The Healing Power of Indigenous Language Revitalization

By: Cheryl

This article was originally published on www.languageadvocacyday.org in celebration of the Language Advocacy Day of Canada 2024. To register for the LAD24 conference, click here.

Language is more than just a tool for communication. It is a profound reflection of cultural identity, heritage, and worldview. For Indigenous communities, language is sacred as it preserves communication with natural elements. The erosion of Indigenous languages, driven by historical injustices and colonial policies, has far-reaching consequences for the ability to understand ecological imbalance, changes over time, and community health. The relationship between Indigenous language revitalization, mother languages, and the well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada requires understanding how linguistic revitalization contributes to healing, cultural resurgence, and community resilience to influence language policies.

To understand the significance of Indigenous language revitalization, we need to acknowledge the historical context that has shaped the linguistic landscape for Indigenous communities. The imposition of colonial languages, discriminatory policies, and the devastating impacts of residential schools have played a pivotal role in the decline of Indigenous languages. The forcible separation of Indigenous children from their families, along with the suppression of their languages, led to a generational gap in language transmission. Language is not just a system of communication but a repository of cultural knowledge, oral traditions, and spiritual beliefs, deeply intertwined with the land, kinship systems, and the sacred connection between individuals and nature. This is especially true when Indigenous languages are involved. In addition, the erosion of these languages represents a loss of cultural identity and a disruption of intergenerational knowledge essential for the holistic well-being.

The impact of language loss extends beyond practical communication and affects the psychological and emotional realms of individuals and communities. Studies have shown that preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages contribute positively and significantly to mental health outcomes. Speaking one’s mother language fosters a sense of belonging, identity, and continuity, buffering against the psychological scars of historical trauma. Language revitalization catalyzes community resilience and empowerment, reclaiming agency and asserting cultural sovereignty. Re-acquired language becomes a source of pride, resilience, and resistance, fostering a sense of unity and purpose within the community.

From an educational perspective, the role of language in shaping cognitive development, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills is a key to successful educational efforts. Indigenous languages carry unique worldviews and ways of understanding the environment, enriching the educational experience for Indigenous learners in particular but all learners in general. By incorporating Indigenous languages into the educational system, all students living on the land where these languages are spoken could develop a stronger connection to Indigenous cultural heritage, enhancing their overall learning experience.

The Canadian government has taken steps to address historical injustices and support Indigenous linguistic revitalization. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has acknowledged the impact of residential schools on Indigenous languages and recommended remediation and revitalization measures. The legal framework in Canada, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, does not recognize language as a right or as a “prohibited ground of discrimination” beyond the official languages, indicating a need for action. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) provides a foundation for recognizing and protecting Indigenous languages, but also notes that Indigenous language rights extend beyond culture, complicating the issue. As Indigenous languages are connected to land rights, their revitalization also means revitalizing self-determination and self-governance, the ability to “freely determine political status and freely pursue economic, social and cultural development” (UNDRIP, Article 3).

Indigenous language revitalization depends on collaborative efforts between Indigenous communities, educational institutions, governmental bodies, and non-profit organizations. Initiatives like the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First People’s Cultural Council (FPCC) work towards Indigenous language revitalization, emphasizing community-driven approaches that respect and integrate traditional knowledge. Examining success stories in Indigenous language revitalization provides insights into effective strategies. Programs that prioritize intergenerational transmission, community involvement, and integrating Indigenous languages in daily life have shown promising results. Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization (SILR) and the Kahnawake Education Center’s Mohawk language initiatives.

What these examples show is that Indigenous language revitalization is a key part of the movement to promote holistic views on how health, language, and nature complement each other. From an eco-linguistics perspective that sees language as a mediator between nature and culture, improved well-being is an outcome of properly naming the interplay between the “internal” and “external” life in nature. Learning about how Indigenous languages, native to the land, describe human relationships with natural environment, stones, trees, mountains, rivers, and animals could influence how we see the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of our own Being. When Indigenous peoples participate in language revitalization, it could become a transformative healing journey for us all if we are willing to learn from these efforts to understand linguistic description of natural phenomena. When one culture deeply connected to the land reclaims its agency, and fosters its sense of belonging, all other groups living on the same land should be able to create their sense of belonging to the same land, creating better pathways to wholistic health and healing.

The revitalization of Indigenous languages is seen as a multifaceted endeavor with profound implications for the health and well-being of all communities, especially Indigenous ones. Understanding the historical context, the link between language, nature and culture, and the positive impacts on psychological, emotional, and educational dimensions provides a comprehensive perspective on the healing power of linguistic revitalization. In Canada, evolving language policies and collaborative initiatives are needed to ensure bridges between Indigenous and other communities, contributing to reconciliation and recognition of Indigenous rights. Learning from Indigenous communities engaged in revitalization efforts aims to contribute to a more inclusive, diverse, and culturally rich landscape, where the healing power of language reverberates across generations.

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