Language ownership, protection issue with archiving work

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 4:38pm

By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor

July 6, 2016.

Elizabeth Letendre could be delivering a message this weekend that academics from across the country won’t be pleased to hear: reconciliation goes beyond archiving Indigenous languages. Reconciliation, she will say, needs to be shown by universities going into First Nations communities to help people learn their language. Keeping a language alive, she will say, comes from speaking the language fluently, not by archiving it.  

“(Universities) go into the communities doing research all the time,” said Letendre. “They have to reach out. It can’t be in a little box in the school and they think studies prove everything. Studies only say so much.”

Letendre is the director of Heritage and Language at the Alexis Heritage Institute, opened two years ago with a pipe ceremony on the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. But prior to the creation of the AHI, Elders and the local schoolboard were active in developing a course and teaching their elementary-aged children to high school students how to write and speak their language. Students have been learning their language for the past 15 years.

“Our language got interrupted when (residential) schools became,” said Letendre. “Fluency has to be kept because a Nation always has to speak it.”

On July 8-10, the University of Alberta will be hosting a workshop to talk about developing a national initiative that would collect, house and share Indigenous language data from across the country.

“Archiving for Indigenous languages has been an idea that has been kicking around for at least a couple of decades as a need for both people in the communities – community language activists had noticed and mentioned - and folks in academia had known about,” said Jordan Lachler, director of the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute, which is housed at UAlberta.

Archiving, he explains, is a way to protect Indigenous languages as well as keeping the languages in circulation. Work is often undertaken in one community but not accessible to another community. Such a database would likely be hosted on the web.

“On the one hand it serves as a way to preserve and safeguard information but also a way for communities to kind of keep control over who gets to access information about their language and their culture,” said Lachler.

There was much discussion at the university level as to what role UAlberta should play in such an effort or if creating an archive should be left to an Indigenous post-secondary institution, says Laclher. But with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action delivered last year, it became apparent that this was one avenue to reconciliation.

“As a non-Indigenous institution we do have responsibility to put some time and money into these sorts of things that we have not been putting time and money into for the last century at least,” said Lachler.

Approximately 130 people from across the country will be in attendance for the weekend workshop, about one-third academic and two-thirds community members. Some attendees will fall into both categories.

Lachler says discussion will centre around three subjects: what are the needs and challenges facing the communities in accessing recorded data; how concerns by communities about loss of control and loss of intellectual property in depositing information into an archive can be addressed; and what are the institutional responsibilities at the academic level as well as provincial, territorial and federal levels.

“At this stage, the first step is to bring everybody together and to kick-start this conversation, and we’ll see where the conversation goes so we’re not sort of pre-determining … how this is going to turn out,” said Lachler.

Letendre says the conversation can go no further if protocol is not followed.

“That permission needs to be sought from the Elders in our community before they start to archive (our language) in the World Wide Web,” she said. “If they work with the communities themselves at the grassroots, maybe, they’ll agree to that. But at this point there’s no permission granted to do that.”

Letendre is wary of the university taking over and driving the process. She is also wary about the university wanting access to publish work written in Indigenous language and wanting to keep copies of video-recorded stories told by Elders.

“Our biggest concern is the protection of it. When it’s there, is somebody going to exploit it or run with it? That happens to First Nations all the time,” said Letendre.

“We want (the universities) to help us, but we don’t want them to acquire (our work) in their website,” she said. “Everything we do is for the benefit of the Nation.”

But Lachler stresses that the university will not be the front runner in this project.

“To pull it off, if it’s actually going to happen, you have to have buy-in and support all the way across the board,” he said. “You need to have the communities on board and taking the lead on these thing, but we have these responsibilities as large institutions to support this kind of endeavour.”

If an archive comes about, Lachler points out that any community involvement will be voluntary.