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Preserving Blackfoot History: 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Since 1959, the UN has identified international years in order to focus on important issues and encourage action. So why focus on Indigenous languages and what is at risk if these languages are lost?

According to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in 2016, 40 per cent of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages risked extinction. Most of these endangered languages are Indigenous languages, putting culture and knowledge at risk. Language is about more than communication; each language is a unique expression of a culture’s identity, history, traditions, worldview and memory, according to the UN’s website.

The Year of Indigenous Languages encourages us to focus on local Indigenous languages, such as Blackfoot. Over the past 150 or so years the Blackfoot language has been greatly effected by things such as residential schools where youth were removed from their community and forbidden from speaking Blackfoot. Not only did individuals lose knowledge of their mother tongue, but this put the very language in danger.

Centuries past, the commonly used Blackfoot language is what is today known as High Blackfoot. A more complicated language than the modern Blackfoot (modern Blackfoot is sometimes referred to as Slang Blackfoot), High Blackfoot, as Blanche Bruisedhead explains it, “is straight from nature because everything we had to compare it with was of nature.” The deep connections and inherent understanding of the natural connections and inter-relationships between all aspects of creation are at risk when the language is lost. Blanche further states that “someone who spoke High Blackfoot would be better connected to nature. If High Blackfoot is ever completely lost, the Blackfoot people are in some ways extinct, even if their descendants remain, because that vital connection is lost.” This certainly does not mean that the people will be gone or that there isn’t great importance in modern Blackfoot. It’s an awareness that language and culture are inextricably linked and that some things truly are lost in translation. It’s also the awareness that cultural perspectives will always be best understood in their original language.

The UN created the International Year of Indigenous Languages exactly because of this. Unique perspectives are lost when languages disappear. By protecting Indigenous languages, we recognize and celebrate the importance of cultural diversity and we build between and among groups the mechanisms for inclusive communities and greater expression.

The International Year of Indigenous Languages is a call to action, internationally and locally. Some of that call to action is to recognize what is already being done. Blackfoot is used by many families, has been introduced as part of the school curriculum and organizations, such as the Galt Museum & Archives, are offering classes with elders sharing their knowledge with all who wish to attend. There is great hope for and support of Blackfoot locally. While much of this work is being done to teach modern Blackfoot, the great importance of High Blackfoot is also recognized.

As Blanche noted, “High Blackfoot is really hard to learn, but every so often a younger person really connects for some unexplained reason. They connect with High Blackfoot, they have the ability and desire to learn it from the elders. That person becomes a respected elder and takes the real red road journey.”

But, of course, more work and support is needed. In this year, and in the future years, what can we as a community do to support Indigenous languages in our community for the betterment and support of all of us?
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