How a canoe trip on the Thames revives a dying indigenous language

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When Ian McCallum put a canoe in the Thames River for the first time last August, he was looking for more than an adventure. He hoped it would help him see the river through the cultural and historical prism of his ancestors.

Now the two-day trip from London to Munsee, Ont. inspired a book as part of a larger effort to revitalize the endangered Lunaape language, also known as Munsee.

The new language resource is called Asiiskusiipuw wiichkuneew Munsiiwaktranslated into Canoe trip on the Thames. It teaches basic Lunaape vocabulary by highlighting sights and sounds along the river.

“It’s a language that’s under a lot of pressure to survive,” said McCallum, a language educator for the Munsee-Delaware Nation, located about 20km southwest of London on the edge of the Chippewas of the Thames reserve. .

“Canoeing on the Thames” or “Asiiskusiipuw wiichkuneew Munsiiwak” was written by Ian McCallum and speakers of the Munsee-Delaware community language. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

He is one of two intermediate speakers of the Lanaape language in the language reserve which, according to UNESCO, is critically endangered. The organization claims there are less than 10 fluent speakers.

McCallum says his book is a “naming reversal process,” which he describes as an opportunity to “take back those naming rights for ourselves.” Its aim is to help build an understanding of the river in traditional vocabulary for readers of all ages.

Community history

The canoe trip was “a wonderful way to see what my ancestors and mountain people would have seen when they first came to the Thames in the early 1780s,” McCallum said.

The late Munsee-Delaware Chief Mark Peters was part of the canoe trip and described the history of the land, including the location of villages in the 1800s. Peters died in June.

McCallum considers himself lucky to have been able to learn from Peters during the trip.

“We lost someone who knew a lot of history,” McCallum said. “He was a mentor to me.”

McCallum grew up hearing the Lunaape language on the reservation as a child. His great-grandfather spoke the language with his family – and they worked to keep the words and phrases alive.

“We were lucky to have this ability to hear these speakers. So it’s our job to share what we know and pass on the language,” he said.

Seeing the Thames through Lunaape language and history is a way to “take back those naming rights” and better understand traditional vocabulary, Ian McCallum said. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

When McCallum went to college, he had the option of taking other native language courses, but not Munsee. He then made the decision to learn the language as best he could.

Now he is working to share this knowledge with the community. Along with his work at the Munsee-Delaware Nation, he researches language revitalization in a doctoral program at the University of Toronto and works in the Indigenous Education Office of the Department of Education. in the Barrie area.

“The response is overwhelming”

Traditional workshops like beading, basket weaving and planting are another way to share the language.

He has teamed up with his neighbor Karen Mosko, another Lunaape speaker from his country, to teach classes, lead workshops, and create learning resources. They even went online, producing videos and social media resources.

Karen Mosko and Ian McCallum are the two intermediate Lunaape/Munsee language speakers in the Munsee-Delaware Nation. They share their knowledge with the community through cultural immersion workshops, language classes and learning resources. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

Interest in learning the language is only growing. During the pandemic, he has seen around 170 people take language lessons virtually.

“The response is overwhelming,” he said. People connected from “all over North America”.

“Tip of the Research Iceberg”

In August, he plans to paddle from Muncey to Moraviantown, a nation about 50 km southwest of Chatham-Kent. He expects the trip to take at least two days.

The only living first language speaker Lunaape lives there – along with about 10 or 15 second language speakers. The two nations are the only Munsee-speaking communities in Canada.

McCallum sees this as “the tip of the research iceberg,” he said. He already has more learning resources in the works as he continues to share the knowledge he has learned.

“There is so much hidden science and understanding that is locked away in the language,” he said. “Without that, you know, pieces are lost.”

His book will be available at the Munsee-Delaware Nation Pow Wow on July 2-3.

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