The Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle is calling on Catholics to help revive Indigenous languages in the spirit of reconciliation. Photo by Michael Swan

A challenge to save Indigenous language

By 
  • November 9, 2019

A Catholic organization committed to improving relations between the Church and Canada’s Indigenous peoples has issued a challenge to Catholics to help revive Indigenous languages. 

In an open letter to “all Canadians,” the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle declares that the Church must be aligned with Indigenous people as they rediscover their language and culture.

Or to put it another way: Od ijinikasowining Weossimind (In the name of the Father), gaie Wegwissimind (and of the Son), gaie Wenijishid-Manito (and of the Holy Spirit), Mi ge-ing (Amen). This basic prayer expressed in the Anishinaabe or Ojibwe dialect may disappear unless Catholics help preserve and encourage Indigenous languages.

“It’s all part of reconciliation,” Guadelupe Circle co-chair Rosella Kinoshameg told The Catholic Register.

The Guadalupe Circle brings together bishops, religious orders, lay movements and Indigenous elders to foster healing and reconciliation between Indigenous Catholics and the Church. It’s language-preservation initiative is supported by the Catholic Women’s League, the Knights of Columbus, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Of the 90 Indigenous languages spoken across Canada only three are considered healthy enough to survive this century without immediate intervention. UNESCO has designated three-quarters of these languages “endangered.” 

Languages and the “cultural ecology” they represent are frequently mentioned by Pope Francis and were on the agenda at the recent synod on the Amazon.

“If it’s talked about at the Amazon (synod) then we are part of the bigger picture, trying to preserve our languages,” Kinoshameg said.

The Church has picked a very difficult fight, says University of Sudbury Indigenous Studies professor Mary Ann Corbiere. The history of Catholic-run residential schools, at which children were punished and often humiliated for speaking their own languages, has opened a big divide between the Church and young Indigenous.

“Part of learning about their people’s history is learning about the unfortunate history of residential schools,” Corbiere said. “There are so many people who carry so many hurt feelings… These people are carrying a lot of anger on behalf of their grandparents, whatever that kind of psychological dynamic is. They feel a need to sort of gain justice for the wrongs that were inflicted on their grandparents’ generation.”

As young people try to recover languages, they will be able to lean on dictionaries, prayer books and Bible stories translated into Indigenous languages in the 19th century and even earlier. For Anishinaabe speakers, the Baraga Dictionary published in 1853 is the Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language authored by Slovenian Catholic missionary Fr. Frederic Baraga. On the unceded territory of the Anishinaabe on Manitoulin Island, people still use little brown prayer books created by the Jesuits more than a century ago.

Corbiere has been writing a dictionary since 1997 that includes many Catholic terms and concepts she learned growing up in Wikwemikong, Ont. 

“The term for purgatory — I don’t know that many young Anishinaabe people are going to be looking for the word for purgatory, but it will be there,” she said.

The Jesuit pastor at Wikwemikong’s Holy Cross Mission of four parish churches, Fr. Paul Robson, said the language is increasingly important to parishioners.

“Our parishioners are language speakers who are interested in preserving it,” he said. “We do what we can to incorporate the language in the Mass and in our different services… Language is very much connected to culture. So, if you are preserving language you are preserving culture as well.”

But preserving Indigenous languages is not easy, said Jesuit Fr. Peter Bisson.

“I don’t know if it’s too late or not, but it’s still worth a try,” said Bisson, who is part of the Guadalupe Circle and has recently opened a Jesuit office for Indigenous relations in Ottawa. “The languages are important because they carry the world views of a people and express their relationships to the land, each other and to God. The loss of a language is the loss of an identity.”

Donna Naughton, executive director of Ottawa-based Kateri Native Ministry, supports any action that furthers  reconciliation.

“In terms of saying that the Church, can it help? Of course it can help and I’m hopeful that it will,” she said.

For the majority of Canada’s Indigenous who live in cities, the interest in learning and preserving languages is just as strong as on reserves, Naughton said. Whether they succeed is partly dependent on receiving support from the rest of us.

The 94 “Calls to Action” in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report included five that addressed preserving Indigenous languages. This spring Ottawa passed the Indigenous Languages Act, requiring the  appointment of an Indigenous languages commissioner. 

“Any action that is developed or created or promoted is my hope for reconciliation, that we move, that we would move towards that goal,” said Naughton.

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