KPU hosts ‘Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders’ event

The symposium shed light on revitalization efforts of scholars across Indigenous communities

Shelly Mukwa Musayett Johnson speaking at the "Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders" symposium. (Julia Townsend)

Shelly Mukwa Musayett Johnson speaking at the “Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders” symposium. (Julia Townsend)

Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s sociology department hosted a symposium on Jan. 22 and 23, called “Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders,” highlighting the language revitalization efforts of scholars across North, Central, and South American Indigenous communities. 

The two-day conference included a ceremony, panels on language, education, sovereignty, and decolonization, along with roundtable discussions and traditional Nahua dance. It connected Indigenous communities across countries to explore their shared relationship to language.  

“Many of our Indigenous languages in North and South America are at risk of dying,” says Shelly Mukwa Musayett Johnson, current Canada research chair in Indigenizing higher education and associate professor at Thompson Rivers University. 

“For our people, the land and our languages are very connected.” 

Johnson begins every Indigenous research methodologies class with 30 minutes of Secwepemctsín language instruction, taught by Secwépemc speakers. She is Saulteaux from Keeseekoose First Nation but lives and works in Kamloops, B.C. She says it’s her responsibility to figure out she’s going to benefit the community in return.

“Knowing that my language is at risk, and knowing that the Secwepemctsín language is at risk, I thought, ‘There’s got to be something that I can do in my research course.’”

Johnson calls for a cross-department approach to Indigenous language education. She believes it’s necessary to incorporate traditional language teachings into course material.   

“If [KPU] is serious about advancing Indigenous language revitalization, it has to happen across all classes in all faculties,” she says. 

“It can’t just be one little Indigenous studies department, it has to be integrated into all of the classes, just like mine. … I just think they need to step up and do it, and [the] administration needs to pay for it.” 

Mandy Na’zinek Jimmie agrees with Johnson. She’s an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus and teaches in the Nłeʔkepmx language fluency program, a one-of-a-kind degree offering first to third-year courses in Nłeʔkepmx to Nlaka’pamux students. 

“I’ve spent over 40 years working on it, and I’m not ready to leave yet,” the 74-year-old Nlaka’pamux Elder says. “I’ve chosen it as my lifelong work.”

Jimmie connected with other speakers at the symposium over their shared efforts. 

“It’s assuring to know that we’re not alone in this,” she says. “It’s important because we all need that support. We all need that encouragement, … exchange of information, and learning from each other.”

KPU sociology instructor Carlos Sandoval helped organize, moderate, and interpret during the symposium. Sandoval also says it’s important for Indigenous peoples to have spaces to share their common struggles and goals. 

“Indigenous languages and cultures have been subjected to colonial violence for many years and to a point in which many languages are at risk of becoming extinct,” he says.

“Oftentimes, we’re not aware of the relevance of keeping languages alive, … but each language is a world in itself. Languages are unique ways of being human and existing in the world. “[They] carry symbols, meanings, traditions, ideas, practices, and feelings that have existed for thousands of years. … That’s going to be erased when these languages are gone.”  

Sandoval’s research focuses on the Nahuatl language of the Nahua people of Veracruz in Mexico. Like Johnson, he believes it’s essential to integrate Indigenous languages and teachings into higher education.

“We have a responsibility in university to bring Indigenous voices into the academic setting because we are partly responsible for these processes of language and cultural loss,” Sandoval says. 

“Universities have been built on colonial forms of knowledge and devalued and denied Indigenous knowledge.”

The speakers hope attendees leave the conference with an understanding of what higher education can do to ensure language revitalization for Indigenous peoples across the Americas.