Go to page content

Indigenous voices

Preserving Indigenous languages for future generations


By Michaela Doucette

June is National Indigenous History Month — a time to recognize the rich history, heritage, resilience and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples across Canada.

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit. Each with diverse cultures, histories and languages. Memorial University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections (ASC) Division in the Queen Elizabeth II Library holds various historical documents relating to each Indigenous group.

I recently began my role as Indigenous archivist with ASC. One of my areas of focus is highlighting the Indigenous material held within the archives and ensuring the public, specifically the related communities, know that the material is there, safely preserved and well cared for, and that these materials are available to view upon request.

I chose a selection of holdings from our archives profiling Indigenous languages for you to explore.

Please note: Due to traditional archival practices, such as respect des fonds, it is common for Indigenous-created and -related archival material to be hidden within colonial and settler collections and titled under colonial naming practices. As a result, some archival collections held at the Archives and Special Collections are described using language that may be potentially harmful and derogatory. Please use caution when searching our collections.

1/ Beothuk Language: Vocabulary of Demasduit’s Language

While relatively little is known about the Beothuk language, it is believed to be related to the Algonquian language family. Archives and Special Collections holds one of the last known remaining dictionaries created by Demasduit, a Beothuk woman captured by the party of John Peyton Sr. and John Peyton Jr. in 1819 and placed into the care of Anglican missionary, Rev. John Leigh. Archives and Special Collections came into the possession of the dictionary in 2001 as part of an accession donated to the archives by the estate of Michael Harrington. It is unknown how it came into the possession of Michael Harrington.

Photo: WARNING: This item has been described using colonial naming practices. 17-012 Vocabulary of [Demasduit], Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

2/ Mi’kmaw Language: Mi’kmaw Catechism

Mi’kmaw hieroglyphics date back 13,000 years and are considered to be the “base” of the Mi’kmaw language. In the 1690s, the Roman Catholic Church published the translations of certain prayers into the hieroglyphics. This Mi’kmaw catechism, titled "Buch das gut, enthaltend den Katechismus, Betrachung, Gesand,” was printed in Germany in 1866. It was in private hands for 13-plus years, thus resulting in significant damage. It was given to William Bennett of Gander, N.L., by Mateau Gidore, near Conne River, in July of 1965 in “appreciation for a float plane ride.” It is believed to be one of the few copies left in existence as there are only two other copies known; one at Harvard University, Mass., U.S., and one at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., U.S. William Bennett donated the Mi’kmaw catechism. The Mi’kmaw catechism has been digitized and is available on the Digital Archives Initiative https://collections.mun.ca/digital/collection/prayerbook/id/246

Photo: COLL-462 [Mi’kmaw] Catechism, Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

3/ Inuktitut-German Dictionary

Inuktitut, or Inuttut in Northern Labrador, is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages, stretching from Alaska to Greenland. Inuktitut uses a writing system called syllabics, also used in the Cree language, which represents combinations of consonants and vowels. The language can also be written using the Roman alphabet, which is the dominant writing system used in Labrador and parts of Western Nunavut. This dictionary from 1813, which provides Inuktitut-German translations, was in the possession of Rev. Dr. Frederick W. Peacock, who served as a Moravian missionary in Northern Labrador in 1935. From 1941-71, Rev. Peacock was the superintendent for all Labrador Moravian missions and was deeply involved in the publishing, broadcasting and public speaking of Labrador Inuttut (Inuktitut). The dictionary, along with Rev. Peacock’s other archival materials, was donated to Archives and Special Collections in 1986 by his widow, Doris Peacock.

Photo: 1.01.003 Untitled Inuktitut-German Dictionary, 1813 (bound possibly in seal or caribou skin), COLL-069 F.W. Peacock Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland.


To receive news from Memorial in your inbox, subscribe to Gazette Now.

Latest News

Tech’s toll

Semiconductors 'very narrow aperture' to view water conflicts, drought says geographer

Memorial to Ireland

Applications open for Craig Dobbin Legacy Program

‘Rigorous, timely evidence’

Canada Research Chair in Pharmacy to continue informing policy development

A moment in time

Solar eclipse connected people through science

Presidential search

Update on progress April 10, 2024

People, place and books

Labrador Campus’ first academic librarian blends campus with community