For over two decades, Marianne Ignace has been devoted to the revitalization of BC and the Yukon's endangered indigenous languages.
When an indigenous elder passes away, it all too often means they are taking a unique language or dialect with them. It is widely believed by experts that thousands of indigenous languages worldwide are at risk of dying out by the end of this century. BC alone is home to 32 indigenous languages, 59 dialects, and 8 language families. SFU’s Marianne Ignace is hopeful that some of these can be saved and she has made it her life’s work to collaborate with the region’s Aboriginal communities in the fight to preserve their languages and cultures.
“Indigenous languages house thousands of years of cumulative knowledge and wisdom,” says Ignace. “Here in BC, the current generation of First Nations were largely deprived of their languages as part of the cultural genocide identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They deserve to maintain a vital connection with their traditional ways of thinking and being on their land.”
A professor in the SFU Departments of Linguistics and First Nations Studies, as well as associate faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ignace came to BC in the late 1970s from a minority language community in Germany to study at the University. While conducting ethnographic research towards her PhD thesis in the community of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii, she was adopted by and lived with elders of the Yahgu ‘laanaas Raven clan, an experience that shaped her interest in their language and increased her understanding of Haida social discourse and stories.
She has collaborated with elders and communities ever since, including teaching First Nations languages, training language teachers, and developing curriculum. Her 1998 Handbook of Aboriginal Language Program Planning in B.C. has been used by several First Nations communities and universities, both locally and abroad.
In 1988, she and husband Ron Ignace founded SFU’s Kamloops satellite campus in the Shuswap nation. Until its closure in 2010, it featured an award-winning program consisting of courses on the history, languages and cultures of First Nations people, and it graduated almost 450 students, most of them Aboriginal. After the closure, she returned to Haida Gwaii to train new speakers of the Massett dialect, and in the late 1990s she worked with Sm’algyax speakers on the North Coast to help create a curriculum and practical grammar.
And now, with the help of a $2.5-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership grant, she is leading a seven-year, concentrated effort to document and revitalize endangered languages in BC and the Yukon. Some 20 co-investigators from Western Canada have partnered with two dozen grassroots First Nations groups representing 12 indigenous languages in this important venture. For example, Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a not-for-profit organization from the Squamish Nation community, is partnering with the SFU First Nations Languages Centre (where Ignace is the director) and the Department of Linguistics to offer a new adult immersion program in the Squamish language. The goal is to produce 15 fluent speakers each year who will then ideally go on to transmit the language to future generations. The partnership is also developing a series of apps, the first of which launched in August 2016, to aid in such learning.
Says Ignace, “By documenting languages, developing tools, and sharing practices that address the challenges of language loss and revitalization, we are collaborating to produce useful knowledge.”
Dr. Marianne Boelscher Ignace completed her PhD in Anthropology at SFU. Her dissertation on the politics of Haida symbols was published as The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Symbolic Discourse. She has also published articles on Haida oratory and potlatching. For the past twenty years, Dr. Ignace has focused her research on the Secwepemc (Shuswap) people of the Plateau, where her interests are Aboriginal land use and occupancy, ethnobotany, traditional ecological knowledge, ethnohistory, and the linguistic and anthropological analysis of Aboriginal language discourse. In recent years, she has worked with First Nations communities and elders on various language revitalization projects, including Secwepemctsin, St’at’imcets, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Haida and Sm’algyax.
Q & A with Marianne Ignace
What motivates you as a researcher?
Finding out things, contexts, processes and new ways of explaining these as they pertain to Indigenous languages and their connection to cultures. In addition, what motivates me is being able to make change: passing on that knowledge as an interlocutor to the next generation, and helping younger people understand the immense wisdom that comes out of languages and the knowledge they embed.
How is your research making an impact on our lives?
I hope that my research has made an impact in First Nations communities by giving voice to the vast and intricate knowledge system embedded in First Nations languages and cultures and by sharing this knowledge with younger generations. I also hope that I am making an impact by championing the cause of critically endangered languages to the public at large.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
In my research, collaboration is everything. I collaborate with knowledge keepers, elders, with colleagues and with students.
Putting one’s research out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you get yours from?
I get courage from the elders I work with. They have not only willing shared their amazing knowledge but have encouraged me to record and share their knowledge.
What advice would you give to your younger self regarding the challenges you faced as a researcher?
Be patient! It takes a lifetime to begin to know.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
Through ongoing, respectful and long-term engagement with First Nations communities, elders, students and institutions.