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We Have to Hear their Voices: A Research Project on Aboriginal Languages and Art Practices

August 18, 201218 August 2012

Aboriginal arts / Cultural diversity

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This report examines the connections between Aboriginal languages and art in Canada, based on interviews, talking circles, a survey of over 300 Aboriginal artists, a review of Canada Council application files, and other available data. The report notes that, as taught by the Elders, “language is integral to the development of art practices. Similarly, art practice is a form of communication that is intertwined with or created alongside language, and is intrinsic to the development of culture and heritage in Aboriginal societies.”

The report articulates “the concepts of nations, whose traditional culture, heritage, and beliefs within a life-system are embedded in languages and expressed in a diverseness of art practices.” This highlights the interconnectedness of language and art practices in Aboriginal cultures, where life is approached holistically and “all of nature imbues spirit”.

The connection between Aboriginal languages and art practices “enables the transmission of cultural knowledge and history of peoples, rooted in person, community, land, and resources within a greater universe.” In short, “language forms an identity that is inextricably linked to the cultural life of the people – in the songs, dances, and spiritual ceremonies”.

In some cases, respondents had difficulty describing their activities in the language and disciplines of the Western art world. The descriptions that did emerge highlighted the relationships of art “to identity and worldview; to lands and territories and the elements within; and to the language, culture, and heritage of the people”.

The report highlights the diversity of Aboriginal languages, indicating that “there are approximately 221 Aboriginal languages in North America”. Among Aboriginal artists, 93% have “some understanding of an Aboriginal language”, but only 28% can speak an Aboriginal language. The report notes that “there is no policy on Aboriginal languages” at the Canada Council, nor is there federal legislation or an “overarching federal policy for the recognition and revitalization of indigenous languages in Canada”.

In terms of future directions, research participants suggested that:

  • Aboriginal languages “take some priority within the thinking of the Canada Council”. Among those consulted during the research, language was found to be a key barrier to accessing Canada Council programs.
  • Research be undertaken to better understand the connection between Aboriginal languages and art practices.
  • Support be provided for education and training.
  • Support be given for translation and interpretation services.
  • Forums be created for dialogue, discussion and research.

The report concludes with a citation from the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures: “We believe it is time for Canada to recognize that Canada’s linguistic heritage runs deeper than the French and English languages…. The songs and dances that speak of our connection with the land … give this fabric the unique texture and vibrancy that make it unlike any other fabric in the world.”

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