'Immediate action necessary' to save Indigenous languages and cultures

Mon, Jan 15, 2024

Many Indigenous languages and cultures that survived colonization are still at “high risk” of extinction, says the organizer of a symposium spotlighting an urgent need to stem the tide.

“Indigenous languages codify unique ways of relating to the land and territory, distinct ways of thinking and feeling, as well as unique ancestral identities. Losing these languages means losing these diverse ways of life,” says Carlos Sandoval, a sociology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU).

On Jan. 22 and 23, the Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders symposium at KPU will bring together speakers from various Indigenous nations from the Americas. Organized by Sandoval and his Department of Sociology colleagues, the conference raises awareness about the importance of Indigenous languages and cultures in the path toward decolonization and reconciliation. It will also create space for dialogue among Indigenous scholars and activists, as well as allies, to share experiences of language revitalization.

Sandoval notes the erasure of Indigenous languages and cultures through forced assimilation has been an integral part of colonial violence. Numerous generations of First Nations children are still growing up having to adopt a colonial language and an imposed culture, while many of the Indigenous ways of existing are being lost. He adds Indigenous languages are still largely absent from schools and political and social structures, and many are still at high risk of extinction.

An Indigenous mother reads with her children in a makeshift living room fort.
PHOTO: An Indigenous mother reads with her children in a makeshift living room fort.

“Indigenous languages carry within them unique worldviews and systems of knowledge but colonization has resulted in the extinction of unique languages as well as the endangerment of many others,” he says.

“Nonetheless, Indigenous languages have found ways not only to survive but also to renew and adapt themselves to contemporary contexts. Many Indigenous activists and other allies are finding creative ways to strengthen their languages and cultures. However, despite such resistance, there is still a sense of urgency due to continuous trends of language loss. Immediate action is necessary.”

The KPU conference will feature four panels of local and international Indigenous scholars and activists who will share their work in language and cultural revitalization.

Stsmél̓qen, Dr. Ronald Ignace, will deliver the keynote speech, as part of his role as Canada’s first Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. Ignace, a member of the Secwepemc Nation in B.C. and former chief of the Skeetchestn Indian Band, is a fluent speaker of Secwepemctsin, despite being taken to Kamloops Indian Residential School for several years in his childhood. 

Through the conference, organizers say, KPU is able to spark much-needed dialogue and self-reflection about the historical role of education in the colonization and objectification of Indigenous languages, cultures, and knowledges. 

“KPU also has the unique opportunity to bring people together and facilitate connections between a diverse array of Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders from various geographical contexts who share the same histories of colonization,” says Sandoval.

The Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders symposium at KPU Surrey (12666 72 Ave.) is open to the university community and general public. For more information, and to register, visit the conference registration page