By Meagan Secord
Across the world Indigenous communities are fighting for their languages as the destructive past of colonialism puts more and more of them to sleep.
Kyle Napier, is a Dene/nêhiyaw Métis, member of Northwest Territory Métis Nation and a University of Alberta student writing his thesis on the revitalization of Indigenous languages.
He prefers to use the term “sleeping” instead of “dying” when it comes to languages because even though a dialect is not being spoken in the present, he says it can always be relearned.
He gives the example of a woman in the U.S. who started learning the ‘sleeping’ Wampanoag language of her ancestors and taught it to her daughter as she was growing up.
Now, her daughter is the first fluent speaker of that language since the 1800s.
The burden to save these dialects isn’t just on their Indigenous speakers though.
Although the efforts aren’t perfect, countries such as Guatemala, Canada and Mexico are passing legislation in an attempt to preserve the languages of First Peoples.
In Canada, there are no laws to incorporate Indigenous languages into school systems or make them an official language, such as French.
The closest the country has gotten is Bill C-91, an act intended to protect Indigenous languages by providing more funding to them.
In principle, it may seem like a good idea, but some people aren’t taking too kindly to it.
Napier says the bill only consulted with First Nations, Inuit and Metis lobby groups which lumped all of the dialects together instead of focusing on the individual needs of each linguistic group.
“If we divided up (the funding) among the language groups and then the dialects among those language groups in their communities, it really becomes a paltry sum,” he says, “which is not enough to deliver equitable language funding which is necessary for successful acquisition.”
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, there are approximately 70 Indigenous languages in Canada which fall into 12 different language families. However, depending on the area the language is from, it could be spoken differently from another place in Canada.
This is much like the way Canadian French and France French have differences. Napier says this wasn’t considered when the bill was passed because some dialects need more funding than others to fully restore them.
According to ATPN National News, the government has promised to provide long-term funding and support for Indigenous languages as well as create an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous languages.
To help the languages that are being forgotten, Napier says there must be enough funding to reteach them the right way. He adds the Indigenous ways of teaching don’t align with the Canadian education system and the languages need to be taught a certain way to be retained.
According to Napier, learning an Indigenous language requires three main components.
Generational knowledge sharing, so learning from an elder and hearing the stories of that language, told in that language to fully understand the whole picture.
Land based immersion is another component. “Indigenous languages as a whole are tied to the land and connected to every being which holds spirit on that land,” he says. In other words, protecting the language means protecting the land it is spoken on.
The final component is a mentor and apprentice program.
“That is, a fluent-speakers, sitting with an emergent speaker and having dedicated time to learn and do things like beading or making moccasins or cutting up portions of moose or like using all the parts of the beaver,” he says.
These three aspects keep the traditions that come along with the language alive, which he says is just as important as the dialect itself.
Other countries have tried different models.
In the community of Las Arrugas, a six-hour drive north of Guatemala City, there is a struggle between integrating into modern times and keeping Indigenous tradition alive.
The majority of the people here speak Spanish even though it isn’t their first language.
Gladis Yohana Caal Ical a teacher at Telesecondaria in Las Arrugas, teaches students in both Spanish and Poqomchi, the community’s Indigenous Mayan dialect. She says most children learn it first and then learn Spanish in school.
The goal is that they become bilingual without losing their native tongue.
“Many of the students speak Poqomchi when they come to school but cannot write it. I can write it and teach them,” she says. “I also teach in Poqomchi and give examples in Spanish so they can learn both.”
Las Arrugas is just one of the many Mayan communities throughout Guatemala. The country has 24 Mayan dialects spoken on top of their national language of Spanish.
Teachers, such as Gladis, in rural communities didn’t always incorporate Indigenous languages into their lesson plans though.
According to an article by Indiana University, Guatemala has been working on integrating bilingual education into its school systems since the 1980s. It established the Directorate‐General of Intercultural Bilingual Education (DIGIBE) to “regulate the country’s bilingual education.”
“Before 1996 some of the kids didn’t want to go to school because the teachers were teaching in Spanish, so they decided they weren’t going to go to school,” says Noe Dario Caal Bin, the community leader in Las Arrugas.
However, the new school curriculum, integrating Indigenous speakers, came until 2000. That’s when the DIGIBE passed the Intercultural Bilingual Education Model, which put a focus on incorporating both languages into the school environment.
“The education government saw that situation. So, they changed it because they want to involve everyone in education,” he says. “The teacher has to teach in Poqomchi or K’iche or another Mayan dialect. Since then the kids get more involved in education.”
Although Gladis and Noe have seen positive impacts on their community, government mandated consultations in 2008 didn’t see the results they wanted.
According to the article by Indiana University, the results showed no positive impact on drop-out rates. Many of the teachers were not fully trained in the native tongues and couldn’t get access to proper resources for students to fully become bilingual.
The plan was to try and fix the curriculum, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Rural communities continue to encourage bilingualism in the classroom despite the many challenges they face.
There is another way to keep conversations going in Indigenous languages though – technology.
Maria Alvarez Malvido, an Indigenous connectivity worker for Networks for Diversity, Equity and Sustainability AC in Mexico, helps Indigenous radio stations get on the air waves every day.
She says Mexico has 68 Mayan dialects but was only reporting the news in Spanish.
Malvido spent time working with a small community station and was amazed by how quickly it spread their culture through the area.
“It was fascinating how the community was using radio to revitalize their language and play their music,” she says.
Although they were doing great work, Indigenous stations had a difficult time staying on the airdue to the criminalization of stations without a government-issued licence, according to Malvido.
She says only commercial and public radio stations could broadcast and the government would shut down and take the equipment from small community stations.
This all changed in 2014.
“In 2014, the regulating framework changed, recognizing community radio,” says Malvido.
She says part of the problem is that the paperwork was confusing and only come in Spanish. This made it impossible for small stations to get licenced.
“It’s better now,” she says. “They’re translating paperwork to Indigenous languages but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Her organization, Networks for Diversity, Equity and Sustainability AC, helps stations grow and develop in their communities by assisting with legal paperwork and helping with programming.
She says Indigenous radio is important is because it strengthens Indigenous people’s identity and culture and gives them a platform to defend the land against threats, such as excessive oil extraction.
“I learned from the communities that being oral fits with their traditions of sharing and communicating memories,” says Malvido. “But I think radio is so powerful because it’s accessible. It is a friendly media meant for anyone.”
Whether it’s providing government funding, incorporating language into school systems or simply being able to turn to a radio station, Indigenous languages across the world need more help.
Napier, Caal and Malvido come from different places but are working towards one goal: reintegrating these ‘sleeping’ or fading dialects back into everyday life to keep traditions and culture alive.
Last year was the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages. The UN has also made a commitment that 2022 to 2032 will be a decade dedicated to them. Napier says with this new legislation and recognition, there is never a better time to try something new and reconnect with the land that has given so much.
“Now is the time to learn,” he says. “Now is the time to start speaking, because right now the land is going through these moments where it needs healing and language grants connection to the land and and water and air stewardship. It couldn't come at a better time. What better way than to speak and understand the land and to actually be there speak the language of the land?”