Braided histories – braided futures of Indigenous language reclamation work: Retelling ancestral stories – storying new Indigenous linguistic futures

Organizers: Sheilah E. Nicholas, University of Arizona and Kari A.B. Chew, University of Victoria


Central to Indigenous resurgence movements, Indigenous language reclamation is a community response of resilience and persistence to the “braided histories” of “erase and replace” processes of colonization (McCarty & Nicholas, 2014). Understood as the “right to speak a language and to set associated goals in response to community needs and perspectives” (Leonard, 2012:359), language reclamation is manifested in a diversity of community responses, intertwined with shared aspirations and efforts to resurface ancestral cognitive maps of identity, tenets of land stewardship, self-determination, and continuity. Increasingly, Indigenous people who are learners, or re-learners, of their ancestral languages have entered academia with goals of contributing to community efforts. In this colloquium, we adapt Archibald’s (2008) concept of storywork—experiential narratives which privilege a cultural lens—to a dialogic approach which invites scholars and educators to story their Indigenous language reclamation work. We ask: What does language work look like in your community context? Who are you storying for? How do you define cultural praxis in your work? What principles inform and emerge from your work? How do you translate your work for a wider audience?

We begin with a 10-minute introduction followed by giving voice (Ruiz, 1991) to: Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa, pioneer in the Hawaiian immersion education movement and mauli ola education P-20; Kari A. B. Chew, Chickasaw researcher examining the motivations of additional language learners reclaiming their Indigenous languages; Wesley Y. Leonard, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma whose research integrates Indigenous understandings of language into linguistic science; Candace Galla, Hawaiian researcher focusing on digital technologies; Wilson De Lima Silva, Brazilian linguist involved in collaborative projects with Indigenous communities in Colombia; and Sheilah E. Nicholas, Hopi language educator working with school-based language program practitioners. The session concludes with time for dialogue and interaction with participants.

A Koe Nō Nā Pua - Shaping our destiny as the vision unfolds
Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa, Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke’elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

In the mid 1980s there were fewer than fifty minor-age native speakers of Hawaiian. Moving some thirty-five years forward, there are now fewer than thirty native-speaking elders of Hawaiian. Language decline has coincided with the rise of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement. Communities, families and individuals rallied around the vision to bring back the language for its children (aloha ʻohana), the land (aloha ʻāina) and for its people (aloha lāhui). With no set sail plan in place, the Hawaiian language revitalization movement grew as a grassroots educational effort which has resulted today in nearly 3,500 students being educated through Hawaiian medium-immersion schools (pre-K  to 12) and advanced higher education options from B.A. to Ph.D. The journey of Hawaiian language has been shaped through a collective vision that seeks the renormalization of Hawaiian as its final destiny. A story with many twists and turns, e ola ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (‘may the Hawaiian language live’) is the vision for yesterday, today and tomorrow as Hawaiʻi continues to acknowledge and reclaim its precious cultural resource–ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (‘the Hawaiian language’). This presentatio shares the major events and intiatives that have shaped the Hawaiian language revitalization movement and Mauli Ola education P-20, lessons learned, and new directions as the vision unfolds.

Weaving the story of Chikashshanompa' reclamation work
Kari A. B. Chew,  University of Victoria

Chikashshanompa' (the Chickasaw language) was first spoken in the ancestral homelands of the Chickasaw people—located in what is now Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. As a result of forced removal by the US government in the late 1830s, the contemporary Chickasaw Nation is located in southcentral Oklahoma. This removal, the subsequent boarding school era, and later the relocation of families to urban centers contributed to drastic language shift. Today, there are fewer than fifty remaining first-language speakers, all of whom are elders. Due to multiple relocations both coerced and voluntary, Chickasaw language learners and speakers span the globe. Thus, language reclamation efforts must account for and include those living in diaspora who desire to connect more deeply to the community and language. A Chickasaw citizen and language learner myself, I suggest tanni—the art of finger weaving belts for ceremonial attire—as a culturally-significant metaphor for Chickasaw language planning and reclamation—work which entails (re)weaving learners, teachers, and speakers together across time and space. I identify strands of the weaving as themes emerging from research with learners in my community and personal experience as a language advocate. These themes include: a holistic understanding of language as cultural practice, a critical consciousness of cultural identity rooted in language, and a view of language reclamation as an intergenerational endeavor in which younger generations are especially valued. I argue that by upholding metaphors for language work which reflect Indigenous epistemologies, Chickasaws are able to story new linguistic futures and to enact language continuance.

myaamiaatawiaanki kati: A reclamation narrative
Wesley Y. Leonard, University of California, Riverside

In academic categories, the myaamia language was deemed “extinct” when it was no longer actively being used or transmitted. However, to the Miami community that claimed it, myaamia was simply a sleeping language, waiting to be brought back into use from the archival documentation in which it had been recorded historically. In this talk, I reject the imposed colonial narrative in which myaamia was “extinct” and tied to a people whose “real” culture was vanishing––and instead privilege myaamiaki eemamwiciki, “the Miami awakening”, a community-based narrative of reclamation, which draws from the past but centers the future. I share key elements of myaamiaki eemamwiciki and situate this story within a Miami community-based definition of “language”: “how a community connects to each other and how they express … themselves and their culture to each other” (from myaamia speaker and teacher Jarrid Baldwin). In so doing, I argue that it is not just that Indigenous community stories must be told and listened to, but also that they must be interpreted within a given community’s values and goals. I end with a discussion of this approach’s implications for language scholars, particularly those who engage in Indigenous language work.

