A Surge in Online Learning Is Helping Revive Indigenous Languages
As indigenous language classes become more accessible to people living away from tribal lands, they risk becoming less accessible to those living on them
At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I log into a remote Anishinaabemowin class from my home on Duwamish, Salish, and Stillaguamish territory in Seattle, Washington. At the same time, Isadore Toulouse starts up his camera from his kitchen thousands of miles away on Ottawa and Chippewa land in Suttons Bay, Michigan.
“Ah, there are my learners!” he beams at the camera. “Wenesh edigwonman pii minikweyin mkadeyaaboo?” he asks slowly, holding up his cup of coffee. “It means, ‘how do you take your coffee?’” He takes a sip, grimaces, and shakes his head. “Maandaagami. Bleh. Means ‘it tastes terrible.’ There is no cream in the house today,” he laughs. Thirty students smile back at him from all over the United States and Canada. It’s a light-hearted interaction, but virtual classes like these represent a partial solution to a sobering problem.
Indigenous languages worldwide are in danger of extinction. UNESCO estimates that without active effort, 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages will be gone by the end of the century. In the United States and Canada, the decline in Indigenous languages wasn’t accidental: It was a colonialist policy of cultural genocide. It’s estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada alone were sent to residential boarding schools from the 1870s until 1996, where they were punished for speaking their language and practicing cultural traditions. Even after they were closed, the “sixties scoop” — where thousands more Native children were removed from their communities and adopted into white families — stripped many Indigenous people of their language and their culture.
My own mother was one of these children, and that’s how she lost her language. My grandmother — an Ojibwe woman from the Brunswick House Band in Ontario — tried furiously to teach my mother the language, even though she knew she was slowly dying from tuberculosis. By the time my grandmother finally passed away, all my mother could remember were the words for “butter” and “naughty little boy” — and she’s…