The Current

They're not Indigenous — but they're learning Indigenous languages

Junaid Khan is one of a growing number of non-Indigenous Canadians learning Indigenous languages, in settings that range from Zoom lectures to university classrooms.

Language students 'want to build connections with Indigenous people,' educator says

A man and a woman are seated at a desk while looking at a laptop screen eating pizza.
Junaid Khan, left, with his Anishinaabe classmate Sarah Wood, attends an online Anishinaabemowin class offered by the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

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Originally published on March 23, 2023.

After a hectic day working as an ecologist, Junaid Khan is scarfing down pizza when his online evening class begins.

"Aanii kina gwaya," says teacher Ninaatig Staats Pangowish, greeting his students. The intermediate Anishinaabemowin class, offered free by the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto, kicks off with casual chat.

"Aniish gaa-zhichigeyin nongo?" Khan asks an elder named Marie, inquiring what she did today. 

She excitedly tells him she spent all day cutting up moose meat. "Oh, gbe-giizhig go ingii-giishkkonaa mooz wiiyaas!"

"Oh! Nishin! (That's good!)" Khan exclaims.

Though he speaks basic Anishinaabemowin with confidence, Khan isn't Anishinaabe.

He immigrated to Canada from Pakistan two decades ago. Already fluent in Urdu and English, he decided it's just as important to study an original language of the land he now calls home.

"If I expect that somebody would learn Urdu in order to engage with people in Pakistan, then I need to figure out what the languages are of the peoples who lived here and still live here," said Khan.

He's one of a growing number of non-Indigenous Canadians learning Indigenous languages, in settings that range from Zoom lectures to university classrooms.

Building connections 

In 2021, Statistics Canada reported that a relatively small number of non-Indigenous people — around 6,000 — are fluent Indigenous-language speakers. 

But no one seems to be tracking the much higher numbers of non-Indigenous people who study Indigenous languages as a second language.

In one province alone — British Columbia — over 100 public schools, colleges and universities offer Indigenous-language courses, according to the First Peoples' Cultural Council. Those classes are open to students of all cultural backgrounds.

At the University of Toronto, where Staats Pangowish teaches, he says more than three-quarters of his students are non-Indigenous. 

"Some people like learning languages. Some want to build connections with Indigenous people," he said. 

A man stands in a classroom in front of a screen.
Anishinaabemowin is classified as an endangered language by UNESCO, so language teacher Ninaatig Staats Pangowish welcomes students of all backgrounds. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

He welcomes all with open arms because, like most Indigenous languages, Anishinaabemowin is considered endangered.

"If I want my language to be a national [or] regional language in Canada, it can't just be Anishinaabeg who speak it," said Staats Pangowish.

"When more people learn about something, it raises the consciousness level [about Anishinaabemowin].… I think that helps revitalize the language."

Supporting revitalization

How non-Indigenous people can best support First Nations language revitalization is what Sara McDowell is addressing in a master's thesis, which she's currently completing at the University of Toronto.

"The reason that the languages have been threatened and are in the situation they're in is because of [non-Indigenous] people like me," said McDowell. 

"When we learn Indigenous languages, it's a way of saying, 'We recognize that you're here, we respect you, we think your languages are important and so are you. And we want to work together to change things.'"

A former librarian who has studied Anishinaabemowin for about 12 years, primarily with elder Alex McKay at the University of Toronto, McDowell interviewed numerous language teachers and elders for her thesis. 

None discouraged outsiders from learning Indigenous languages, but many frowned on professionals, such as linguists, anthropologists, folklorists or government employees, who join language classes for personal benefit alone.

"In the past, [some] non-Indigenous people have learned Indigenous languages so that they could promote their careers without giving back to the community … that's really problematic," said McDowell.

An even-stickier problem of classroom dynamics emerges when some Indigenous students, burdened by shame or trauma associated with intergenerational language loss, fall behind non-Indigenous students.

"It can cause different kinds of feelings [such as] lack of self-confidence, inadequacy.… It can also make people feel angry. Like, 'Who the heck are these [non-Indigenous] people in here? And why are they taking up time?'"

Non-Indigenous teachers

That's why McDowell is supportive when communities hold language classes exclusively for Indigenous students. 

"It doesn't mean that we're being rejected," she said. "It just means that Indigenous people need a space where they can heal and learn together."

However, language teachers, often few in number, can get lured away from Indigenous settings when public schools or universities offer classes.

"You obviously have to put food on the table and heat the house. Sometimes, jobs teaching non-Native people pay more," said Staats Pangowish, who describes Indigenous language revitalization as "chronically underfunded."

A group of about seven students sit at a round table, with laptops open, in a university classrom.
Staats Pangowish estimates three-quarters of students in his Anishinaabemowin classes at the University of Toronto are non-Indigenous. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Until there are more Anishinaabeg fluent enough to teach, he feels there's an easy way to give Anishinaabe teachers time to focus their energies on rebuilding fluency in their communities.

"We need more non-Indigenous people learning Indigenous languages who can be certified by Indigenous people to teach languages to non-Indigenous people," said Staats Pangowish.

"But it's a bit of a slippery slope … considering Canada's history; non-Indigenous people should not be profiting off of Indigenous cultures and languages, arts and crafts."

Bird names in Anishinaabemowin

Khan, the online student, definitely feels as if he walks a fine line when it comes to using his new-found knowledge on his latest project: documenting bird names in Anishinaabemowin.

"A really crucial aspect of learning the language for me was being able to call species by their Anishinaabemowin names," said Khan, who works as an ecologist for a non-profit that protects pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.

A couple of years ago, Khan and biologist Andrés Jiménez joined forces with Joe Pitawanakwat, a young Anishinaabe plant expert who speaks Anishinaabemowin but isn't fluent. Discouraged by how few Anishinaabe children speak their mother tongue, Pitawanakwat sees birds as an entry point to language learning. 

Two men stand outdoors with binoculars.
Khan works with Joe Pitawanakwat, an Anishinaabe plant expert, to catalog traditional names of birds in Anishinaabemowin. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

"Kids just seem to be really attracted to Indigenous taxonomy of birds … it generates interest in a young learner, to say, 'That's a magical language.'"

Combining Pitawanakwat's traditional knowledge with Khan's scientific expertise, they're researching the ecology of bird behaviour embedded in Anishinaabe language and worldview. 

They recently produced a pamphlet of bird names in Anishinaabemowin, which they're distributing to classrooms and birding communities. They're raising funds to produce more, which makes Khan wonder aloud if he's a "stealer" of Anishinaabe knowledge.

Pitwanakwat rejects the suggestion.

A blue pamphlet with a drawing of a bird on it. The text reads: Anishinaabe Bird Names.
Khan and Pitawanakwat produced a pamphlet of Anishinaabemowin bird names, published by Birds Canada and the Wiikwemkoong Heritage Organization. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

"This guy helps me so much — because I always got to correct him," he said, laughing, before continuing on a serious note.

"It's sad that the classes are not so full with Anishinaabe learners that we have to reject non-Indigenous people who want to learn. That'd be a good position to be in. But the reality is these classes are sparse."

Khan hopes their project will inspire young Anishinaabe to take up language learning, as well as educate non-Indigenous birders.

"It's still quite precious to be able to learn Anishinaabemowin, a language that was very purposefully stamped out," said Khan. "I think it's worth its weight in gold."


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.

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