Indigenous Languages

Indigenous languages worldwide are suffering from the long-term effects of colonialism, assimilation, and population decimation. About 50% of the world’s languages are facing extinction because of these threats and more, and Indigenous communities are, by far, the biggest victims. National Geographic’s “Enduring Voices” project showcases the state of language extinction worldwide in this map, which serves to underscore how huge of an issue this is.

While I have been peripherally aware that this was an issue for a long time, this summer I had the opportunity to go to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, Canada. They opened a new permanent exhibit called Our Living Languages. It focuses on First Nations populations in BC, their languages, and has an interactive map that shows you the population of each Nation, and an estimate of how many members can still speak their language. Very few of those estimates exceeded 5%. It also showed that British Columbia is home to over 203 First Nations communities and well over a dozen distinct languages – almost 60% of the Indigenous languages in Canada. The compounded cultural loss is unimaginable.

Language is a personal identifier, so much so that some, such as French, have had governmental bodies put in place to regulate additions to the language, in fear that it will be homogenized. The loss of Indigenous languages worldwide should be treated just as seriously.

After starting this blog, I wondered about open access software for First Nations languages that would help members of those communities maintain that cultural connection. There are several journals and studies that are available in parts of the world, such as the Language Conservation & Documentation Journal from Hawaii, and the Pangloss Collection based out of Noumea in New Caledonia. The Pangloss Collection is interesting as it is an archive of language examples from around the world which have been made accessible by the public. It focuses on Oceanic dialects, and only Acadian [French-dialect] and Inuktitut have been catalogued from Canada.

Which brings me to the “Living Tongues” project, started in Chile and Peru around 2010. This is the basis of the “Enduring Voices” project discussed earlier, and the project has been focusing on language conservation through technology for several years. Their “Adopt-A-Language” section allows you to donate a specific language group you would like to support. They have also had success with projects such as Chamacoco Talking Dictionary, an online resource that allows you to search for words in either English or Spanish and hear them spoken by a native speaker for that region.

Another project that doesn’t necessarily focus on language, but certainly could impact that goal is Indigitization, a University of British Columbia initiative that supplies First Nations communities with a toolkit for the digitization and preservation of audio recordings. While it doesn’t feature language preservation as an outright goal, it might be a great fringe benefit.

However, I could not find language-specific toolkits, which is a project that I would love to see come into play in Canada, as well as elsewhere around the world, as soon as possible. I think that toolkits offer a degree of control and empowerment that having a project like “Living Tongues” come into a community and do the documentation doesn’t allow. Moreover, when a community can take resources and use them themselves instead of relying on a third party, there is less risk of feeling obligated to make those materials available openly when they may not want to. Furthermore, with the “Living Tongues” program, I could not find any documentation that says whether those materials were archived with the organization or with the communities, where as a toolkit would leave no doubt as to the ownership of those materials.


Higher Education, Open Access, and Indigenous Studies

Scholarly interest in Indigenous Cultures has been around for centuries, but over the last few decades it has become both more prevalent and less paternalistic (although arguments can absolutely be made that there is plenty further to go – as evidenced by a scandal last year at UBC during which an inappropriate chant was used during frosh week and spurred a closer look at indigenous awareness programs in universities).

Most universities in Canada have an Indigenous Studies/First Nations Studies program, and they are also common in areas with similar colonial histories, like Australia, New Zealand, the USA, South Africa, and South America.

While languages are absolutely taught within these programs, that will be discussed in a different post shortly. [EDIT: see that post here!]

However, open access courses on Indigenous histories and culture can be a bit harder to find. Luckily, they are growing in popularity, and several are currently available/have been available recently/ or will be available soon.

  • Australia-based Open 2 Study has a MOOC entitled Indigenous Studies: Australia and New Zealand that began this past October and focuses on Maori, Aboriginal, and Torres Straight Islander histories, languages, issues, and more.
  • The University of Toronto put together a MOOC that debuted on Coursera in 2013 called Aboriginal Worldviews and Education that looked at how Indigenous knowledge has been affected by Western educational systems, and how assimilation, treaties, provincial education, and residential and boarding schools.
  • Art + Reconciliation was an “RMOOC” [I believe the r is for Reconciliation, but am looking for a confirmation on that] done through Thompson Rivers University, and later continued as a Summer Program at UBC. It features Aboriginal Activist Art, and was a series of events and projects rather than a linear course. While the RMOOC is no longer running, the website has a great deal of information and some wonderful artwork.
  • Reconciliation Through Open Education is a MOOC put together by Dr. Jan Hare, a Professor in Indigenous Education at UBC, and Sara Davidson, a PhD student at UBC in Language and Literacy. It will focus on indigenous education initiatives, primarily in Canada and Australia, and how important those are to reconciliation. It will be run through the Harvard/ MIT EdX website, and will begin January 2015.


There are also a large number of journals devoted to Indigenous Studies, and some of them are open access.

  • Project MUSE has some open access resources, which can be accessed by selecting the “only resources I have full access to” button on the sidebar.
  • The International Indigenous Policy Journal is more business/governmental perhaps than academic, but all of its articles are open access, and it is an excellent resource.
  • The International Journal of Indigenous Health is another open access journal that focuses on Indigenous content, and it is peer-reviewed and fully edited, which resolves some of the concerns around legitimacy that are voiced about open access texts. It is supported by the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC, Canada.
  • The Journal of Indigenous Social Development focuses on the Indigenous people of Hawaii, and is supported by the University of Hawaii at Manoa through their Social Work school. It is an excellent resource, and has a great deal of relevance for indigenous communities worldwide.
  • MAI Journal – A New Zealand Journal of Indigenous Scholarship is published by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE). It focuses on Maori and Oceanic issues, and is funded in part by the University of Auckland.  They also publish AlterNative which has a more global perspective.

This a selection of what is available, and all of these resources are ones that I have looked over and look forward to using in the future. I will update with another page as soon as I compile another list!