Indigenous gathering for deaf and hard of hearing promotes community inclusion
Workshops at Oneida Nation gathering will include new Oneida Sign Language
A gathering this weekend at the Oneida Nation of the Thames near London, Ont., aims to bring together Indigenous people who are deaf and hard of hearing to connect with each other and address some of the challenges they face connecting with culture and community.
Over the last two years, Marsha Ireland and her husband Max have been developing an Oneida sign language inspired after years of feeling excluded or left out of community events because of language barriers.
"When we have interpreters come into our community that are signing in American Sign Language (ASL) they come to a point in our discussions when one of our speakers will only speak in Oneida and then the interpreter's hands would just drop," said Max Ireland.
"So that was a lack of communication and that was a barrier to understanding what they were sharing at that moment."
The Indigenous Deaf Gathering in Oneida Nation is the first gathering in the area of this kind for more than 20 years. A focus this year is on creating a circle of inclusion.
"I really want people to leave here with this sense of pride that they understand and they can go back to their communities and really advocate for them to have their own sign language," said Marsha Ireland, a deaf mother and grandmother who is helping to create an Oneida Sign Language (OSL).
Attendees are expected from across Canada, with five full days of programming exploring topics like Oneida history and a presentation on Oneida Sign Language. There are also presentations by a human rights legal expert, and representatives from the Assembly of First Nations and Jordan's Principle Association. All seminars will be facilitated for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Developing a sign language
"Some of the people here haven't felt a part of their own culture and then therefore don't have the sense of identity," said Marsha Ireland.
Instead of giving up or waiting for someone else to figure out a solution, the Irelands took it upon themselves to create a sign language for the Oneida-speaking community.
"That gives me equality and equity within my community here and then there's not a disparity between us," said Marsha Ireland.
Over last two years, the Irelands have been working with Elder Olive Elm, a fluent speaker, writer and reader in the Oneida language.
"It was hard at first because we had to figure it out as we went along," said Elm.
"There's nothing written on how to go about this, you know."
First Marsha and Max would write out a phrase in English, then Olive would translate that into written Oneida language. From that point Marsha would look at the translation and see which elements from ASL or Plains Sign Language — a form of Indigenous sign language which was used traditionally between trading communities that didn't speak the same languages — could be incorporated appropriately. Sometimes a new sign might need to be created.
Some unique signs
Chief of Oneida Nation of the Thames Randall Phillips, who is learning OSL, explained how the sign for Oneida came to be.
"Our gustoweh is one of our markers for our nation," he said.
"In the Iroquois culture we each have our own gustowehs, our hats, that signify which nation we're from. Oneida's is two feathers up and one feather down."
OSL currently has about 250 signs, counting to 100 and a 13 letter alphabet.
"Marsha is living out her dream to be able to participate within our territories," said Max Ireland.
"Now we're creating that ability not only for her but for other other hearing impaired people as well."
The Indigenous Deaf Gathering is taking place until July 8 at the Oneida of the Thames community centre.