Found in translation: new perspectives on RAVEN’s mission

As anyone who speaks more than one language knows, the process of  translation can be opaque and imprecise, not to mention frustrating. Carried out with care and  consideration, however, it can also be  creative and insight-filled. Words like “reconciliation”, “solidarity”, and “justice” all have subjective meanings. So: what happens when we attempt to find equivalents to these concepts in Indigenous languages? 

That’s what RAVEN set out to discover when we reached out to knowledge keepers of Heiltsuk, Cree, Wet’suwet’en, Secwepemc, Lekwungen, Esquimalt and Tsilhqot’in Nations to translate our official mission statement into Indigenous languages. 

Like discovering new terrain by taking a different path, the project has been illuminating and surprising. The process of translating just one seemingly simple sentence turns out to look less like an academic exercise in dictionary consultation, and more like a series of afternoons spent over cups of tea, around kitchen tables, in consultation with elders and relatives. 

That’s partly because is not possible to put English or European concepts side-by-side with Indigneous language, when each springs from such different worldviews. Yet, the search to communicate concepts some might call ‘untranslatable’ is part of the process of understanding and relationship repair that is fundamental to the work of building a just future together. 

“RAVEN’s vision is a country that honours the ancestral laws, rights and stewardship values of Indigenous Peoples and their equitable access to the justice system within a thriving natural environment.”  

RAVEN Mission Statement

Indigenous languages: a renaissance

On paper, the status of Indigenous languages can look dire.  Half the world’s languages are being kept alive by one-fifth of one per cent of the world’s population. Every two weeks, an elder passes away, carrying  with them irreplaceable knowledge. 

But: from kindergartens to elders’ kitchen tables, a noisy and vital renaissance is underway. 

230,000 Indigenous people in this country regularly speak their mother language at home. There are 95,000 Cree speakers, making it the most spoken Indigenous language in the country.  Meanwhile, Tsilhqot’in is the first language of Xeni Gwet’in elders who are actively involved in language instruction in their community. Tsilhqot’in children from pre-school onwards are being immersed in the language of the Nemiah Valley as part of the Jeni Huten -We are holding on to our voice – project. 

 In Heiltsuk territory, the Bella Bella Community School and UBC’s First Nations and Endangered Languages Program have partnered to collaboratively create new opportunities for speaking, writing and reading the Heiltsuk language. Every summer, Heiltsuk youth gather in the Koeye River Valley for an intensive cultural immersion in which youth are exposed to intensive culture and language teachings: they gather wild foods and medicine plants, weave cedar bark, paddle traditional canoes, and immerse themselves in the language, customs and laws of their ancestors. 

The Wet’suwet’en people speak Witsuwit’en, a dialect of the Babine-Witsuwit’en language which, like its sister language Carrier, is a member of the Athabaskan family. When the Wet’suwet’en translators, Violet, Melanie and Amanda,  translated RAVEN’s mission statement from Witsuwit’en back to English, here’s what the direct meaning of the words afforded:  

Raven Trust/ future see/ this country/ our Ancestral Laws are Respected and Honored. Correct our laws here on our lands/ they will use/ follow 

Voices of the Land

Indigenous languages are like mirrors held up to illuminate the lands and waters from which they come.  Alive with the sounds of ancestors, these languages are deeply rooted in, and emergent from, particular ecosystems: influenced by rivers and birdsong, the words are the threads that weave people to place. 

Comments RAVEN legal advisory board member John Borrows, “Thinking of the word raven in Anishinaabemowin – an Algonquian Indigneous language where I’m from in central Canada — raven is ka ga ge – it’s the sound a raven makes, but it’s also the word for eternal. I like the idea of RAVEN having this trust that never dies. If you hear a raven calling out in the forest, you might understand how they have that connotation; they have this ethereal sound that is eternal. RAVEN has been like that for me.” 

We’re so grateful to Bella Alphonse (Tsilhqotin), Elizabeth Brown and Marina Humchitt (Heiltsuk), Violet Gellenbeck, Melanie Morin and Amanda Lewis (Witsuwit’en) and Peggy Gladue and Shirley Badger (Cree) for illuminating our shared mission to uphold laws and sustain ecosystems. To everyone who contributed to the translations, and who – with your work with elders, youth, and communities – are part of the revitalization of Indigenous languages. Thank you! 

Want to learn more? Check out this language map of unceded territory from First Peoples Cultural Council: can also learn how to say “hello” or thank you in the Indigenous language that’s spoken where you live.


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