New Faculty Profile: Heather Bliss, Linguistics

September 19, 2018

By Christine Lyons

Dr. Heather Bliss is the newest lecturer in SFU Linguistics. She has been doing fieldwork and research with Blackfoot elders since 2003, working with the linguistics of Blackfoot, a Plains Algonquian language spoken in Southern Alberta and Northwestern Montana. Her work started during her master's degree, when she worked with members of the Siksiká community, and she recently completed a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Victoria, where she deepened her commitment to honour the relationships that grew out of her graduate fieldwork.  

Bliss has contributed Siksiká Blackfoot materials to the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas, and has been documenting and analyzing personal stories and conversation in Blackfoot and working with Siksiká community members to develop an online digital archive of Blackfoot contemporary stories.

“The idea for the Blackfoot stories archive grew out of my collaborations with Blackfoot speakers,” she explains. “We had already documented many stories, but they weren’t being shared back with the community. We also didn’t have any formal structures in place to document stories; it just so happened that sometimes someone would tell a story and I would record it.”

Bliss says the digital archiving of Indigenous languages is important both for language revitalization and as a platform for Blackfoot language and culture. “The stories hold valuable information about the Blackfoot language and culture [and] with fewer and fewer people of the younger generations speaking the language, the stories can serve as a tool for language revitalization.”

One of her collaborators and teachers was the late Tootsinam Beatrice Bullshields, a Kainai elder and Blackfoot language teacher who has several stories in the archive. Bliss met Tootsinam while working on her doctorate at the University of British Columbia. They became friends after spending much time together and Tootsinam gave Bliss the Blackfoot name Otskaapinaaki. Recently, Bliss was honoured in a ceremony at the Siksika Nation where her Blackfoot name was blessed as a way to honour Tootsinam as well.

Bliss has published and co-written several refereed articles and book chapters. Much of her recent publishing has focused on teaching and learning in Indigenous language revitalization and she has forthcoming contributions in The Oxford Handbook of Determiners (Oxford UP), and The Routledge Handbook of North American Languages. Bliss’ doctoral work focused on the syntax of Blackfoot and she has an article coming out in the October 2018 issue of the International Journal of American Linguistics that examines a common sentence pattern found across Algonquian languages that she calls “pseudo-incorporation.”

Bliss says she is excited to continue her research and teaching on Blackfoot at SFU in the Department of Linguistics. As a researcher who is committed to collaborating and consulting with the communities she works with, Bliss says, "SFU feels like a good fit given the university’s mandate to be a community-engaged institution.”

In addition to teaching LING 100: Communication and Language and LING 220: Introduction to Linguistics at SFU in the Fall, Bliss is also set to teach LING 280: Indigenous Languages in Canada during the Spring 2019 semester.

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