Indigenous Languages, Health and Wellbeing

June 15, 2023

Indigenous Languages, Health and Wellbeing

By Lori Davis Hill

June is National Indigenous History Month. During this month, we encourage everyone to learn about and acknowledge not only the history, but the diversity, creativity and resilience of contemporary Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) Peoples across Canada. When thinking about First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, there is often a tendency to believe we are one homogenous group. This is far from the truth.

Indigenous Peoples across the country, each with their own unique experiences, distinct cultures, communities and languages, were the original people of this land from coast to coast to coast.  While an important and often overlooked part of the history of this country, we are not just a part of history, we are still here.

Language is directly linked to health and wellbeing

As an Indigenous Speech Language Pathologist (SLP), and a healthcare provider, I have focused on supporting communication as a way to connect people to their families, caregivers and community.  The purpose of language is the exchange of thoughts and information, essentially communication. Indigenous languages are also vitally important for communicating traditional teachings and ceremonies.

Within the SLP role, I have become acutely aware of the ways Indigenous languages differ from English and French. We think in the languages we know and use. But we also understand that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis don’t always use language in the same way or understand language to mean the same things as non-Indigenous English speakers.

Language is crucial to identity, health and spirituality. Indigenous scholars are affirming the connection of language and culture to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples around the world.  Indigenous languages have been identified as protective factors against suicide and poor health outcomes. Where languages are living and in use by community, people are more connected to their cultural teachings and to each other. Malcolm King, et al. described language revitalization as a health promotion strategy in Indigenous communities.

There are strong efforts happening across the country to keep our languages alive. Many communities are offering language classes and schools to support community members to reclaim their ancestral language. This can range from evening classes to intensive workshops to immersion for both children and adults.

Residential schools and policies designed to assimilate

Residential schools were boarding schools for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and youth. These schools were part of colonial policy designed to eliminate the influence of family, traditions, language and culture with the goal to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society. These schools were financed by the federal government but staffed and run by various Christian religious institutions. Children were separated from their families and communities, often by force, to live and attend classes at the schools for most of the year.

Typically, the residential schools were located far from the students’ home communities to decrease their contact. The schools were in existence for well over 100 years, and multiple generations of children and families from the same communities underwent this experience. The resulting impacts were severe.

For many Indigenous families and communities, these colonial policies interfered with the intergenerational transmission of language.  Our parents and grandparents were punished severely for using any language but English in the school setting. Subsequently, in their efforts to protect their children from the same harm, there was reluctance to teach the languages to the children. As a result, intergenerational transmission of language was interrupted.

Indigenous Knowledges are embedded in our languages

Indigenous cultures are embedded in the language of each nation. It is estimated that prior to contact and the arrival of settlers, there were over 450 languages and dialects spoken by Indigenous Peoples within the area now known as Canada. Indigenous languages are languages that originated in a region, spoken by people who share the culture of that region and not brought to that place by settlers.

Indigenous Peoples around the world consider their languages to be gifts from their creator to the people of their nation. Indigenous languages reflect and express the worldview of each nation. Indigenous languages consist of words that connect the people to the land and connect the people to each other.

Mohawk Elder Tom Porter shared an example recently of how the Mohawk language is relational. The word “chair” taught to children in the school setting loosely translates to “resting my body on this object” where the meaning of the components of the word are based on the action of sitting. While this word is used to represent a chair, the same word could be used if the person sat on a bench, or a log or a bed. The context would change but the action would stay the same. This reflects the relational worldviews of Indigenous Peoples – where all of creation is connected and collective.

Many Indigenous languages mark distinctions that are not found in languages such as English or French (the two official languages of Canada). Indigenous languages are often verb or action based and polysyllabic in nature, where a single word can reflect the relationships between objects or people and their environment.

The risk to Indigenous languages

When languages become silent, valuable Indigenous Knowledges are lost.

Of the approximately 7,000 known spoken languages globally, there is a high likelihood that 50 to 90 percent will become silent by the end of this century, with the majority of those being Indigenous languages. In 2016, Statistics Canada estimated that fewer than 70 Indigenous languages remain, part of 12 language families. Of those, only three are estimated to continue as living languages transmitted from generation to generation.

“The government spent so much time trying to exterminate our language and culture, it is important to take the time to re-establish language and culture as a foundation for the future.” Justice Murray Sinclair, Toronto Star, Dec 7, 2015

Revitalizing Indigenous languages

Indigenous languages contribute to the unique identity and overall wellbeing of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Despite the rapid loss of first language speakers, the revitalization of Indigenous languages has become a priority across the country. Indigenous languages and culture are a protective factor against health disparities. In this light, keeping our languages alive contributes to improving health equity for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Since 1993, March 31 has been recognized as National Indigenous Languages Day in Canada. This day provides an opportunity to acknowledge the diversity of Indigenous languages, increase awareness of the loss of languages and support the commitment necessary to reclaim, protect and revitalize living Indigenous languages.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 13 supports the right of Indigenous Peoples “to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures” and further, that this right be protected within the member states. This right has been systematically and intentionally violated for speakers of Indigenous languages around the world while it goes unchallenged for speakers of dominant languages.

The history and intergenerational impacts of residential schools was exposed through the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, when survivors of the system were supported to tell their stories. This led to the and Canada’s commitment to heal the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action 13 – 17 focus on language and culture.

In 2019, Canada passed the Indigenous Languages Act, and on June 21, 2021, Canada enacted legislation to implement the Declaration. With the implementation of these, the Government of Canada has committed to taking action to preserve, promote and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada. This commitment raises the need for all people of this country to acknowledge the Indigenous languages of this country and support these efforts.

In recognition of the global efforts to reclaim and revitalize Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032 has been declared the Decade of Indigenous Languages. This puts the spotlight on the urgent need to keep Indigenous languages and culture alive.

What can we do?

To support First Nations, Inuit, and Métis to reclaim, relearn, and revitalize Indigenous languages and culture, we must all be willing to make space for this to happen. As healthcare providers, part of making space, is to create culturally safe spaces for First Nations, Inuit and Métis within our healthcare environments. We can start by:

  • Acknowledging and recognizing the Indigenous or original people of the lands where we live, work and play.
  • Learning the names that the Indigenous nations use for themselves and how to say those names correctly, especially when using them in a land acknowledgement.
  • As part of any land acknowledgement, adding your own personal contribution to learning and action towards health equity for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Lori Davis Hill is Oneida Wolf Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River. She has been a Speech Language Pathologist for more than 20 years and is currently the Acting Executive Director of Indigenous Health Learning Lodge at McMaster University while completing her Doctorate in Social Sciences at Royal Roads University.