Indigenous language (re)storying through digital technologies
Candace Galla, University of British Columbia

As a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) working and living on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people, contributing to Indigenous language reclamation and revitalization has been a complete honour and privilege as a guest in someone else’s homeland. My position as an Indigenous academic and researcher has often reflected a liminal space as an insider and/or outsider. The complexities of positionality are magnified for Indigenous scholars who work in communities that are not part of their own, sometimes even more so than non-Indigenous academics working in the very same community. To build a strong foundation with community, I engage in a hyperconscious practice of respect, relevance, reciprocity, responsibility (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2001), and relationality (Carjuzza & Fennimore-Smith, 2010) that is also grounded in the Kumu Honua Mauli Ola.

Here I discuss a collaboration with a BC First Nations community and university course that aims to support community-based, -led, and -initiated language revitalization efforts. University students worked in tandem with Elder speakers and language teachers to develop Nłeʔkepmxcín language materials about basket weaving using digital tools and technologies. The knowledge exchange that transpired was a sharing and a storying to give voice to the language community, and to (re)create language learning and teaching opportunities in the language through print and digital literacies. The exchanges involved positionality, conversation, stories, meaning making, reflection, action, collaboration, and creation in Nłeʔkepmxcín and English that resulted with five different language resources for a range of audiences and language proficiencies. Working from within the university and at a distance from the community, it was important to ensure that the materials that were developed would indeed be accessible and available with the existing tools, resources, and infrastructure that are in the community, with the intention to build capacity in and for the community.

From theory to practice and back: Storying the interplay between analysis and community engagement in language documentation and revitalization
Wilson De Lima Silva, University of Arizona

As a field linguist with formal training in theoretical linguistics and language documentation and revitalization, I work primarily with the Desano and Siriano peoples in the Vaupés Region of Brazil and Colombia, as well as the Cofán in Ecuador. Storying the language documentation and revitalization efforts in these communities position this work within the broader framework of language reclamation. I begin with the assertion that language documentation activities can be interwoven with linguistic theory and community-based language revitalization activities to produce complementary outcomes. Contemporary practices in language documentation are multipurpose: they enhance documentation records, provide naturalistic data for linguistic analysis, and promote capacity building for speakers and community. I highlight two case studies, each with distinctive goals. The first case study focused on the creation and implementation of a semi-naturalistic elicitation task for investigating evidentials and epistemic modals, which in turn enhanced the documentation records. It also involved community members in language interactions, which provided untested sociolinguistic data. The second case study was designed to provide capacity-building opportunities for speakers and community. For example, the community guided a digital animation of traditional tales, an activity which in turn gave rise to an explanation of the semantics of grammatical constructions like serial verbs. These opportunities further provided an environment for semi-speakers to learn and practice the language with fluent speakers. These two case studies support the argument that when activities for language documentation, revitalization, and linguistic analysis are interwoven, they provide complementary outcomes that go beyond the specific goals of a given activity.

Braiding the strands of language reclamation work in the Hopi context
Sheilah E. Nicholas, University of Arizona

The northeastern plateau region of Arizona in the U.S. Southwest remains as the aboriginal and contemporary homelands of the Hopi people who speak Hopilavayi, a Uto-Aztecan language. This region and its remoteness has helped to preserve much of the culture in its traditional form, yet the Hopi people have not been immune to the impact of colonizing processes manifest in sociocultural and sociolinguistic change and  reverberates in the expression, “If we don’t work on this language issue, we’ll be Hopi in name only. There will be no meaning beyond that.” The Hopi response to initiate this language work has positioned schools as the primary sites of language revitalization. In storying this response, I braid the strands of my personal calling and journey: relearning Hopilavayi, research that investigated the role of Hopilavayi in the lives of contemporary Hopi youth, and language work with Hopi community members in spaces of professional development. Each strand holds and illuminates resilient community yearnings and aspirations for continuity and renewed understanding of the purpose of our existence as a culturally distinct people embedded in the saying, Itam qa paysoq yeese. “We do not merely exist”. Elder voices resonate, reiterate, and remind that we need only to look to our epistemological narratives for assistance in times when life becomes difficult or tested. Storying the Hopi language work centers these reminders. I reassert that the Hopi ancestral teachings derived from generations of accumulated experiences in and with place remains as the most reliable guide and framework within which to enact language work to restory the Hopi linguistic future.