Introducing the 2023-2024 cohort in the Indigenous Language Revitalization Program

“These programs are really important and timely because, in Canada, there’s a growing group of young people working to learn Indigenous languages as second languages," says Professor Jessica Coon
Indigenous Language Revitalization students, from left to right, Mary Onwá:ri Tekahawáhkwen McDonald, Kanontienéntha’ Brass, and Cameron AdamsJessica Coon

The Faculty of Arts’ Ad Hoc graduate program in Indigenous Language Revitalization has welcomed a new cohort of students, MA students Cameron Adams and Kanontienéntha’ Brass, and PhD student Mary Onwá:ri Tekahawáhkwen McDonald.

The new program is designed to provide students with the necessary space and tools to help them lead community-centered efforts to maintain, document, and reclaim their communities’ language through interdisciplinary approaches.

Interdisciplinary approach to Indigenous language revitalization

Developed by professors Noelani Arista, Jessica Coon and James Crippen, the program in part addresses McGill’s 2017 Provost Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, which included Language Revitalization and Documentation in its Calls to Action. Each professors’ area of expertise and knowledge will help guide the students as they realize their research projects.

“The goal [ of the program] is to increase capacity at McGill for offering courses and programming related to Indigenous language revitalization,” says Coon, Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages. “These programs are really important and timely because, in Canada, there’s a growing group of young people working to learn Indigenous languages as second languages. This is especially true in communities close to McGill, such as Kanien’kehà:ka communities.”

Increasing need to learn Indigenous languages

The increasing demand and interest for Indigenous language learning and immersion programs has signaled a need for further documentation and resources that would benefit learners and teachers.

Crippen, who has worked extensively with Tlingit and Na-Dene communities in North America to document the language of his ancestors, understands this growing need and the importance of adapting documentation efforts to a huge of variety of communities and multi-generational speakers.

“Imagine learning Japanese without a textbook or a teacher, all you had to go on was newspapers or tv shows,” says Crippen. “The [Indigenous] languages we are trying to learn don’t have materials to learn from.”

Program tailored to meet each student’s needs

The ad hoc program offers each student a tailored interdisciplinary approach to their research and it will be an important addition to this region of Canada. Indigenous Language Revitalization programs such as those at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and at the University of Hawai’i in the U.S.A. are world renowned for programming and expertise in Indigenous language revitalization efforts, but relocating across the continent is not feasible for all students.

Arista’s extensive knowledge and expertise in archival research will be an invaluable asset to the program’s students. “There’s a desire to have language as the ‘necessary first step’ towards understanding our histories, of indigenizing the pursuit of our own knowledges,” she adds.

A new cohort of Indigenous language speakers

This year’s cohort includes two Kanien’kéha speakers, PhD student Mary McDonald and MA student Kanontienéntha’ Brass. McDonald, who has a background in linguistics and anthropology, is a first language speaker of Kanien’kéha and comes to the program with over 40 years of experience in teaching Kanien’kéha, Oneida, and Onondaga languages.

“It’s a giant, fantastic team of people who are dedicated to preserving our First Nations’ languages,” says McDonald, who likens her doctoral experience to a huge ‘family reunion,’ where classmates, faculty, and staff support and encourage each other.

McDonald’s decision to pursue a PhD was spurred by her discussions with fellow teachers and friends about the importance of compiling her knowledge of the language and her teaching materials into a linguistically informed introduction that would benefit future generations of teachers and learners.

“Mary doesn’t need the credentials or prestige of a McGill graduate degree,” Coon adds. “She is already a highly respected and widely recognized knowledge holder. What she needs is the dedicated time, support, and resources to turn her life’s work into a book about the Kanien’kéha language.”

Building upon knowledge

Brass, who completed her BA in Cognitive Science and Linguistics at McGill in 2020, recently graduated from the Ratiwennahni:rats Kanien’kéha adult immersion program and will work in both Linguistics and Education during her MA. She was recently profiled by the Eastern Door.

“Over the past six years, I had been getting more involved in language revitalization efforts around McGill and in my own community,” Brass says. “As the immersion program was coming to a close, I had questions about how I wanted to further build upon the knowledge I had gained and also how to use it […] the idea of attending McGill again seemed natural, as I already knew the school.”

Lack of young language learners

Cameron Adams, a graduate in Indigenous Languages and History from the University of Winnipeg and a 2023 McCall MacBain Scholar, started learning nehinawewin (Swampy Cree), seven years ago, after learning that his great-grandmother had grown up speaking the language in the small community of Norway House, Manitoba.

“In high school, I got really interested in learning the Cree language,” says Adams. “I went on to take a few courses in Swampy Cree at the University of Winnipeg, where I discovered my passion for it and where I realized that there was a lack of young people learning it.”

Adams decided to pursue his MA at McGill because he wanted to continue his journey in language documentation and to learn more about the best practices in how to prepare resources in Indigenous languages.

“I think I’ll be able to learn a lot about the types of methodologies on language acquisition and documentation,” he says. “My goal is to create a dictionary [of Swampy Cree] in the next few years.”

In the coming years, students in the program will be building the skillsets they need to organize their linguistic knowledge and collaborate with their respective communities in documenting best practices for newer generations of Indigenous language speakers. The program is currently limited to a small group of students, with hopes that in can continue to increase capacity and develop into a larger program.