Indigenous Language Revitalization is Anti-Racist Work

Ravens taken by Owen L. Oliver

we acknowledge the land not only because we grow in tandem with it but because our stories are formed from our surroundings and woven with our unique sounds, tones, and emotions that we call language.

A question that people often ask me is “how do I become a better anti-racist for Indigenous people?”. Before this year and this pandemic, I normally would have listed many different points and targetable achievements to become a more conscious anti-racist. Even going so far as to set them up with a mental map of where to start, what books to read, and how to support Indigenous people. Yet as we’ve become more and more virtual and appropriate information is becoming more widely available about Indigenous people. I’ve been telling them just to start learning the presence of Indigenous languages in your area. Becoming a more prepared anti-racist is about having a positive connection to community, people, and land. Not just one but all of them. Now let’s talk about how language either ties those together or is the outcome of all of them.

Community

Talking about community before people is not only important in the sphere of language learning and revitalizing but it also connects to becoming a better anti-racist. For Indigenous languages, the community shapes and molds, the specifics for the collective benefit. Across the 1000 communities in North American alone lie different community takes of language preservation, innovation, and sharing. The community itself is really the one you should be learning from in the beginning and not the individual because it allows you to see the breadth of what a community has to offer and the special characteristics of each. Dispelling any narratives about monolithic cultures comes from the knowledge and standing of the community. Knowing this, you can allow yourself to dive into the communities’ language and the efforts they’ve taken to become a stronger adhesive for their members. When familiarizing yourself with a communities’ language, it informs you on protocols and honoring systems that you didn’t even know existed. For instance, in Northwest and Coast Salish lands we hold our hands up to inform our thanks, their masi, his o’siem, her gunalchéesh. It’s a community notion that has spread across these waters and lands to result in a non-audible gesture, one filled with thousands of years of intentions.

Intentions come from the community but at the heart they are manifested from each individual, there are rotten apples in the bunch that can really mess up a community presence. On the flip side, there are the leaders and advocates that go above and beyond while lifting up their community as no one has seen. For language revitalization and anti-racist work, intentions need to be set like a table. Using utensils you can carve and cut through harmful ideologies while sipping on the ever sweet success of a healthy and thriving community. Just remember not to sit at the table unless you have an invitation by the community and not just an individual.

People

The beauty of the individuals and their inherent ties to language is the uniqueness of how they speak and utilize their language. Everyone does it differently and there is so much to learn about the smaller intricacies that are intentionally spoken or not spoken. Slang and annunciation fill space that awkwardly lingers on bad conversations. However, listening and truly paying attention to a natural speaker’s habits can inform you on more than just their emotions but their motives for telling you the story. If you ever have the chance to listen to an elder tell a story in their Indigenous language, it’s powerful because of how much you’re going to pay attention to their face. Just because you don’t understand the language doesn’t mean you can’t understand the feelings and intentions behind it. To become better at anti-racist work you need to feel that uncomfortability and vulnerability that happens when you don’t immediately understand everything that is going on. For too long you’ve felt too comfortable sitting at the table of your choosing.

I wanted to begin constructing these spaces that make you feel vulnerable and allows you to toss out your understandings. Language sharing is the perfect avenue for this. Each Saturday I give the awareness to Indigenous languages and words on my Instagram. I initially started it because I wanted to learn more from my followers about where they are from, the languages they speak, and the curiosities they have about different communities. I give the prompt of ‘how do you say ___ in your Indigenous language?” and each week there is a new word. We started with rain because it had rained over 5 inches in Ketchikan and I wanted to learn how to say rain in my followers’ language. Then we did storm, snow, and to just this last Saturday when I asked “how do you say your favorite bird in your Indigenous language?”. Through the 82 weeks and over 50 different tribal languages I’ve learned that it’s not just for my consumption but everyone’s. Each week I get thank you messages for making Indigenous languages more accessible for those who are just started in their journey of reclaiming and revitalizing. As well as the thankful messages from non-Natives for educating them. Once that began, I knew I couldn’t stop because I made a community out of the individual word I wanted to learn more about. I just wish I started earlier.

I’ve begun to make a google sheet with some of the words, it’s a slow start but if you are curious here it is.

The Land

Native word of the week began because I wanted to know what the word for rain was in the various Indigenous languages of my followers. That came from a response of the land and real-world interactions I recently had. If it hadn’t poured as hard maybe I wouldn’t have asked. If it was absurdly bright maybe I would have asked about the sun. To revitalize languages we need to understand its connection to the land and the immediate responses it poses. To start I’ll introduce where I’m coming from.

I probably didn’t go to the same elementary school as you, through my public elementary learning I did so in half immersion Japanese and half English. Science, math, social studies, and art were all in Japanese whereas English was learning how to write and spell. I continued to learn Japanese until 10th grade where I slowly got burnt out and haven’t dedicated the time to relearn my losses. Yet as I become older the biggest gift I received was learning how to situate myself in a language that I didn’t even know any words to be as fluent as speaking English at such an early age. I used to cry every single day because I was scared to go to school and have to learn Japanese. All because it made me uncomfortable and vulnerable. But as I got older and more confident in my Japanese I was able to learn what makes learning different languages so valuable. The art of the land.

Japanese is a special language because of the number of connections words and sentences have to the landscape. The abundance of ideophones like onomatopoeias gives life to words. In English we have a couple of onomatopoeias like ‘tic tok’ or ‘bang’ but rarely do we use them in conversation or writing. However Japanese for instance liberally uses them in conversation and media. For instance, your favorite Pokémon is probably an onomatopoeia, like Pikachu. Pikachu is broken down into pika and chu. Pika comes from ピカピカ (pikapika) which is the sound of electricity. Chu on the other hand is the sound a mouse makes; チュウチュウ (chūchū). Together Pikachu is an electric mouse, named after the sounds of the land and held by the community.

Japanese is just one instance that I was able to connect to at such a young age as I didn’t learn my Indigenous language Chinuk Wawa till a lot later in life. However, as I interact with languages across territories I’m reminded of the art of the land that Japanese taught me. Now that I spend my time in Ketchikan Alaska for more than just a busy summer I’m beginning to connect the words with the land and ultimately becoming better at anti-racist work because I’m learning what the community has spoken since time immemorial.

Ketchikan or Kichx̱áan is the Tlingit word for the sounds of the thundering wings of an eagle. And it would only make sense if you’ve been here and heard how the eagles interact with the land.

Forgetting about language revitalization during anti-racist work is harmful because you are removing the root of all the stories and communities that have come before you. Learn to listen to the land, the communities, and the individuals and you’ll be better at setting the future table for many more generations of seats.

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