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What the Mi’kmaw Language Act Means For Indigenous Languages

Canadian lawmakers are working to protect the Mi’kmaw language. On April 7, The Mi’kmaw Language Act was introduced which will formally recognize Mi’kmaw as the first language of Nova Scotia.

This legislation also creates a committee to help revitalize the Mi’kmaw language.

“I am very excited about this legislation today. It is a big first step but there is still a lot of work to be done. I am eagerly looking forward to working with our elders, knowledge keepers, language warriors, and the Province in the joint implementation of this legislation. It is my hope that the model we create can be used nationally.” – Chief Leroy Denny, Eskasoni First Nation, Chair, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey said in a press release.

The act is set to take effect on Treaty Day (October 1). This significant date kicks off Mi’kmaq History Month and marks the anniversary of the 1752 Treaty of Friendship and Peace between the Mi’kmaq and the British Crown.

A Brief History of the Mi’kmaq People

Mi’kmaq were the first inhabitants of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Newfoundland, Maine, and Boston. The Mi’kmaq first appeared in this area 10,000 years ago. Traditionally this territory, called Mi’kma’ki, was broken into seven districts each run by a local chief. Today there are thirteen bands of Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia. Each of these bands elects a Chief and Council.

Early Mi’kmaq people were nomadic. They spent the summers hunting and fishing along the eastern coast. For the fall and winter, they moved further inland. The Mi’kmaq were also some of the first Indigenous people to have contact with European settlers. According to Mi’kmaq oral history, a Mi’kmaq woman had visions of people traveling to their land on a “floating island” so they were not entirely surprised when Europeans arrived. However, the European settlers drastically changed the Mi’kmaq way of life and brought diseases that devastated the Mi’kmaq population.

Preserving the Mi’kmaw Language

The Mi’kmaw language is an Algonquian language with more than a dozen different dialects. Since this was primarily an oral language, “runners” would carry messages between villages. Hieroglyphics, written on birch bark or animal skins, were originally used to transcribe the Mi’kmaw language. During the 1600s, Catholic missionaries created a new writing system using the Latin alphabet as a way to teach the Bible to the Mi’kmaq people.

Today, there are only around 9,000 speakers of the Mi’kmaw language.

“By 2027, if current trends continue, children aged four and younger will not be able to speak Mi’kmaq; the number of children under age four learning Mi’kmaq decreased from 44 percent in 1999 to just 20 percent in 2013,” according to a press release about The Mi’kmaw Language Act.

With this Act, lawmakers hope to revitalize and preserve the language for future generations.

However, this is not the first effort to protect the language. Mi’kmaq have been working for years to restore their language. A team of native speakers built an online Mi’kmaw dictionary in the 1990s. The Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey has supported community-based education and language revitalization efforts.

In 2019, a viral video of Emma Stevens singing “Blackbird” in the Mi’kmaw language also brought global attention to endangered indigenous languages.

Protecting Indigenous Languages

Emma Stevens’ cover of “Blackbird” was released in conjunction with the UN’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Throughout 2019, the UN worked to raise awareness of the importance of preserving indigenous languages.

Revitalizing language is one way to help protect the identity, culture, history and traditions of Indigenous people. However, without efforts to actively promote and teach indigenous languages, these communication methods are at risk of disappearing as native speakers die.

According to the UN, ” there are 6,700 languages spoken in the world, 40 percent of which are in danger of disappearing” – with a majority of these being indigenous languages.

The overwhelming responses to the 2019 efforts encouraged the UN to declare 2022-2032 the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages.”

Experts hope that efforts like those made by the UN and Canadian legislators will help revitalize indigenous languages around the globe.

“We are seeing language loss in our communities but most importantly we are seeing a language resurgence in communities where youth and community people are actively in pursuit of restoring their language and culture. This legislation will help strengthen that,” Blaire Gould, Executive Director, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey said in a press release.

The Mi’kmaw Language Act will hopefully create more ways for native speakers to pass on their language. While language revitalization plans are still being formed, you can use Mi’kmaw apps to practice the language.

If you want to learn the Mi’kmaw language, Learn Mi’gmaq Online is a great resource. Here are a few phrases to get started:

Curious about other language stories? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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