Dr Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams delivers the keynote speech in Paris at the International Conference on Language technologies

On December 6, 2019, Lil’watul Dr Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams delivered the Keynote Speech in Paris, at the International Conference Language Technologies for All (LT4All): Enabling Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism Worldwide, presented by UNESCO. 

Just three weeks later, Wanosts’a7 was recognised as a national treasure, receiving the Office of the Order of Canada from the Governor-General, on December 27, for her contributions to Indigenous education and for her advocacy of Indigenous language revitalization programs.

It’s interesting to be anointed a national treasure by a system that has oppressed your people, against which you’ve spent your life struggling for recognition, sovereignty, survival… I absolutely agree that Wanosts’a7 is deserving of recognition and that she is a person whose “service shapes our society, whose innovations ignite our imaginations, and whose compassion unites our communities.”

But I wonder what she would have been able to accomplish in a parallel universe, one in which First Nations were not colonized, one in which indigenous cultures remained in tact, one in which the early explorers and colonizers and settlers didn’t destroy the people they met, but instead asked permission, asked to learn, assimilated, or even, turned their boats around and went home, saying, “we met some new trading partners, but those lands are not empty. They have some amazing systems, we should send students to learn, not soldiers…”

My best way of honouring Wanosts’a7, who I was so fortunate to speak with last year for a series of columns I wrote, is to listen with rapt attention (and frantic tapping transcribing fingers) to every speech she gives. It’s her words I want to absorb… and I notice, recently, in each speech, she feels the pressure of time limits… she has so much to offer, and too much to impart in a 30 minute speaking slot…

And so, in the closing days of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I sat at her feet, (virtually speaking,) hoping that the recognition of her work and her induction into the Order of Canada might be a signal that what she has been saying consistently for more than 50 years might be heard, and I listened as she gave the keynote address. Ostensibly the topic was to consider the challenges of using technology in language revitalization, but what I have come to appreciate so much about Wanosts’a7 is that (in addition to being a trailblazer, an advocate, a language champion, a warrior), she is a wonderful teacher, and so, she delivers so many epiphanies here…

Dr Williams’ speech starts at the 8:35 minute mark at the link: https://twitter.com/i/broadcasts/1nAKEZyoEdoGL

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The transcript is about 4000 words long, and doesn’t do justice to Wanosts’a7’s gravitas, her emotional delivery, her wonderful storytelling voice. If you don’t have 30 minutes right now to listen, here are some (of my personal) highlights from what she shared.

What I learned about how to do an acknowledgement to open your speech:

In Ucwalmictws, Wanosts’a7 opened with a greeting and acknowledgement, and then she translated for us into English: “Thank you to the ancestors whose spirits are on this land and the people who continue to care for this land where we are meeting today. We are here as visitors. We come with good thoughts. And good spirits. I am Wanosts’a7 from the Lil’watul. I introduce my family and myself to the land that we are meeting on today.”

On the relevance of this being the International Year of Indigenous Language:

“This year is the year of Indigenous Languages. We’ve been celebrating our languages, the voices of our lands, the voices of our ancestors and of ourselves. Sometimes people might think that proclaiming one year as a year of indigenous languages is not that much. But I want to tell you, as a person who has worked on saving our languages for more than 50 years, I can tell you that it’s made a difference. It’s made a difference because, in the land where I come from, in the country that I come from, the languages of the land, the indigenous people’s languages, were considered and continue to be considered to be of no value to the people, to be of no value to the current society, and to be of no value to our children. That continues. Our work has been to change this. And so I want to thank all the people who worked to make this one year our year. It has meant a great deal.

