BCMA’s Conversation with Jordan Coble and Tania Muir

 

From June 24-26, 2019, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation hosted the international conference on Indigenous language revitalization in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in celebration of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. Hundreds of speakers gathered from over 20 countries for what was called the largest-ever Indigenous languages conference.

The conference was held by and for Indigenous Peoples. Workshops included successful models in Indigenous language revitalization with a focus on knowledge sharing. Discussions celebrated the successes and best practices that have been made in language revitalization and highlighted the important work currently happening in B.C. and around the world.

Among the attendees of the conference was BCMA’s Council President, Tania Muir, and Council member and Indigenous Advisory Committee member, Jordan Coble. Recently, BCMA’s Communications Coordinator, Adrian Paradis, had a conversation with the two Council members about their experience of the conference and views on how to move forward with the issues it brought up. Presented here for our members who didn’t get to attend the conference, or those looking for a recap, is the conversation in full:

Adrian: What was your experience like at the conference?

Tania: For me, having the chance to participate in the 2019 Conference: Let the Languages Live, from June 24-26 here in Victoria, was just incredible. It was the largest gathering of Indigenous activists and educators that I had ever been at. There were participants from across the globe, across Canada and the territories as well as New Zeeland, Australia, South and Latin America, Eastern Europe and Norway. Because of my work at the University of Victoria with a certificate in Indigenous languages revitalization, there were many of the partners that I work with in delivering community-based programs. I often don’t have a chance to meet partners face-to-face, so for me it was also a great time to get together and hear about the work that they were doing in their communities.

Jordan: I was truly amazed by the conference. The wealth of knowledge that was provided from all areas of the globe, as Tania mentioned, was really powerful to see. It was an extremely positive experience and I think that’s something that’s really undervalued; how positive a gathering like this can be. Especially coming from a nation where language revitalization efforts are quite often challenged. I understand the reasons why, but this conference created the awareness that there is not often a right or a wrong way to revitalize language as long as you’re focused on revitalizing and celebrating it with all peoples. What I really took home was the message that sharing information and knowledge and transcending ethnic and cultural boundaries is all extremely positive; it was empowering and at times extremely emotional. I mean that in the best way possible. There was a sense of pride by other nations but also a responsibility on my part to take all that knowledge home and replicate it in my own community and nation. It was very informational and I love hearing about the variety of work that is being done on all levels. From grassroots gatherings to urban centres getting people together and revitalizing each other’s languages and cultures. For me, it shows that beautiful puzzle that is our language and how many ways we can connect to it. There is no limit to how big this puzzle can be. At the end of the day, everyone can contribute.

 

Adrian: Why do you think this kind of work is important?  

Tania: Language plays a critical role in communications, but also in identity, traditions, memory and cultural heritage. With the loss of Indigenous languages, primarily through residential schools and policies around Indigenous culture and heritage, it has disconnected individuals in communities from their cultural heritage. In BC in particular, where we have 203 nations, 204 languages, and more than 90 dialects, within Canada we are considered the hotbed of Indigenous languages. Yet, many communities have very few speakers left and there are some communities that no longer have any speakers. The work that is being taken on by Indigenous activists and speakers and educators is critical not only to the preservation of the language, but also to those important cultural ties.

Jordan: The cultural identity is key here. I’ve always struggled with getting that buy in from the younger generation around language practices in our community. Language isn’t easy. It’s tough to learn, but the politics that come with it can be even tougher. What we can often get is a few individuals who are interested in learning the language, but they are not willing to put up with the politics. I don’t blame them for that. I’ve struggled with cultural identity in the past, I’ve struggled with shame in being an Okanagan person, but I’ve never felt more proud of myself then when I speak my language. It’s something that reminds me of who I am. When you spend enough time with people, they can see that in you. I’ve been able to get a lot of support from my community and my nation because I’ve been willing to endure the language learning process and be that language representative that cannot just speak well, but speaks my language in front of people. That cultural identity is extremely important, but it’s also that knowledge that comes with the language. What I loved hearing was the difference between nations across Canada and the world, but also the similarities that brings us together. The synthetic nature of Indigenous languages is something I thought was unique to the Okanagan, but by no means is that true. That’s something we can all celebrate, and that also means that there’s hope. We can utilize the gifts that were shared in that conference and bring them back to the community in our own way and utilize them more as a blueprint of revitalization efforts.

