How a canoe trip on the Thames is reviving an endangered Indigenous language

When Ian McCallum put a canoe in the Thames River for the first time last August, he was looking for more than an adventure. Now, the two-day journey has inspired a book as part of a wider effort to revitalize the endangered Lunaape language, also called Munsee.

The two-day canoe trip from London to Muncey, Ont. took 14 hours

A canoe with two people in is the distance on a river.
The Thames River is called the 'asiiskusiipuw' or 'muddy river' in the Lunaape language. (Submitted by Ian McCallum )

When Ian McCallum put a canoe in the Thames River for the first time last August, he was looking for more than an adventure. He hoped it would help him see the river through the cultural and historical lens of his ancestors.

Now, the two-day journey from London to Munsee, Ont. has inspired a book as part of a wider effort to revitalize the endangered Lunaape language, also called Munsee.

The new language resource is called Asiiskusiipuw wiichkuneew Munsiiwak, translated to Canoe Trip on the Thames River. It teaches basic Lunaape vocabulary by highlighting the sights and sounds along the river.

"It's a language that's under a lot of pressure for survival," said McCallum, a language educator for the Munsee-Delaware Nation, located about 20 km southwest of London bordering the Chippewas of the Thames reserve.

A smiling man holds a book in front of a tree.
'Canoe Trip on the Thames River' or 'Asiiskusiipuw wiichkuneew Munsiiwak' was written by Ian McCallum and Munsee-Delaware community language speakers. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

He's one of two intermediate Lunaape language speakers on the reserve of the language that UNESCO say is critically endangered. The organization says there are fewer than 10 fluent speakers. 

McCallum says his book is a "reversal process of naming," which he describes as an opportunity to "take back those naming rights for ourselves." His goal is to help build an understanding of the river in the traditional vocabulary for readers of all ages. 

Community history 

The canoe trip was "a wonderful way to actually see what my ancestors and the mountain people would have seen when they arrived on the Thames in the early 1780s," McCallum said.

The late Munsee-Delaware Chief Mark Peters was part of the canoe trip and described the history of the land, including where villages used to be in the 1800s. Peters died in June. 

McCallum counts himself lucky to have been able to learn from Peters on the trip.

"We lost somebody who knew a lot of history," McCallum said. "He was a mentor to me." 

McCallum grew up hearing the Lunaape language on the reserve as a kid. His great grandfather spoke the language with his family — and they worked to carry on words and expressions.

"We were lucky enough to have that ability to hear those speakers. It's our job then to share what we know and pass on the language," he said.   

Seeing the Thames River through the Lunaape language and history is a way to "take back those naming rights" and build understanding of traditional vocabulary, said Ian McCallum. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

When McCallum attended university, he had the option of taking other Indigenous language courses, but not Munsee. He made the decision then to learn the language as best as he could. 

Now, he's working to share that knowledge with the community. Along with his work at Munsee-Delaware Nation, he is researching language revitalization in a PhD program at the University of Toronto, and working in the ministry of education's Indigenous education office in the Barrie region. 

'The response is overwhelming' 

Traditional workshops like beadwork, basket making and planting are another way the language is being shared. 

He's teamed up with his neighbour Karen Mosko, another Lunaape speaker in his nation, to teach classes, host workshops and create learning resources. They've even turned online, producing videos and social media resources. 

Karen Mosko and Ian McCallum are the two intermediate Lunaape/Munsee language speakers in Munsee-Delaware Nation. They share their knowledge with the community through cultural immersion workshops, language classes and learning resources. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

The interest in learning the language is only growing. Through the pandemic he saw about 170 people attend language classes virtually. 

"The response is overwhelming," he said. People tuned in from "all over North America."

'Tip of the research iceberg'

In August, he plans to paddle from Muncey to Moraviantown, a nation about 50 km southwest in Chatham-Kent. He expects the trip to take at least two days. 

The only living first language Lunaape speaker lives there — along with about 10 or 15 second-language speakers. The two nations are the only Munsee-speaking communities in Canada. 

McCallum considers this "the tip of the research iceberg," he said. He already has more learning resources in the works as he continues sharing the knowledge he's learned. 

"There's so much hidden science and understanding that's locked in the language," he said. "Without that, you know, pieces are lost."

His book will be available at the Munsee-Delaware Nation's powwow July 2 to 3.