Before we get all giddy about technology saving the day, let’s reflect on why indigenous languages are in their current state:

“Canada has followed colonial policies that were practiced in many countries, so our languages declined very quickly. As a child, I spoke my language but I also spoke other indigenous languages. In a very short time, it was decided, that in order for us to be human (and that was a debate in this country and in England and in Italy and in Spain, there was a debate about our humanity), we had to speak and learn English. Schools were a major institution to carry that out, to destroy our languages. Churches were the other institution that carried that out. So the state of our languages in 2019 is one in which they are coming back to life. We are reclaiming them, recovering them, revitalising them and figuring out how to bring them  back into normal usage. We have many languages that are sleeping, that are considered to be sleeping. Oftentimes they’re called extinct or endangered. Those are terms we do not like, as indigenous people because it defines the state of our language as a way we cannot do anything. And we need all the strength that we can, to ensure that our languages continue to thrive and that they do come back to life.

Because of colonial policies, our people are dispersed across the continent, across many countries, they’re dislocated, they’ve relocated, they’ve been forced, through policies, such as the removal of children for school attending residential schools, [designed and implemented] to separate them from their languages, to separate them from their knowledge systems, to separate them from their land, because for us, what keeps us strong, and defines who we are are our languages, our relationship with the land, and all that live on those lands, the water, the air. So those policies have removed our people and denigrated those relationships.

Today in Canada there are more children removed from their mothers, from their families, by social services, from the time that they’re babies. There are more children now who’ve been removed than who were removed during the era of residential schools. That is what it means to be indigenous in these powerful countries.

The work is like putting a broken mirror back together:

Angelina Stump, a woman from the northern part of our province, in a conversation I was having with them about their language,  she said to me, “we’re trying to put together a mirror that has been shattered into a million pieces.” That’s the work that we’re doing…. And what the people say, is, that mirror may not fully come together, we may be missing pieces, we can see the cracks, it’s uneven, but it’s we who are putting our lives back together. And so the people in the communities are working on rebuilding -rebuilding our relationship with the land, rebuilding our intergenerational relationships, relationships with our families, with our parents, with our grandparents, and ancestors, we are remembering the responsibility that we have to the people, to the young people who will come after us.

On the double burden on language champions, of rebuilding one’s own culture, and of rebuilding relationships with the others:

“Our people also must work at rebuilding the relationships that we have with those outside of our communities. We’ve been placed into the position of teaching others what needs to happen. This is a huge task. Our people have been advocating for our rights, our rights to our land, our rights to our existence, our rights to govern ourselves, for many many generations. We continue, our people continue this work. Our community language champions are doing all of this work. They’re mobilising the community, because the pain that parents have when they’re speaking to their children in our language, their pain is that it might be hindering their children. Can you imagine what that’s like for a mom and dad, for a grandparent, when they speak their language to their children? It’s laced with a fear that they’re doing their children harm. So, part of the work that language champions must do is to be able to help people see that our languages are beautiful, our languages are those that make us strong, and it helps us to know all of our relationships. That work is an incredible task for a group of people.

On the challenge of revitalizing a language, when writing, technology and teaching institutions are all the tools of the dominant (and destroying) system:

“Our languages up until my generation were oral languages. I participated in the creation of our orthography, our writing system. Not many people can say that. But that’s the work that our language champions in our communities are doing. The other big task that they have is that so much of the templates, the guidelines, the university courses, the curriculum guidelines, that have been created, have been created along the lines of a colonizing language. And our task is to figure out how to be able to speak our language, how to teach our language, how to maintain our languages, how to normalize our languages, from our ways, from our perspective, from our point of view.

So much of how we learn today and what we learn is based on western ideologies, epistemoligies, practical and pedagogical factors. There is very little research in how do we teach and learn according to the world of indigenous people. This is shunned in Universities, in the way that people do research, and this is something that we have to challenge and we have to change. Technologies, too, are based on western ideologies, mostly from the English world. And so it’s very challenging for us, at this stage, to be able to say that technologies today can work in our favour.

Up until last year, there was no support in my country for the work in our languages. Most of the language champions in our communities work for very little money. They can barely survive. But because of their passion they do this work. In order to be abe to operate their programs they’re begging, for funds.