When I’m teaching language learners, they often ask how to translate this to Okanagan, or what does this mean in English. I often say that you can’t translate that to English because that’s not the way our language works. That was one of the hardest things for me to explain to language learners. This conference really helped me get a better perspective on how to represent that and why language and knowledge are one and the same and why culture and knowledge are one and the same. Even though it’s not a community culture that teaches language; it’s individuals that learn a language and incorporate that into the community model of knowledge. The conference is important, and the work is important because it creates an identity for Indigenous people. It gives us strength and unity. It’s amazing how much support there was for this event. Not just the language warriors doing the work in the fields, but also working to better the politics. Politicians were there in attendance showing their support. The opening ceremony at the Royal BC Museum was amazing. That really helped build that bridge between the living language exhibit and the conference itself. It showed that museums, cultural centers, and language warriors can work together along side one another. That emphasizes the importance of reconciliation and shows the process of reconciliation at the same time.

It’s important across all gamut. It’s important for our young people to take pride in that and recognize that if they’re questioning their own identity as Okanagan people, or Haida people or whoever it is, that their identity will come to them through language. They will never feel more proud of themselves, or more proud to be an Indigenous person as when they are speaking their language.

 

Adrian: What was your favorite part, or most meaningful part of the conference?

Tania: The whole thing was really incredible, from the opening right up until closing. I really enjoyed the opportunity to connect with people, particularly partners, and I always enjoy hearing from Dr. Lorna Williams. I’m so grateful that she has also agreed to join us for the BC Museums Association 2019 Conference in Prince George. Dr. Williams has been a lifelong advocate for language revitalization and training the next generation of teachers to be able to teach within their own language and their own cultural setting. She’s done a significant part in determining the federal language legislation and working to support language revitalization. Her words are always inspiring and she brings stories back from across the globe of other language work that is happening. I also really enjoyed so much of the interesting work that is happening around Indigenous peoples creating systems and approaches for managing their own data and creating diverse archives and using technology to create apps and other ways for people to access their language. There were also many speakers that brought forward inspirational things that were happening.

Jordan: There’s not one part of the conference that stands out but I think that works as a good metaphor for the conference itself. There are so many things going on different levels that you can celebrate any aspect of that and call it your favorite part. The opening with the children was really powerful for me. It was a good way to start a conference to show that there is a future. That was a memorable moment, but I could say the same thing about the gala event; it was also extremely memorable and powerful but in a different way. Showing the difference between the children learning the language and learning traditional songs and traditional ways of being was incredible to witness. It shows that language transcends all boundaries. Even though we don’t speak the same language, we can speak to each other’s hearts through our languages. I think that my favorite part was the fact that there was no one defining moment in the conference. It was the accumulation of everything that went on and then a finale of wishing everyone well at the end.

When everything was all said and done, I had my little lunch on the coastline of BC while reflecting on what an amazing conference that was. The good sense of place and comradery might have been my favorite part. Sitting around a table with some of the most important language warriors we have in our nation was something I realized I take for granted. Being in that moment and that area, feeling that sense of place in such a colonized place (even though I love Victoria) in front of the Legislature and the Empress Hotel, I realized what a colonized area it was but I didn’t feel out of place. There was never one part of the conference that particularly spoke to me, but the ways in which we fit all the parts together was valuable.

Often people are looking for an answer for how to make language revitalization easier. This was a good reminder that there is not a quick and simple solution for this work. I think that’s why I loved the conference so much because it showed how this work has to happen at all levels. Everyone plays a part in this so now we have to bridge those gaps together.

 

Adrian: What are your hopes for the future of this work?

Tania: I think one of the things that was really inspirational in the conference is showing the language advocates that are working tirelessly in their communities to bring people together in that way. The fact that the conference filled up so quickly, it is my hope that we will continue to support one another in this work because it can be exhausting. People are often working with limited resources and have to address the pain and healing around language loss and revitalization. It is very difficult work and we have seen more resources and support in BC in recent years, like the $50 million that was presented to the First People’s Culture Council, and some of the legislation around the federal government. But I hope that the momentum continues and that we continue to support one another. We need to demonstrate most broadly the importance of language and to continue to develop networks and support systems for those who are doing the work.

Jordan: My hope is that people recognize there are all kinds of people doing work around this and that they will share their methodologies and how they got to the point that they are at. My hope is that people recognize that there is not one right way to teach language and that they will go home with the message that work needs to be done and that we can’t pick and choose the right and wrong ways to go about it. We need to be supportive of each other.

In many ways, it’s difficult to say what my hopes are. My hopes are that people will want to learn the language. The majority of the people that are there are already taking part in learning, or they are students, but they need to be able to bring that message home to their communities so that those who aren’t able to attend still get that same sense of urgency to revitalize the language while not sitting idly by. I also want those who attended the conference to take the message home that there is not one right or wrong way to do it. I was also really moved by Dr. Williams. I loved her analogy that this is a broken mirror that is being pieced back together and the kaleidoscope of work being done. It’s not the mirror that we’re trying to create but the reflection of what our languages are. That truly spoke to me and provided me with a little more hope for my own language here.

