Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Response to Prof. Doomsday & Where are the Sheep?

Don't you just hate it when you put your heart and soul into writing something, only to have your computer crash before it saves or to have Blogger tell you it cannot complete your request and when you hit the 'Back' button it's gone?

Yeah, me too.

I was just reading the blog post 'The Mythological Indian' over on Where are the Sheep?, and it was totally provoking my thoughts. I started typing my comment, and I entered into one of those writing modes where the words just flow out of you and appear perfect on the page (you know, those ones that are impossible to recreate?).

Rather than slamming my head on the desk and declaring myself done for the day, I decided to pull up my socks and write my own blog post in response to Robert's.

One particular paragraph in 'The Mythological Indian' ignited a small fire within me:
It is true that the stripping away of language and culture has had a devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples that will continue to have repercussions for generations to come. It has had a negative effect on my family; I do not speak the language or practice much of the cultural traditions. I do not consider myself to be less than another Aboriginal person however. I know who I am, where I come from and I am still learning what I am capable of and where I might be able to take it, were I permitted the space and trust to do so.
I'll never forget the words of an Irish anthropology professor I had in my undergrad who was teaching a course on 'Aboriginal History in Canada' (or some variant of it). The day's lesson was on language, with an apocalyptic focus on Indigenous languages and their demise.

"It's a well-known fact and proven in history," he began (and you know professors always tell the truth), "that when a language dies, the culture and the people follow."

Never in my life had a single statement instilled so much fear in me!

Of course, me being maybe 21 at the time and him being a professor, I took his words as absolute fact (and, to top it off, he prefaced his statement by citing it as fact).

But these days, I'm beginning to wonder...

I understand the importance of our language. I am faced with it oftentimes when I ask my grandmother the meaning of a word in Algonquin and she pauses, squints her eyes closed for a strained moment, then answers me in a paragraph in English. There are so many cultural nuances contained in our languages that only the Elders understand. My grandmother speaks the old Algonquin, always the second term in the English-Algonquin dictionary, not the new one which I suspect is influenced by Ojibway.

I am fortunate enough to have opportunities to learn my language, if only I make the time to take advantage of them. But what if I don't? And what if my children don't? And my children's children? And then my community? Does that mean we will cease to exist as Algonquin, as Anishinabe?

I hope NOT!

If we acknowledge that our people and our cultures are not static and capable of "death"; if we understand that our people and our cultures will grow, transform and flourish; if we use the English (or French or other) language in our own ways; if we take so-called "western" concepts and traditions, and meld them with our own to form something new...

...if we do all of that, then we will always be here.


  1. I have to believe that we do not disappear just because we don't speak our languages. How we survive is in our actions. That may mean language, but is also how we carry ourselves and share our stories.
    I agree with you that we evolve, taking the best of what is available and grow as we do. We can't be the mythological Indians, firmly rooted in the past, we exist now in the present and in the reality that surrounds us.
    Thank you for your comments, I am not sure what is wrong with my comments section, you are not the first to complain about it not working these past couple of days.

  2. I agree with you.

    In no way do I mean to deny the importance of our languages and using every means necessary to learn them (and I know you don't either) and I plan to keep trying to learn my language for the rest of my life.

    BUT (and that's a big but) all of that being said, our people are multidimensional; we're made up of languages and stories (Anishinabe and English, in my case) and songs and dances and art and non-verbal skills and so much that we will not lose ourselves.

    Simple as that! Haha.

  3. since language began cultures have 'borrowed' words and merged their own languages in weird and wonderful ways in acts of survival and migration. it's terrible to have your language eradicated by an invader but you are right, if in thought the resonance of the language of a culture remains - and in this day of imagination - why not make it again, a fresh yet wise language created with your layers of understanding. that would be so beautiful and embody the cultural essence. big love x

  4. Samantha, agreed! We must start looking at these new things as beautiful, seeing them for their strengths. That way we can move past a stage where we 'survive' and/or justify our cultures to a place where we thrive and continue to create.