The sharing of language is a fundamental part of social connection and cultural identity. For Canada’s Indigenous communities, never has there been a more crucial time to preserve ancestral linguistic heritage and strengthen cultural tradition.
Researcher Claire Owen emphasizes that the connection between language and cultural identity is part of a more recent “broader overall mobilisation” involving Indigenous rights, increased political autonomy, and self-determination. This mobilisation is part of a strong movement to reclaim identity, because for more than a century, the Canadian government “discouraged and suppressed thousands of years of linguistic diversity and knowledge.”
Yet it is not only language that is lost during assimilation – beliefs, values, and culture disappear with it. Indigenous languages are oral traditions and Indigenous communities must have the tools and support necessary to prevent further loss.
The National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health’s (NCCAH) report entitled Art and Wellness: The Importance For Aboriginal Peoples Health and Healing. summarized the importance of art in fostering integrity and happiness. The report emphasized a direct link between artistic expression and “the vitality of individual and collective identity, strength, resilience, and overall well-being.”
Projects that foster ancestral language development, cultural identity and artistic expression are desperately needed, and the Rita Joe Song Project is one such initiative aimed at encouraging Indigenous youth to seek out and share their unique linguistic histories with the world.
Rita Joe was a renowned Mi’kmaw poet from Nova Scotia, referred to often as the “poet laureate” of the Mi’kmaq people. Her poem “I lost my Talk” details the loss felt by Joe when she was forced to abandon her language while attending a residential school as a young girl. The acclaimed poem reads:
I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.
In her autobiography, “Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’kmaq Poet”, Joe calls on Indigenous youth to “find their voices, share their stories and celebrate their talents.” It is this call to action that inspired a group from the Eskakoni First Nation in Nova Scotia, including Joe’s own daughters, to spearhead the Rita Joe Song Project with support from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
The project asked teachers and students in five Indigenous communities to create and record a song about their own interpretation of “I Lost My Talk.” The finished products, including a music video showcasing the song, were shared with the audience at the NAC’s Indigenous showcase in January.
The project’s headlining video demonstrates the importance of language preservation and cultural identity using both traditional Indigenous singing and modern lyrical approaches, including a rap interlude, to connect with a wider and younger audience. The six creative music videos that resulted from the project are featured on NAC’s website.
The song project is one of a number of artistic initiatives inspired by Joe’s poem, and NAC’s involvement in the concept involved collaborations with world-renowned artists in hopes of honing a truly unforgettable experience. One of the biggest highlights of the showcase was the world premiere of an original composition from Canadian composer John Estascio, inspired by Joe’s poem and commissioned for the NAC Orchestra.
Columnist Martin Knelman predicted the power of such a culmination of performances in a piece for the Toronto Star, stating “When it comes to truth and reconciliation, the arts may have a more profound impact than any government inquiry.”
The more we share Indigenous history, the more we, as an entire country, gain in cultivating collective cultural identity and fostering greater social connectedness. By supporting Indigenous artistic projects that showcase cultural identity and linguistic tradition, we are opening new avenues for discussion and acceptance. But most importantly, by involving Indigenous youth in projects that encourage the conservation of cultural traditions, we are tapping into, and engaging, a younger demographic to begin a new narrative that will, hopefully, lead to community healing and connection. After centuries of assimilation, it is time to undo the damage and encourage this revival.
Bravo to the Rita Joe Song Project and the NCO for their outstanding work in bringing these histories and traditions to life.
“Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”
– Mary Lou Fox, Ojibwe Elder