Language at odds with ourselves

We have heard it from settler governments: “if you no longer speak your language and no longer practice your culture, then you have no right to demand Aboriginal rights from us, because you are assimilated with the ruling power.” We have heard it from our own people, in that “the language embodies or carries with it the knowledge that English doesn’t properly describe in terms of who we are, or all of our culture.”

Today, original people and settlers alike consider language learning a means of reconnection with ourselves and our ancestors. We describe ourselves as healing from the trauma of the loss of this connection, as well as learning old knowledge. Our practice, language revitalization, in its very name, talks about a restoration of life: where there either is none, or there is very little.

In attempting to petition settler governments for our survival, we have continuously and consciously framed our arguments in terms they understand.

Regardless of however full our lives might be today, original people recognize ourselves as somehow incomplete within ourselves, lacking vital and sacred knowledges that were transmitted through the generations; this transmission was interrupted by the millions of small and large violences of colonization. We demand justice for the violence done unto us. We articulate the hundreds of ways in which we have experienced the loss, and the pain it causes, and our ability to contribute to human knowledge in order to advocate for our own justice. In attempting to petition settler governments for our survival, we have continuously and consciously framed our arguments in terms they understand.

At some point, we have failed to recognize that this justification (framing our arguments in their English terms and using their definitions) was an expedient means of ceasing the violence. We have thus unconsciously adopted these settler-colonial myths of language: the overt nationalistic ideology of language-as-identity, and a covert and certainly more dangerous ideology: that language exists outside of the people who speak it.

The paradox

These two ideologies coalesce into the following paradox, related to us from a Māori elder: “There’s no point in learning [an Indigenous] language if you have nothing [Indigenous] to say.” We might rephrase it like this: if you can’t formulate an Indigenous thought, then do not bother learning the Indigenous language to express your non-Indigenous thoughts.

At first glance we read it as a challenge: develop an Indigenous intelligence before using an Indigenous means of self-expression. So then why use or learn an Indigenous language at all? Given that an Indigenous knowledge is a prerequisite for using (understanding, speaking) the language, how can we see it as a connection to our ancestors, if the only manner in which we are able to connect with it is to be able to think like them to begin with?

Challenging beliefs

We can answer this question by challenging the covert language ideology: that language is something that can be “tapped into,” that learning it gives us access to something beyond ourselves, that there is an objective and transcendental knowledge that comes with it. To believe this means that there is a tacit belief in two other ideas about language.

The first belief is about knowledge of the rules of grammar, of the meaning of words, of the structure of paragraphs, and so on are facts about the reality of any language. That is to say, when we are speaking, we are using rules, rooted in our cognition, to express ourselves based on what can and cannot be said in the language.

Speaking our Indigenous languages together is a means to do undo settler colonial alienation from ourselves.

The second belief is that we are able to communicate these objective meanings effectively to one another in the language. This second belief is not intended to pull the rug out from underneath anyone’s feet; it is pointing out that we are just pretending that we are using objective language and that people will understand automatically. Language cannot belong to a single individual; a language cannot die when our last fluent speaker dies. Language continues to live through constant attempts to acknowledge and understand those who are attempting to speak it.

Speaking our Indigenous languages together is a means to undo alienation from ourselves. In other words, to alienate ourselves from the Indigenous experience we are living today is to perpetuate the violence of colonialism; we presume ourselves already severed from the generations before us. When the goal is not to pursue an authenticity, but to acknowledge the authenticity of the present, we can reconcile the paradox of “Indigenous thought is Indigenous language” and the violence of the settler state against us. It is enough to say that we have been denied our ability to express ourselves how we want.

We have the right to speak in our languages, to engage in creative expression in any language that we want, to the people we want, because that is what we know any person ought to be able to do. Language revitalization is the realization and collaboration of freedom of thought, not desperate action towards survival.

Think before you speak

This is not intended to actively push people away from speaking the language, or to contest language revitalization as a worthwhile project. Rather, it is a continuance of a dialogue, in advocacy of the concept and practice of thinking before speaking. In language revitalization, this is especially necessary. Because the ability for creative and collaborative expression is so integral to our own identities, it is vital to unlearn or think past colonial language ideologies that exist to enforce uniformity and adherence to norms that only benefit settler society.

Language revitalization in my community would be stifled had we not stopped to think before speaking. Tuscarora, like many other languages throughout the world, is spoken fluently by an increasingly small number of individuals. We will lose our language when our elders pass away, if we have failed to take on the creative responsibility of understanding, critiquing and appreciating our languages.