus on solutions rather than just the problems.

Aiyana Twigg made the closing speech at SILS. Twigg is a Ktunaxa, Blackfoot woman with a double major in First Nations and Endangered Languages, and Anthropology. She’ll be continuing towards a Masters of Education degree at Uvic starting in July.

Along with working within her community on language initiatives, Twigg also works with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO as a youth advisor.

“Seeing the Elders teach our young ones, the language creates a bridge between generations,” she told Windspeaker, explaining that this bridge is what fosters a sense of continuity and belonging.

McIvor agreed, explaining that her presentation emphasized the necessity of mentorship.

“Who are you mentoring in your life? Who are you training to replace yourself?” McIvor asked the conference attendees. She said a commitment to cultural and linguistic knowledge comes with the responsibility to nurture others.

Growing and strengthening connections 

The conference has been an important place for sharing, McIvor told Windspeaker.

“Creating alliances with other language revitalization programs and academic institutions helps us share resources and strategies,” she said.

These connections amplify the impact of individual efforts, creating a stronger, sustainable movement.

Twigg emphasized the role of technology in fostering connections, and the need for diverse approaches, to respect the unique needs and cultures of different Indigenous communities.

XLAXELWET Kiona Bob (Pauquachin) is a mother and teaches at the SENĆOŦEN immersion school ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱. She has her Bachelor’s of Education degree in Indigenous Language Revitalization, and will be continuing on her studies into a Master’s degree.

XLAXELWET spoke to Windspeaker of the Total Physical Response (TPR) teaching method and said it can make language learning less stressful. The idea is to demonstrate the meaning of the words while speaking them.

Mimicking how a young child would learn their first language, the technique ladders into inviting those who are comfortable to lead until eventually everyone in the learning group is comfortable demonstrating the words learned.

In 2021, XLAXELWET was beginning her degree, commuting to bring her young son to daycare and feeling a little lost in her schooling path.

“One day I was driving, and I was just praying for some healing. I was praying for medicine, and I was asking Creator to please just help heal me,” she told Windspeaker.

“I was praying in silence” with her young son in the car seat, “And then I don’t know why, but I just started to play with sounds. I just started humming.” She turned on a recorder, and that melody was the beginning of her healing song.

“Learning songs and music was a big part of my language journey,” XLAXELWET tells Windspeaker. “They’re so intertwined with our cultural ways.” At the tribal school they have morning protocols every day with singing and dancing.

“That is part of our curriculum with the kids, so we have to teach them how to sing, how to dance,” she said, explaining that meant stepping out of her comfort zone. “The years leading up, when I was just learning my language, there was no push to really sing or dance too much, but it slowly started to build.”

“I think Creator had been preparing me. He knew that once I got into a teaching position I would have to start singing and dancing for the kids.”

XLAXELWET has had people criticize or question what the point of learning her language is.

“For me, it’s about connecting with my community, connecting with myself, with my grandparents, with my ancestors who have lost that, because I know that they want us to restore the ways that we were.”

Her response to those who doubt the value of language: “I just say, ‘well, I want to work within my community. I want to work with the children of my community’,” she said. “But I also want my language in my home. I want it within my family. And so if I wasn’t working in the language, I would just be using the language at home. The benefit of that to me is just to have a way of raising my child in a safe cultural space.”

XLAXELWET tells Windspeaker she felt her ancestors with her when she gave the keynote.

“I know they’re there, and even I know that in their heart, if they can’t understand the language [English], they would still understand spiritually what’s going on. Because on the other side, it’s just a completely different world over there.”

“And I think no matter what language we’re speaking, they still understand our hearts, our souls. They still understand the work that’s being done.”

“Things are more powerful when you speak in your language. If you’re harvesting, restoring land, blessing land, that stuff can be more powerful when you’re doing it in the language because it’s the original language of the land. I’m sure the lands and plants miss that. They miss having that connection with the people who speak the language and understand,” said XLAXELWET.

Twigg said her closing remarks to the conference shared her belief that language is a powerful healing tool.

“I experienced a lot of racism and discrimination, and I had a lot of shame for my identity because of these experiences that I was hearing from students, teachers. It really affected how I view myself, and it also affected my perspective on how I view the world, my culture and my people.”

This led to an identity crisis and mental health issues for Twigg, “because of what I experienced, but also my disconnection from my culture and language.”

“When I reconnected with my culture and language in eleventh grade, that’s actually what healed me,” said Twigg, explaining that’s why language learning is important to supporting youth and communities.

Her projects use technology and media to support language revitalization, and the positive effects of social media in creating accessibility, safe spaces and increasing visibility for Indigenous languages.

Twigg hopes future generations will be empowered and proud to speak their languages.

“The reason I say empowered is because there’s still that stigma and racism that people experience for speaking their Indigenous languages. And there’s still that lack of encouragement from non-Indigenous people to speak our languages.”

“So my hope is that they will feel empowered and prideful to speak their languages and encouraged not just from our own people, but that they’ll also be encouraged from their non-Indigenous friends, their non-Indigenous teachers.”

Twigg told Windspeaker she imagines a future having conversations with her children and grandchildren, “and that my children will be correcting me in the language because they know that much of the language. I hope to have that moment where my great-grandchildren are like, ‘no, grandma, that’s not how you say this. This is how you say it.’ And that will just make me so happy.”

“When I first started,” said McIvor, “The narrative was about the last dying speaker. Now, our work is centered on hope and positivity.”