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First Nations Languages Matter


First Nations Languages Matter


First Nations Languages Matter

Marianne Ignace is helping to revitalize the endangered indigenous languages of B.C. in all of their diversity.

When an indigenous elder passes away, it all too often means that they are taking a unique language or dialect with them. In fact, thousands of indigenous languages worldwide are predicted to die out by the end of this century. British Columbia alone is home to 32 indigenous languages, 59 dialects, and 8 language families–most of which are critically at risk of extinction. Dr. 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 to help them preserve their languages and cultures.

“Indigenous languages contain thousands of years of cumulative knowledge and wisdom gathered on the land by ancestors,” says Ignace. “Here in British Columbia, the current generation of First Nations people were largely deprived of their languages as part of the cultural genocide identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they more than 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 B.C. in the late 1970s from a minority language community in Germany to start doctoral studies in the latter department. While she conducted 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 people’s social discourse and stories.

She has collaborated with elders and communities ever since, including teaching First Nations languages, training language teachers and developing language curriculum. Her 1998 Handbook of Aboriginal Language Program Planning in B.C. was written for the First Nations Education Steering Committee and has been used by many universities and First Nations communities as a textbook.

In 1988, she and her husband Ron Ignace founded SFU’s Kamloops satellite in the Secwepemc (Shuswap) nation. Until the closure of the campus in 2010, the award-winning program featured courses on the history, languages and cultures of First Nations people, developed a First Nations Language Proficiency certificate and a First Nations Studies program, and graduated some 450 students, most of them Aboriginal.

Around the same time, she returned to Haida Gwaii to train new speakers of the Massett dialect of Haida, and in the late 1990s she began to work with Sm’algyax speakers on the North Coast to help create a curriculum and practical grammar.

And since 2013, with the help of a $2.5-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership grant, she has been leading a seven-year concentrated effort to document and revitalize endangered languages in B.C. and the Yukon. The grant is allowing some 20 co-investigators from Western Canada to partner with two dozen grassroots First Nations groups that represent 12 indigenous languages.

For example, Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a not-for-profit organization from the Squamish Nation community, is partnering with the SFU First Nations Languages Center (where Ignace is the director) and the university’s Department of Linguistics to offer an adult immersion program in the Squamish language starting this coming Fall. The goal is to produce 15 fluent Squamish language speakers each year who will hopefully go on to transmit the language to future generations. The partnership is also developing apps that will help with learning some Aborignal languages.

“By documenting languages, developing tools, and sharing practices that address the challenges of language loss and revitalization, we are collaborating to produce useful knowledge” says Ignace.


Dr. Marianne Boelscher Ignace completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, writing her dissertation on the politics of Haida symbols which 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 also 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.