Radio — Grassroots revitalization of Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge


On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Christi Belcourt. She is a Metis artist and a member of the Onaman Collective, a small group of artists who work to catalyze the learning of Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge.

Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge are central to efforts by Indigenous nations of this continent to decolonize. The imperative is not just to preserve, but to revitalize — to move from the current situation, in which many Indigenous languages and much traditional knowledge are at risk of being lost forever, to one in which there are increasing numbers of language-speakers with increasing fluency and an increasing breadth and depth of traditional knowledge.

Language is central to this process of resurgence. Indigenous languages are not simply collections of different words for exactly the same ideas you would find, say, in English, but rather, in how they are organized, they encode distinct ways of understanding and relating to life and to the world. Indigenous languages are woven together with all of the other elements that are central to the distinctiveness and vitality of Indigenous nations, from the entire breadth captured by the phrase “cultural practices,” to systems of governance, to understandings of right relations among all of us who make up the world, to the land itself.

In the current moment of Indigenous resurgence, there are many ongoing grassroots experiments to find innovative ways to bring language and traditional knowledge to Indigenous youth and to other Indigenous people who have been denied them by colonization. Christi Belcourt, most widely known for her work with the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit of moccasin vamps in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women, is one of three members of the Onaman collective — the other two are Isaac Murdoch and Erin Konsmo. The collective members are artists committed to bringing together “land-based art activities with traditional knowledge, youth, Elders, and language.” They write, “The three of us will combine our skills for art and land-based community learning, collaborations and community based gatherings that center on art as a way to transfer knowledge of traditional teachings and language.” Their efforts so far include using the building of a birch-bark canoe as a focus for sharing traditional knowledge with youth; bringing youth together in a “language house” for a four-day immersion experience in learning Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibway language); and a rich range of other kinds of gatherings and activities. Belcourt talks with me about the importance of Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge, about the approach the collective takes to bring language and knowledge to new people, and about their big plans for the future.

To learn more about the Onaman Collective and their work, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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