My language, my dreams

Indigenous language revitalization, practices, and epistemologies
Mercedes Webb

Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew | Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it)
TRUCK Contemporary Art
Moh’kins’stis/Calgary, Alberta
November 1, 2019 to December 14, 2019
Curated by Missy LeBlanc

Susan Blight, "On the Occasion of our small gatherings", hooked rug, 2019.
Susan Blight, "On the Occasion of our small gatherings", hooked rug, 2019.

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I yearn for my ancestors’ languages to feel natural in my mouth, for my tongue and throat to be enlivened by words that hold other worlds. I want to decolonize my soft pallet, to hear their language, my language, in my dreams. I want to be able to reply.

Glowing bold text draws me into the gallery; words unfamiliar yet inviting, emanating warmth and obscuring the space beyond. ēkāwiya nēpēwisi (don’t be shy) (2017) by Joi T. Arcand (Muskeg Lake Cree Nation nēhiyawēwin1I will be referring to artist’s nation in addition to their ancestral language.) is a cahkipēhikana (Plains Cree syllabics) text work formed of rich pink neon light. A coy and unfixed question: what shouldn’t we be shy about? Entering the gallery? Learning our languages? Speaking, or trying to speak our languages?

Joi T. Arcand, "ēkāwiya nēpēwisi (don’t be shy)", neon channel sign, 2017. Photo by Elyse Bouvier.
Joi T. Arcand, "ēkāwiya nēpēwisi (don’t be shy)", neon channel sign, 2017. Photo by Elyse Bouvier.

Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew | Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it)2"pipon kona" is winter snow, "nepin pesim" is summer sun in Northern Cree Michif, and are a shorthand here for the full title., curated by Missy LeBlanc at TRUCK Contemporary Art in Moh’kins’stis/Calgary, celebrates Indigenous language revitalization, practices, and epistemologies. Six distinct ancestral languages are represented, all informed by millennia spent listening to and learning from the land.

Pipon kona, nepin pesim is one of a growing number of exhibitions that demonstrate resistance to ongoing genocide, a resilience that encompasses cultural and linguistic recovery. Language reclamation can be an intimate, relational, intergenerational act of resistance and care that provides healing from settler-imposed genocide through connecting us more deeply to the land and our ancestors. It can also be painful, exhausting, disheartening and frustrating—a constant reminder of that which was forcibly taken. The artists included are from each major geographic region of what the settler state calls "Canada." Each is learning, reclaiming, and speaking their ancestral languages, and demonstrating how to nurture more culturally vibrant futures for generations to come through bold works that directly interact with and feature their ancestral language.

"Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew | Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it", installation shot.
"Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew | Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it", installation shot.

LeBlanc had a conversation with Richelle Bear Hat (Blackfoot/Dane-zaa Cree, Nitsiipowahsin) and Alberta Rose W./Ingniq (Inuvialuit/Settler, Ummarmiutun) at the publication launch for pipon kona, nepin pesim. Bear Hat believes it’s important to share her experiences learning Nitsiipowahsin to offer a connecting point to others learning their ancestral language. Nitsiipowahsin was described to her by Reg and Rose Crowshoe as humbling yourself to the environment to hear the names of our non-human kin. She described language as softness, comfort, expansiveness of perception and understanding, an act of self-care. Working on her two-channel video, Nitssapaatsimaahkooka (she shared with me) (2019), has expanded how she relates with her family by bringing language revitalization into their conversations. Nitssapaatsimaahkooka features the memojis of Bear Hat (left screen) and her collaborator and grandma, Alona Theoret (right screen) teaching her Nitsiipowahsin. The first words spoken are Nitsiipowahsin. Bear Hat goes first, Theoret smiles, Bear Hat shakes her head seeming unsure of her pronunciation. Theoret replies and smiles encouragingly. Bear Hat asks Theoret how to say "sister," "this is my dad," and "this is my mom". Theoret translates and Bear Hat repeats as Theoret smiles encouragingly. The video ends with them bursting into laughter, which Bear Hat finds breaks the barrier of shyness she feels learning Nitsiipowahsin. Sometimes a challenge Bear Hat faces is muscles seeming to resist the inflections required for Nitsiipowahsin, but she is determined in learning her language and must make space for it, that held space is present throughout, in quiet moments between speaking, English only used to ask questions that will be answered by Nitsiipowahsin.

"Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew | Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it", installation shot.
Alberta Rose W./Ingniq, "Postcards from Abroad", postcards, 2019 and "ilihaqtunga (I learn)" performance ephemera, 2019. Photo by Elyse Bouvier.

Rose W./Ingniq shared that she repeats random Uummarmiutun (a dialect of Inuvialuktun) words to herself during the day, around the house while performing mundane tasks, this seemingly simple act helps her remember words and maintain connection to her ancestral language. Seemingly small acts still hold power and exemplify resistance to and hopefully the eventual recovery from attempted linguistic genocide by the settler state.

I am slowly learning Kwak̓wala, my ancestral language; to witness others struggling, fiercely trying, and succeeding in learning theirs is a needed reassurance that I am not alone in the process. Even when that process is saying a few words over and over to myself. Ingniq commented that every little bit of culture is a treasure—I feel surrounded by treasures in pipon kona, nepin pesim, some that are for those who speak the languages present, some for everyone.

Don’t be shy, your name is Ingniq (Fire). Don’t be shy, learn with your relatives. Don’t be shy, to speak to the whale. Don’t be shy to demand what was taken to be given back. Don’t be shy, we’re still here.

 

Notes

  1. I will be referring to artist’s nation in addition to their ancestral language.
  2. "pipon kona" is winter snow, "nepin pesim" is summer sun in Northern Cree Michif, and are a shorthand here for the full title.

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Mercedes Webb (Malidi Hanuse) is Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw with mixed settler background. She lives on Treaty 7 Territory in Moh’kins’stis. Webb is interested in writing’s role within art communities, as a way to support artists, stimulate engagement and as its own creative practice. View bio.
 
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