Indigenous Peoples: Language Revitalization & Gender Identity

At the core of European legal thought is sustaining binaries such as the colonizer v. the colonized, the conqueror v. the conquered, the civilized v. the savage, or the male v. the female. During her lecture on systemic violence at Concordia University, Andrea Smith explains how colonialism legitimized gender violence through the installation of patriarchy, a male system of domination over females (Smith, 2011). Smith (2011) states:

Of course, patriarchy is built on a gender binary system. You can’t have patriarchy unless you have two genders, one that dominates another gender. So consequently, in many Native communities that were not built on a gender binary system, those who did not fit that system were often targeted for destruction as well (at approximately 2:05). 

Patriarchy in Native communities was essential to create a hierarchy “so that colonial domination would seem natural” (Smith, 2011, 2:13). Many North American Indigenous communities were matriarchal, which is in direct opposition to patriarchy and colonialism (Smith, 1999). The ways in which patriarchy furthered the expansion of colonialism occurred through sexual violence, the forced removal of children from their homes to residential schools, and the annihilation of Indigenous languages and cultures (McGeough, 2008). For Indigenous peoples, the loss of language translates to a loss of connection to their culture and other systems of being.

In Medicine Bundle of Contradictions, an essay authored by Lous Esme Cruz (2011), the limitations of the English language are examined in relation to Indigenous identities and gender identities. Cruz (2011) writes, “English is a very limited language that doesn’t give very many options for explaining gender expression and roles” (p. 54). Frantz Fanon (2004) in his work entitled Wretched of the Earth defines colonialism as the “entire conquest of land and people” (p. 14). Indigenous peoples were colonized through the loss of their land and languages and through—the less often talked about—the loss of important gender roles within their culture. Cruz states further, “gender is not a culture, it is a role within culture” (p. 55). Sometimes erased from this discussion of colonialism and loss of culture for Indigenous peoples is the loss of gender roles that exists outside the Western gender binary, male/female. For this paper, I will explore the connection between loss of language and colonialism and how the loss of language impacts gender identities in Indigenous populations. This paper will contribute to the larger discussion of gender identity, how both Western concepts and the English language is restrictive for gender roles and expressions, and the importance of language revitalization for Indigenous peoples.

For Frantz Fanon, the definition of colonialism is rather simple despite its complex nature. As stated earlier, Fanon defines colonialism as the “entire conquest of land and people” (p. 14). An effective way to further the conquest and domination of an entire population group is through violence, and Fanon argues that this violence dehumanizes the colonized (Fanon, 2004). Associated with this dehumanization is Othering and Linda T. Smith calls attention to the role of Othering in Decolonizing Methodologies. Smith (1999) argues that the construction of the Indigenous problem becomes embedded “within the wider discourses of racism, sexism, and other forms of positioning the Other” (p. 90). Othering then permits for the complete dehumanization of Indigenous populations, legitimizes the colonial violence, and the destruction of Indigenous social structures and relations.

Cynthia C. Wesley-Esquimaux (2009) explores the connections between the effects of colonialism and the loss of gender roles for women within Indigenous communities (p. 14). While she focuses solely on roles of Indigenous women (as opposed to men), her paper provides a historical context on “alien social structures and disrupted gender relations” for Indigenous populations (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2009, p. 13). Wesley-Esquimaux (2009) highlights that before contact with colonizers, Indigenous populations ranged from “an estimated 90 million to 112 million” with “15 million to 18 million living in what is now the United States and Canada” (p. 14). Following settler contact in 1492, it was estimated that “90 to 95 percent of the Indigenous population was wiped out by epidemic disease, warfare, and famine, with most people dying within 100 years of contact” (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2009, p. 14). An extreme event such as this is devastating for any population group, and also key to domination, destruction and colonialism. Though not a critique of Wesley-Esquimaux, often missing from this discussion of colonialism and Indigenous peoples is the loss of gender roles outside of gender binary system of male/female.

When settlers first arrived to the Americas, their relations with Indigenous populations were vital to their survival (Mawani, 2001). However, once more settlers began to arrive, the relations with Indigenous populations became more of an inconvenience (Mawani, 2001). By 1867, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald enacted the Indian Act, 1867 and this act was (and continues to be) a useful tool to police Indigenous populations (Comack, 2012). Brock Pitawanakwat (2009), in his research on Indigenous language revitalization, argues, “Canadian Indian Policy sought to undermine Indigenous independence and eradicate Indigenous languages” (p. 2). The eradication of Indigenous languages is then essential to colonialism since it promotes policy objectives, like those objectives associated with the enactment of the Indian Act. The primary objective behind the Indian Act was “to get rid of the Indian Problem” (Leslie, 1978). To accomplish this goal, colonizers forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes to attend residential schools, where they were forbidden to practice their culture or speak their language (McGeough, 2008). Further, Pitawanakwat (2009) states, “the efforts to spread European languages in the Americas were fuelled by the colonists’ desires for administrative efficiency” (p. 2). While these are historical accounts of undermining Indigenous languages, the loss of language as an effect of colonialism still exists today. For example, within Canada, the loss of Indigenous languages occurs “at an even faster rate than the global average” (Pitawanakwat, 2009, p. 1). It has been shown that the main reason for loss of Indigenous language is European colonization and by 2100, it is predicted that only four of the original sixty Indigenous languages will be retained (Pitawanakwat, 2009, p. 1). For Indigenous peoples, the language is directly connected to their culture and from the perspective of the colonizer, it is a sensible policy and practice to prevent Indigenous peoples from both speaking their language and practicing their culture.

