Indigenous Language Revitalization | April Charlo | TEDxUMontana

[applause] – Do you remember when you
first entered into the world? Because I don’t, and I’m sure you all don’t either. But when we enter into the world,
we are basically a clean slate. We are empty of all concepts and values,
but over time, through experiences,
we begin to form and cement key concepts, that remain with us for the rest of our lives. For example, for some of us,
we were taught the concept of what it meant to be nice,
that hitting was not nice and that helping was nice. And so in order to fill this slate,
we need a language, and we need experiences. And so our languages and experiences
go from googly-goo talk words to then sentences to then being able
to have these descriptive monologues that demonstrate
how we make meaning in the world. And so here’s my niece, Sarah Joan, and we were outside in the yard
on this one spring day, and we were having a shared experience. And she just had this fascination
with finding bugs. And she would pick them up
and she would stare at them, two inches from her face. She had no fear of these bugs
and it was so beautiful. I, on the other hand, was
a little bit freaked out, [audience laughter] but I didn’t want my fear of bugs
to be passed on to her. So instead, I encouraged her, and found more experiences
for her to find bugs. And so on this day, she finds a bug. And as you can see,
she is very intrigued by it, and she is so intrigued by it
that she is determined to have,
or possess this bug. And so before this experience with my niece, she had to have at least tried or tested
the concept of ownership, because when she turned to me
and she said, [in high-pitched voice]
“My bug,” I said “Oh, is that your bug?” And she responded back
to me, “Yes. My bug.” [audience laughter] And so she had learned
this concept from somewhere, and probably within her local environment,
around her, and she tried
and tested this concept. And we’ve all done this because we have to try and test concepts
within our shared experience, with the people that we have
shared experiences with, and our environment.
And so when she was saying things like “my bottle” or “my toy” or “my cup,” somebody reinforced it with her by saying
“Why yes, that is is your bottle.” And so she goes from that moment to really understanding
that she can own things. And this is a common routine
that we have with the kids in our lives, because if you’ve ever been
around toddlers at all, you’ve probably heard the word “mine.” [audience laughing] And so it took me a minute to realize
the impact that that day had had on my niece and I. That day that I affirmed and confirmed with her
the concept of ownership, that you could, indeed, own a bug. And so in my everyday work,
I am a language revitalist, or something like that.
We don’t really have a working title because in indigenous communities, surrounding language loss,
we don’t really sit around and come up with a working title
for what we do, because we really don’t have time. We’re more focused on the revival
and survival of our languages. So bottom line
is I have a passion for promoting the bringing back
of indigenous languages. And, so I was working with
a neighboring language, and I had learned how to say, “Hand me my,” and I thought that I could insert any object
after those words, and so I approached a fluent speaker,
and I said, rather confidently, “Hand me my water,”
in her language and she turned to me with a frown
and she said not only could I not say that word, but I couldn’t even say it at all. And I was really confused,
because I was like, I knew I had said all of those words correctly, and so when I turned to her
and I asked her and I said, “Well, what did I say that was wrong?
What can I say?” And she said to me
that you couldn’t use the word “my” with anything in the natural world. You couldn’t use the word “my”
with anything in the natural world? What? [audience laughter] Was what my inside face said, but my outside face said,
“Oh, oh, you can’t?” Because what she said to
me made no sense, at all. And so those of us that have ever been
in this situation, when something doesn’t make sense,
we make it make sense. And so I made it make sense by doing this: I thought, well, if I can’t use the word “my”
with anything in the natural world, like tree, rock, or water, well, I could then use it
with car, or shoe, or money because those things
can’t be found in the natural world. And so I was working with… well, I had went to visit
my language colleague in Canada, and I was sharing with him
this experience that I had had where this elder told
me about her language, and about how you
couldn’t use the word “my” with anything in the natural world, and all of a sudden this huge,
this ginormous realization hit me. And I believe it went something like this, “Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God!” [audience laughter] And I turned to him and I said, “Do you think that maybe
what she was saying is that in her language
they don’t have the concept of ownership?” And that was such a shock to me, that realization, that possibility, that I had to put my learning
of my language aside and I went out on a research journey
with this in mind: What if there is no concept
of ownership in my language? And what if I had been
forcing unnatural concepts into the language of my people? And what if my efforts
were actually changing the true essence of my people forever? And so my first stop
on my language research journey was with this word “my” and what I found was,
was that with this word “my” was that when used in its proper form, it is used to say
“my mom,” “my dad,” “my daughter,” “my son”– that kind of “my.” It’s really not interchangeable
like how we use it in English because when say “my mom,”
we’re not saying, “I own or possess my mother.” We’re saying that I have a bond,
or a connection, a relationship with that person
that I use the word “my” with. Because when we say “my shoe,” we’re not saying that I have a bond
or a connection with that shoe. We’re saying that I own
or I possess the shoe. And so at this point, I allowed myself
to have this kind of awakening, this kind of taking on a belief that perhaps
there was a world, in my world, that didn’t have ownership. And what began to happen
was these stories just began to emerge, and stories of my ancestors, and this is one that we all know,
is when the Bitteroot Salish, when the government came in, and they told my ancestors, my chiefs, that they had to give up their way of life, they had to give up hunting and gathering,
and take on this world of farming, that they were given a piece of paper,
and they were told that that piece of paper meant that they now owned land. And another colleague told me that
her mother and grandmother were walking through land
that they had walked through forever, and they were nearly killed because they didn’t understand
the concept of trespassing, and they were on a new settler’s land. And so at this point, I had to think about things deeper,
and this elder told me, she opened my eyes,
’cause she told me that there’s this old saying, “Adapt or die.” And this realization hit me that wow,
that’s what had happened, is that my people
had to take on this concept of ownership as a matter of survival
or they could have truly died. I was talking to some elders and I decided to create this test phrase,
just to see about this “my water” in my language. And so I approached this one elder
and I said, “Is it possible to say ‘my water’ in our language?” She kind of chuckled and she said,
“No, no, it’s not possible.” But then she stopped herself,
and she said “Well, actually, “you could say ‘my water’ “because if you owned a piece of land
and that water went through it then you could say ‘my water.'” But then she didn’t have an example
prior to land ownership, and I knew that my people had to take on
this concept of ownership. I was visiting with my friend, another colleague,
and I was telling her about this realization I was having around this not being able
to say “my water,” and she said, “Well, of course. “Of course, April.
Of course you can’t say ‘my water,’ because ‘sewlk,’ our word,
our Salish word for water, ‘sewlk’ the root word means ‘to ask.'” And when she told me that,
I realized that this word had never been properly translated for me, because I had taken water for granted
this whole time, my whole life. I had used it to bathe in,
to wash, to wash clothes, to quench my thirst.
It was a thing that I could possess or own and use how I liked. That was water to me. And when she said
that the root word was to ask, I imagined my ancestors
having this connection to land in a way that I didn’t understand because they knew that water
was so vital that we would cease to exist without it. So you had to ask to use it. And so, from that, my worldview just has begun to open, and it took me back to that day with my niece, and I thought about how different
my words would have been with my niece had I not had
the concept of ownership. Perhaps I would have said things like, “Wow, what a beautiful connection
you are having with this bug. “What is this bug telling you? What is it teaching you?” And so at this point in time, I now have this huge opportunity, [audience laughter] [applause] this huge opportunity to revitalize
not only my language, but the values and concepts, the deeper meaning of my language
that goes with it. And I can teach my baby a world without ownership. And to teach him how to be more connected
to the world, rather than just owning pieces of it. [foreign language] [applause]