So our challenge is establishing the use of indigenous languages in everyday language, in the family, the community, and the nation. Our challenge is to be able to do this when the use of the colonial languages is habituated and valued above our own. But to be able to bring our language back to life, we need to be able to use our language in all of these domains, on the land, in our political and governance systems, in our social interactions, in our family life, our ceremonies, our learning and teaching.

For example, there was community I worked with and they were really heartsick because they were having to do their ceremonies in English. And in another indigenous language that still was strong. They could no longer carry it out in their own language. They could no longer speak in their big houses in their language. And so that’s where we began. We built a program, a way for people in their community to learn their language, so that they can practice it in their ceremonial houses. When people from that community began to use their language in those places, in those times of celebration, of ceremony, the whole community began to be lifted, and to find hope, that their language could continue.

We need to be able to align traditional knowledge with the current times. And to reconnect traditional knowledge and to undo English versions of stories, social structures, family structures and naming.

I said my name, when I submitted my paper to this conference, I put in my Lil’wat name, but it wasn’t used. And that’s the way it is in my country. We’re denied the use of our traditional indigenous names. We cannot register our traditional indigenous names in the Canadian registry. And that’s how we continue to live with the colonial system.

On how technology already has brought language to life:

Technology helped us, with our languages and our knowledge systems, through recordings. I remember the first time we were able to access wax cylinders of our stories and our songs.  It felt like we were sitting with our ancestors. And our language, our way of life and our identity finally came back to be in our midst.

And so when I talk about technology I’m not talking only about today’s technologies. I was part of creating the writing system for our language, in the 1970s and we were working with typewriters. When the IBM Selectric typewriter came to be, we were happy, because we found someone in Hawai’i who would saw off the characters on the IBM font and he replaced it with our characters, and when we got those fonts, I’m telling you, we didn’t stop typing for days, because we could finally finally type our language!

When the computers came, we could no longer type our language. We could not access and use that technology. But luckily for us,  two seventeen year olds, one in Autralia and one in Northern Ontario, who figured out, along with First People’s Cultural Council, how to enable us to type again in our languages.

[Technology can make it even more challenging for our people to do the work they’re doing], to keep up with the innovations, the obsolescences.

Why the work of revitalizing indigenous language in 2020 is important:

“I have much more to say but I’m out of time and I want to thank you for coming to this. I want to invite you to continue the work, continue the work so that technologies can in fact help the 7000 languages of this planet. We’re going to need the knowledge that is in those languages to be able to rebuild not just our human relationships but our animal relationships, our plant relationships, our water relationships and our air relationships. We need the knowledge that is housed in all our languages, because they’re the voice of the land and they’re the voice of the people. 

On what gives her hope:

“In BC, there are 60,000 students who live away from their language homelands. They have no access, then, to learning their language. One of my big hopes and dreams is that it is technology that could help us be able to make accessible the language to those who don’t live at home. I can see that in the Census, because of the work that First People’s Culture Council is doing, and the access they make for people through technology that speaking our language is on the increase. Everywhere else it’s declining. Amongs the old people it’s declining. But the one place where there’s an increase in language speakers is from the young people. I watch young people who learn their language and they’re proud, they understand because they know. I am very optimistic that the work that we do will be carried out because of the strength, the creativity, the intelligence of our young people today.

How to create technology, or improve systems, that will help:

“When I decided to go to work at the University of Victoria, I decided I would try to see if a university could teach from an indigenous world view. It was a big challenge. I built a course in which I brought in indigenous principles of teaching and learning. I brought in our concepts in our language. We needed to modify time, the way that classes are scheduled. We needed to modify the way in which we let people know that they’ve learned. In the western system, you have to grade students and [in giving them their grade, you’re saying] you’re better than that person, you learned more than that person. But that’s not our way. And so that system had to be modified. So there are many things. We can do it by trying, by working together. I’m going to ask the people today who build technology for our youth: work with us. Work alongside us. Don’t assume that you know. You know a lot about your area of expertise. We know a lot about ours. By working together, we can make it better for all of us.


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