Brock Pitawanakwat’s research into Indigenous language revitalization, specifically Anishnaabemowin, provides a crucial perspective for which to examine how language for Indigenous peoples is connected to loss of gender roles and loss of culture. On the importance of Anishnaabemowin, Pitawanakwat (2009) maintains that Anishnaabemowin “has intrinsic value to Anishnaabeg that is rooted in their history, identity, spirituality and territory” (p. 8). Part of the Anishnaabeg identity and culture includes the agokwa and okitciakwe (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). The agokwa and the okitciakwe are Anishnaabe terms for “the biological male that preformed the gender roles of a woman” and “for a biological woman who performs the gender roles of a man” respectively (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). The agokwa and the okitciakwe also held esteemed roles within Anishnaabeg nations (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). Unfortunately, the agokwa and the okitciakwe were considered to be both immoral and unnatural under the colonial lens (McGeough, 2008). For Indigenous nations, the significance of one person’s role within the culture and community were not wholly dependent on their biological sex. Traditionally, as highlighted by McGeough (2008), the Anishinaabeg nations “have seen gender as being fluid and not fixed or determined by one’s biological sex” (p. 76). Thus, the patriarchal gender binary system was a tool of colonization to undermine Anishnaabeg culture and traditions, like the roles of the agokwa and the okitciakwe. Pitawanakwat also outlines how language and identity are interconnected when he cites the work of Native Studies professor Roger Spielmann. Spielmann, as cited by Pitawanakwat (2009), argues that language and identity “can go a long way in preventing assimilation to another culture and preserving tradition-specific ways of relating to others—be they human or other-than-human persons” (p. 8). An example of other-than-human persons would be the agokwa and the okitciakwe (McGeough, 2008, p. 79). Similar to Andrea Smith’s point on patriarchy, establishing various patriarchal institutions, including the gender binary system, normalized systems of domination, like colonialism and patriarchy.

Though there are many efforts to restore Indigenous languages and culture, this colonial objective, to get rid of the Indian problem, still manifests itself in other ways in a contemporary context. From a legal perspective, within the Canadian court system, the value of Indigenous languages and cultures are diminished. This undermining of Indigenous languages and cultures is illustrated within the lower court decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (hereinafter referred to as Delgamuukw) (Borrows, 1999). John Borrows, an Anishnaabeg legal scholar, examines how the value of Indigenous languages and culture were belittled in Delgamuukw. In the case of Delgamuukw, McEachern C.J. diminished the importance of Indigenous languages in Canadian law when he did not accept evidence in the form of song or oral history from the plaintiffs, House of Delgamuukw, as proof of Aboriginal title. Specifically, McEachern C.J. (1991) viewed these songs and oral histories as songs, folklore, or mythology (p. 93). Borrows, however, outlines the importance of language for Aboriginal people’s political, economical, and legal systems. He writes, “Indigenous languages and cultures shaped their legal, economic, and political structures, and the socio-cultural relationships upon which they were built. Many of these narratives were considered private property” (p. 9). Indigenous language has formed the basis for Indigenous law, and in relation to colonialism, the loss of Indigenous language indicates a loss of Indigenous political, legal, social and economical systems. The Supreme Court of Canada also established that McEachern C.J.’s decision discovered, “a trend imbricated in the very bedrock of western European legal thought” (Burrows, 1999, footnote 22, p. 29). As noted earlier, central to European legal thought is sustaining binaries such as the colonizer and the colonized, or more specifically, the male and the female.

Indigenous language is connected to Indigenous culture and Indigenous culture is tied to gender roles and identity. Even though Delgamuukw provided a framework for Aboriginal title, Borrows also stated that it weakens Aboriginal title, and to a larger extent, Indigenous sovereignty (Borrows, 1999). For Cruz (2011), the fight for Indigenous sovereignty includes “liberation from the confines of gender baggage” (p. 53). Language revitalization is essential to Indigenous sovereignty and as maintained by Pitawanakwat, language revitalization is consequential for Indigenous culture and identity, including the diverse gender identities rooted in Indigenous culture. McGeough states, “Contemporary Western society is only beginning to understand what many Aboriginal societies have known since time immemorial” (p. 77). It is time to support language revitalization efforts as a way to advance equality for all gender identities and to ultimately fight against colonialism and the continued diminishing of Indigenous sovereignty.



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