8 Replies to “Indigenous Language Revitalization | April Charlo | TEDxUMontana

  1. puranga retana! so interesting… in tupian languages i'm studying, there's also no "ownership concepts". the uses of pronouns are analogous.

  2. That is true what you observed. Because, it isn't just the words, it's the thinking that can also come up different. So, the thinking must be learnt at the same time or meaning will be lost.

  3. U know after all the history of being raped and robbed by the Catholics and u.s., government I noticed the language changed from sentences and paragraphs and only spoke about behaviors ,….???? Now their are single words like mom ,dad ,aunts and grandma these words have history that doesn't belong(my)I promised Felix a. Arica that I wouldn't make funny towards people like yourself the real language uses both hands in sign and small words .all the tribes have those words (one big tribe)take a few tribal language books put them close to each other (the older ones didn't call by name ,just talked)if Indians named people ,places and things then half of u.s. Would already be named . (Native historian) u know on the other hand🤔I found a huge stone nose upside down on another res,.i found other ones,….the other aboriginals on both sides of this u.s.,and South America have stone carvings,…during my experiences I,be studied gemologist , and weapons like explosives (t.n.t) a friend one day asked I,be come to this river honoring and for the life of me I don't know what's up with this place,…so I took a look ,….that big red stone right their was a stone carving and all those small red stones were apart of it ,….yeah' I cheated I used 👁lol.

  4. English language is a crooked and wishy washy, tricky words cuz if used in a simple way it's understandable.when used in more bigger and more vowels and consenants it's harder to understand ,yet it doesn't mean we can't learn it.we can.

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