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Language Heroes: Past, Present & Future

On January 27th, 2022 we kicked off the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages with a

special virtual event: "Language Heroes: Past, Present & Future". The event featured voices from past, present and future language projects- highlighting their growth as a community and our growth as an organization and partner.

Our tremendous panelists included:

Mary Fong Hermes: Mary is a mixed heritage women, and a long time community member at Odaawaazaaga’iganing (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation, Hayward Wisconsin). She worked with Elders at LCO and the tribal school from 1993-1997, then moved back to co-found Waadookodaading Ojibwe Immersion school, 1999-2005. While teaching tribal cohorts of masters students in Duluth, she worked on documentation with Elders, which resulted in archives of conversations in everyday settings and a language course with 7000 Languages. This was done in collaboration with community members and the non-profit, Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia . Mary has helped produce over 30 children’s books in Ojibwe and English, and a second set of documentation archives, “Forest Walks.” Mary Is currently working on making a land and language mobile game, thanks to a generous Spencer Large grant.

Allan Hayton: Allan is Gwich’in Athabascan and Scottish/Irish. He grew up in Arctic Village, and is the son of Lena Pauline Hayton from Fort Yukon, Alaska, and James T. Hayton from Natick, Massachusetts. His Athabascan name is Diton, given to him by Dorothy Pitka after his great-grandfather Joseph Hunter of Tanana. Allan studied theatre and film at Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas, finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1992. He continued at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, graduating spring 2013 with a Master of Arts in applied linguistics. Doyon Foundation serves ten Indigenous languages, all highly endangered.

Heather Souter: Heather Souter is a Michif (Métis) living in Camperville, Manitoba. She is a learner-teacher of Michif with a professional background in interpretation and language teaching. She holds a Master of Education in Indigenous Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria, and has extensive training in linguistics and anthropology at the graduate level. A long-time language activist and language revitalization practitioner, Heather presently runs the Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle (P2WILRC). Heather is also a sessional lecturer in Michif at the University of Manitoba, and consults widely on language revitalization matters, including the use of language technologies for Indigenous languages.

Sara Child: Sara Child comes from the village of Fort Rupert on Northern Vancouver Island. She is from the Kwagu'ł people and is the granddaughter of Hereditary Chief Tommy Hunt. She has been working in education for most of her life and is passionate about supporting the restoration of the Kwakwaka̱’wakw worldview encoded in her language. Sara received her Master’s of Education in Indigenous Language Revitalization in 2015. To date, she has created 5 beginning language courses, 2 for Port Hardy Secondary and 3 for North Island College (NIC). In addition, she recently completed the development of the Indigenous Language Fluency Certicate (ILFC) for NIC. Her family Is her Inspiration.

All of our panelists spoke of their trials and tribulations building language courses, but all ultimately agreed the process has changed their communities for the better. So many of our panelists had a bleak view of the future when it came to their languages, but all were pleasantly surprised to say they are thriving despite the many factors working against them.

"In my 20 years I have seen the language turn from little bits of kindling to large bonfires on every reservation and every urban area. There's people that are hungry. There are so many more young people now who are speaking Ojibwe. It makes me so happy because we didn't know if we were preserving a language that no one was going to speak in 20 years and the opposite has happened, it has taken off." - Mary Fong Hermes

Mary was one of the very first people who worked with us to create a language learning course back in 2009 with Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia. It is because of that experience and success that we have been able to branch out and connect with even more communities and individuals across the globe to help revitalize their languages. We now offer over 22 Indigenous languages and are working with a large list of communities on our wait list to continue our work well into the Decade of Indigenous Languages. One of the wonderful non-profit organizations we've had the pleasure of working with on many courses is Doyon Foundation.

"7000 Languages and Transparent Language have been very instrumental in helping us to make languages more accessible for folks in our region who want to learn. When I first started in 2015, there were no places I could point people to if they wanted to learn their language. And now we're very excited to have these online courses that have been adopted by schools and community groups." - Allan Hayton

The ultimate goal for so many of these communities is to bridge the age gap between speakers. Sara Child works with families in her community to build language nests for young children so that they can grow up with their heritage language and engage in conversation with their Elders. Intergenerational learning is key to revitalizing and sustaining language.

"After much thought we decided to move forward [with 7000 Languages] to build a tool to support our parents that work with us to bring language into their homes." - Sara Child

In addition to the many community, cultural and familial benefits of preserving one's heritage language, there are also many important environmental factors that lend themselves to the critical work that is being done to preserve and protect our land, water and air. Mary Fong Hermes spoke passionately about her desire to connect language with the land and show members of her community as well as outside learners that our relationship with nature is a key factor in maintaining healthy relationships with ourselves, our languages and each other.

"Language is about restoring relationships between ourselves, to the land and to the more-than-human-beings that we are a part of here." -Mary Fong Hermes

One common challenge between the varying languages is the diasporas many communities face, which can make language learning difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has not made things easier, due to further limiting the ability of groups to gather, celebrate, learn and practice their languages. All of the panelists agree that in-person learning is the most fruitful and meaningful but their languages are supported and maintained through online learning.

"Sometimes something as small as an online language course can become a catalyst for big things." - Heather Souter

Many communities and language revivalists are looking towards the future and are relying heavily on the use of technology, virtual learning, and the creation and distribution of new language learning apps that will hopefully draw in a younger crowd and continue creating further accessibility in the world of Indigenous languages.

"This sense of healing through language technology was not really something that I expected because of the social aspect of language learning. It's something that I found really heartening." - Heather Souter

Ultimately, it is the deep connection, respect, and understanding that allow for people within and without these communities to help revitalize these languages. There are many people who are looking to add another language to their repertoire, collectors if you will, that miss out on the true meaning behind why preserving and protecting these languages is critical to the survival and progress of mankind. As Heather Souter said, "The only way for our language to survive is for people to fall in love with it."

If you missed the event or would like to watch it again:

We are so grateful for our wonderful panelists and the many hundreds of folks who registered and attended this event. We have big plans for this upcoming decade and are looking forward to sharing our future goals, as well as the individual goals of our partners, language communities and friends. More than ever, we want to act as a platform for Indigenous voices to be heard- we must listen, learn, and act.

This month we celebrate African American Heritage Month, Olelo Hawaii Month and International Mother Language Day which we will be hosting a book club event to celebrate. Be on the lookout for an invitation via email and more details on our social media. This summer we will also be launching a membership program for supporters like you. Our membership program will be an opportunity to learn even more from our community partners, get exclusive access to some of the work we are doing at 7000 Languages, while also supporting language revitalization efforts around the world. Finally, we are excited to announce that we are in the process of developing a mobile app for users of endangered languages to create and share language learning materials. And there is more to come, so stay connected with us.

Once again, we are thrilled to welcome and celebrate the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Indigenous languages, and the threats of language endangerment are critical issues and need more attention and support. Our panelists represent some of the amazing projects we have been able to accomplish, but there is more work to be done! We hope you will consider supporting the work we do at 7000 Languages by donating.

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