Indigenous and political leaders to gather, talk about language

“It’s about cultural well-being, mental health”


Lenore Grenoble, project coordinator for the Arctic Indigenous Languages Initiative, a priority of the Arctic Council's six indigenous permanent participants. (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PHOTO)

Lenore Grenoble, project coordinator for the Arctic Indigenous Languages Initiative, a priority of the Arctic Council’s six indigenous permanent participants. (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PHOTO)

As those involved with Arctic Council projects prepare to hand over their recommendations for next steps under a new American chairmanship in April, at least one project coordinator is hopeful her work, and that of her indigenous colleagues, will remain on the priority list for years to come.

Lenore Grenoble, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, is passionate and knowledgeable about languages, especially northern ones.

She will be meeting with 100 or so political, indigenous, youth and academic leaders in Ottawa next month for a symposium on Arctic languages which she hopes will help shape a practical roadmap for language vitality in the near and distant future.

“Our goal in this phase of the project is to bring forward very concrete and realistic goals to hand over to the U.S. and we have every indication that they will support the project,” said Grenoble.

The symposium, dubbed “From Assessment to Vitality,” is a joint venture between the Arctic Council’s six permanent indigenous participants and the hosting body, the Inuit Circumpolar Council — which is, itself, one of the permanent participants.

The Saami Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International and the Aleut International Association comprise the Arctic Council’s other five permanent participants.

The symposium, scheduled to unfold in Ottawa from Feb. 10 to Feb. 12, is part of a broader priority among those permanent participants to keep Arctic language vitality on the Arctic Council’s radar.

But those at the symposium have some serious work to do if they want to ensure the 40 to 50 Arctic languages which currently exist remain in use at the end of this century.

While most Aboriginal groups, political and non-political, agree that native languages are crucial for individual and community well-being, it’s not clear how to support those languages, how to motivate individuals to speak their mother tongue and how to find money to pay for things such as teacher training and educational materials, Grenoble says.

It’s especially challenging since some indigenous languages, such as Kalaallisut (Greenlandic Inuktitut), are thriving while others, in Russia for instance, are quickly dying off, she said.

Those differences are further magnified by money: some groups get money from benefit agreements or royalties or government programs and they put it toward language enhancement programs. Others don’t get that money or when they do, they put it toward other things.

Those communities that do make language a priority and who work hard at reviving their language, show inspiring results, Grenoble said.

“Communities that have fractured come together over language and they report large changes over social well-being and mental health,” Grenoble said.

“Language isn’t just about language. Language is part of social fabric. It’s about community. It’s about social structure. It’s about cultural well-being, mental health – all these things are linked with language.”

And while the case can be made that a robust traditional language helps to keep culture alive and can help to mend some of the many social problems that exist in Aboriginal communities — suicide, family violence, childhood trauma, addiction, residential school abuse — it’s also important to save languages for the good of humanity, Grenoble explained.

Language shapes everything: how we see the world, how we find our way in it, our relationships to each other and to the land. When a language is lost, so is a whole set of ideas, skills and knowledge. We can’t afford to lose those things, she said.

Generally speaking, isolation is usually good for language vitality, Grenoble said, but that alone won’t save them in the North.

One of the biggest challenges is simple motivation: with so many pressing issues to deal with in Aboriginal communities — poverty, for instance, and food security — motivating people to get excited about their mother tongue, and then committing time and effort to learn it, is the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“I’m hoping we’ll talk about that at the symposium.”

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