I still have difficulties with language politics and politics in general. But at the same time our language warriors are never deterred. I spoke to a lot of them at the conference saying that they want to give up. That’s heartbreaking to me, and I know how they feel because I feel the same sense of hopelessness at times. Sometimes I wonder why I put in so much effort into something that doesn’t seem to have a future. But that’s when I remember the children in the opening ceremony of the conference and I’m reminded that this work has to be done.

There’s still not one right or wrong way to do it, but there are different methods and different teaching methods that must be incorporated. They need to be valued. But we need to include our children in the process. Often, we shut them down because they are young and they don’t have what we call experience. But they are living that experience and every time we shut them down, we give them that experience of exclusion. We have to remind our children that it is important to do the work, and that there is not a right or wrong way, or a quick simple solution. But it will be worthwhile in the end when it builds that healthy sense of cultural pride in our own hearts and minds when it comes to being representative, or being that teacher or that student. As much as I say I’m hopeful, there are still a lot of concerns we have. At the very least, those who were in attendance can pull from one another and share with each other so that we don’t have people who want to give up anymore.

 

Adrian: How can people learn more if they weren’t able to attend the conference?

Tania: We’re lucky in BC to have the First People’s Cultural Council who, with UNESCO, were the host for the conference. I can’t recommend their website enough. It is such a great resource to see what is happening, and find other resources if you’re interested in entering an apprenticeship, or just interested in learning about language nests and learning schools, and different types of approaches to language revitalization. They put out a language report so that they are able to reach out and communicate with communities across the province so they can understand the status of their language and the work they are doing. Through the BCMA, we have a real opportunity through museums and cultural centers. The living languages exhibit they have at the RBCM demonstrates not only the rich history of Indigenous communities but also contemporary communities and culture. I think within our sector we have a really good opportunity to provide space for language activities and language classes. We have the opportunity to work in partnership with communities to share and celebrate some of the work that is happening in language.

Jordan: I agree there has to be support across all sectors, but it has to be a two-way conversation. I work in a museum, but I also work in language revitalization and I’ve been able to blend the two together. The two often go hand in hand, but when it’s a provincial museum like the RBCM, we have to be able to create a safe environment for those conversations to take place. I dislike community members coming in and telling us what we should be doing, but that’s what we face on a regular basis. Some people come in a more respectful approach, while others come in with a more pointed approach. We have to figure out how to receive those requests or suggestions as museum professionals. We have to be able to find value in whatever they are suggesting.

At the end of the day, we have to create awareness and value. The conference showed that there is no right or wrong way to do this work, but we have many tools in our toolkit to work with. It’s creating that two-way conversation between language allies and language warriors and keeping with a safe environment and proper language revitalization practices. I always use the example that I can’t translate the feeling and emotion of a language, but I can translate it into English as best I can. You’ll lose a lot of that heart of the language though so we need to build the awareness that we are not just translating English into Okanagan. We are revitalizing the spirit, knowledge, and ancestors of the nation. We are empowering future generations with that knowledge and making it available to them. That will open up doors and avenues to more language awareness and practices.

We need to create more awareness around the importance of sharing and that what is shared right now might not be the exact same answer or product ten years from now. What was provided in the early 80s was the English phonetics for these names and languages. Now, we have better tools in our toolkit to provide a more accurate representation of those names in written form. We have to understand that 20 years down the road we might have better tools that will abolish what we know now. But we’ll need this as a source of archive for our people. We need to create awareness around these kinds of issues and an awareness that this is taking place across Canada, and the world in many cases. I use art as an example often. Artists come to me and ask why we don’t have better representation of Okanagan artists. I say that’s because we’re often not willing to share our artworks. We don’t have a defined art style for the Okanagan, but that’s in part because we are stifling our artists saying it’s not good enough or not Okanagan enough. The reality is we are all Okanagan, but we just need to be supported in that message.

It’s about creating awareness around language revitalization and showing that it is taking place across the world. We often limit ourselves to the colour of our skin. That’s why I loved seeing the community at the conference because it showed that you can be from a different part of the world and still be Indigenous. That’s always been the message we share here.

Adrian: Did you have anything else you wanted to add?

Jordan: It’s important that we continue this conversation. I don’t know if there will ever be another conference of this magnitude, but it was mentioned several times during the conference that this was brought on because of the Year of Indigenous Languages. But this isn’t just a year of our lives. The true language warriors dedicate their whole lives to this. As much as there is a year dedicated to Indigenous languages, there also has to be a lifetime dedicated to it.