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Preserving Indigenous languages full of challenges, advocates say

The loss of Indigenous languages is widespread across Turtle Island — but in urban centres, learning and maintaining a language not native to that area is even more challenging.
Maintaining Indigenous languages in cities like New York can be challenging, language advocates say, because they are often invisible to the state and country. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The loss of Indigenous languages is widespread across Turtle Island — but in urban centres, learning and maintaining a language not native to that area is even more challenging.

More than half of Indigenous people in Canada live in urban centres, according to Statistics Canada. 

Lorna Williams, a Lil'wat professor emerita at the University of Victoria, said there have been many policies and practices that have prompted them to move to larger centres.

Lorna Williams, a Lil'wat professor emerita at the University of Victoria, hopes young people recognize the importance of Indigenous language, even as they continue to move to larger centres. (Submitted by Lorna Williams)

"People have left because of poor housing in communities, or lack of employment … education, economic, health, social services," Williams said. These issues continue to reverberate in communities due to intergenerational trauma caused by acts of colonialism, including residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, among others.

When Indigenous people move to the city, they lose a physical connection to their homeland that would otherwise help them retain their language. Having conversations with elders, for example, becomes more difficult.

Many nations and languages in Canada are recognized, but that's not the case in cities like New York. Daniel Kaufman, a linguist who is the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance in New York, said many Native American people living there aren't recognized by the federal government.

Daniel Kaufman, a linguist and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, says Indigenous people in America often face further hardships due to virtual invisibility. (Submitted by Daniel Kaufman)

Because they aren't federally recognized, people like the Ramapough, for example, don't receive funding that they might use to retain their language.

"These are communities that have not had a fluent speaker for maybe up to 100 years," Kaufman said. "The non-recognition of their languages and the non-recognition of their entire existence as Native people is a constant wound."

The Endangered Language Alliance works with Indigenous and immigrant groups in New York with any issue pertaining to language they might have. Kaufman also works with Indigenous language speakers from Latin America, which can be an additional challenge.

"The Indigenous people that we work with from Latin America [are] very often undocumented, and so as a result completely invisible to the city agencies and the state," Kaufman said. 

But it's more than just a language issue, Kaufman said. It's an issue of human rights. "Language is more than just a means of communication — it's an identity," he said.

While Indigenous people are continuing the move to urban centres, technology has allowed them to connect with their home in a way that they couldn't before. Williams said it's about harnessing that technology for good.

"We need to … make use of the technological tools that we have available to connect people, rather than disconnect people," she said. "I'm hoping we're entering a good time and that people can join us and partner with us to work toward ensuring that people can practise and realize their right to their language."

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