Church helps parishioners rediscover and protect Indigenous languages

29 October 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Rosella Kinoshameg has vivid childhood memories of being silenced when she tried to speak her native Ojibway at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic residential school near Sudbury, Ont.

Now, years later, she’s helping the Catholic Church rediscover and protect Indigenous languages.

Kinoshameg is a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle. It’s a national coalition of Indigenous people, Catholic clergy, women religious, and lay people dedicated to healing the relationship between the Church and Canada’s First Nations. Preserving language is also one of  Calls to Action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Rosella Kinoshameg

“For the Church today to become a way for people to access and relearn their language, it’s a huge step in reconciliation,” Kinoshameg said.

To that end, the Our Lady of the Guadalupe Circle published a letter and video on Oct. 28 acknowledging the injustices against Canada’s Indigenous people and the historic loss of their identity, language and cultural roots through the government’s residential schools, which were operated by a number of Catholic and other religious organizations.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle members meet twice a year in Ottawa. However, for the release of the letter and video, members chose Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton as the venue.

The First Nations church is at the forefront of integrating Indigenous languages and practices with Catholic tradition. Mass, prayers, readings and hymns are often in Cree or Dene. A smudging – a sacred Indigenous practice of burning sweetgrass – is also offered before Mass.

“I think the Sacred Heart Church represents a really good integration of Catholic and Indigenous traditions, and it’s something the community is very proud of and grateful to have,” said Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas, a member of the Our Lady of Guadalupe working group.

“It seemed like an ideal place to launch this letter from.”

Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas is a member of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle working group.

The release of the letter also coincides the United Nations’ 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages. The UN says 40 per cent of Indigenous languages worldwide are under serious threat of disappearing.

In Canada, Indigenous languages are on the decline. In 2011, only 14.5 per cent of Indigenous Canadians reported that their first language was their native language, according to Statistics Canada. In the 1996 census, it was twice that at 26 per cent.

Indigenous students were banned from speaking their native languages in many of the 44 residential schools run by Catholic operators starting in the 1820s until the mid-1990s.

Archbishop Chatlain hopes the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle shows Canadians that the Church is hoping to correct the wrongs of this period. Since 2017, the group has been involved in efforts to promote languages like Cree, Dene, Ojibway, Mohawk and Squamish in Indigenous parishes across the country.

“In the residential schools we were part of an effort to strengthen English and French and discourage their own languages,” said Chatlain. “Today we are saying we recognize the importance of these languages and we’re doing what we can to encourage their promotion and preservation.”

However, that’s not easy.

A common challenge in Indigenous parishes is that many younger parishioners have little experience speaking in their native tongue, said Kinoshameg. Often it is up to the elders of the parish to help incorporate their language into the Mass.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle is developing an online resource for translated prayers. Kinoshameg wrote Ojibway translations of the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be prayers. They are also being translated into Squamish and Cree. Kinoshameg hopes the site can be an effective resource.

At her home parish of Holy Cross Church on Manitoulin Island, Kinoshameg has taught the parish priest how to say the sign of the cross and the Lord’s Prayer in Ojibway.

Back at Sacred Heart, parishioners agree they are setting a strong example for renewed relations between the Church and Indigenous people.

Cecilia Nepoose

“I think it’s wonderful. It’s important for us to know our own language,” said Cecilia Nepoose, who is originally from the Samson Cree Nation in central Alberta.

“My two elder boys spoke Cree when we lived with my parents, but when we moved to Edmonton we kind of lost it. So I think we should do more to preserve it, and this church has been so positive for the Native people who come here to pray.”

Now that the letter has been released, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle hopes the value of Indigenous language – and the need to preserve it  ̶  will spread to parishes and First Nations across Canada.

“We hope this is an encouragement for Indigenous people young and old to make efforts in preserving their languages, and that the Church can be a place for learning it,” said Archbishop Chatlain, whose own First Nations parishes have embraced Indigenous language.

“In parishes where we’re singing and praying in Cree or Dene, both the younger Indigenous people and myself have had to learn many of these words for the first time.”

In drafting the letter and creating the video, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle sought insight from a variety of groups, including the Canadian Catholic Indigenous Council, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women’s League, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Graydon Nicholas

“Language is a basis to culture; it’s a basis to identity,” said Graydon Nicholas, the Knights of Columbus representative on the Circle and a member of the Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick.

“That was one of the great tragedies of the residential schools – the loss of language and identity. And it will take generations to recover that.”|

While there are worrying signs, Nicholas says there is a positive shift happening across Canada to combat this potential loss of language.

“It’s been a long time coming, but the environment in our country is now one where there is a greater awareness of Indigenous issues,” he said. “The United Nations declaration on Indigenous language confirmed what a lot of us have been saying for decades, that Indigenous people need to protect our languages.

“I’m very glad to be a part of that process and be a participant. I think it’s great that so many Catholic entities are involved in this effort.”

In addition, the Circle is looking at ways to support efforts around missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops is working on a pastoral letter that will address reconciliation.

“It will take some time, but this is meant to be a real effort at healing,” said Archbishop Chatlain.

Above all, Archbishop Chatlain hopes the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle promotes not only Indigenous culture, but also the role of the Holy Spirit in healing the relationship between the Church and First Nations.

“We must always keep God in our reconciliation work,” he said. “To really have forgiveness, understanding and reconciliation, God has to be invited to be a part of it.”