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‘Preserve and strengthen’

Academic-Indigenous methodologies to help preserve Innu language, culture


By Chad Pelley

An Indigenous language of Labrador and Quebec is in the early stages of attrition, experts say.

Dr. Welch in burgundy shirt with hands rested on a table in front of him
Dr. Nicholas Welch is the Canada Research Chair in Change, Adaptation and Revitalization of Indigenous Languages at Memorial University
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

To assess and address the issue, Memorial’s Department of Linguistics is collaborating with Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education (MTIE) on two projects working towards the preservation of Innu-aimun.

Dr. Nicholas Welch, Memorial’s Canada Research Chair in change, adaptation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, and Kanani Davis, chief executive officer of MTIE, are co-leading the projects.

Innu youth hold the key

The attrition of Innu-aimun is alarming because, until recently, has been one of the most robust Indigenous languages in Canada, Dr. Welch says.

Though numerous adults are fluent speakers, increasing numbers of children are growing up without speaking the language.

Anecdotally, it appears that young Labrador Innu parents are increasingly choosing to speak predominantly English in the home.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ubiquitous online communication also appear to have diluted the use of Innu-aimun.

Dr. Welch and Ms. Davis are leading a team of Memorial faculty members, graduate students and Innu community members in a two-year project.

It aims to determine whether and to what extent English is replacing Innu-aimun among the next generation of Innu currently raising children, the reasons for this shift, if it exists, and in what areas of daily life the shift may be occurring.

Dr. Welch in front of a computer with audio recording equipment on his desk
Dr. Welch and his team hope their hybrid academic-Indigenous methodologies will serve as a model for future projects assessing the state of language vitality in Indigenous languages.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The team members are or will be cross-trained in both academic linguistic research methods and Innu cultural practices and ways of knowing.

They will use socio-linguistic tools, such as interviews and surveys, as well as Indigenous methods of discovery, like sharing circles, to discover whether or not and to what extent English is replacing Innu-aimun among Innu youth aged 19–25.

“After the data have been collected and analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methods, the team will have a broad picture of the state of the language among the new parental generation,” said Dr. Welch. “The findings will then be presented to the grand chief and council of the Innu Nation and to the chiefs and councils of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, to aid the crafting of policy to preserve Innu-aimun in Labrador.”

Additionally, the team hopes to test its hybrid academic-Indigenous methodologies to see if they can serve as a model for future projects assessing the state of language vitality in other Indigenous languages when early attrition is suspected.

Innu Language Digital Archive

Dr. Welch is also overseeing the digitization of three collections of audio recordings of Innu stories, songs and interviews.

The recordings are primarily on audiocassettes dating from the 1970s to early 2000s, but also include many hours on reel-to-reel tapes from the 1950s through to the early 1970s.

“This is an essential digitization initiative because of the vulnerable state of these recordings and their value to the continuance of Innu-aimun and Innu-aitun.” — Dr. Nicholas Welch

A team of eight students at Memorial and seven Innu community members spent the last three years converting the recordings to digital files.

They are now stored in Memorial’s Indigenous Languages Library and Archive servers and in the Labrador Languages Preservation Database.

“These collections represent many hundreds of hours of work in linguistic and cultural documentation by community members and academics,” said Dr. Welch. “This is an essential digitization initiative because of the vulnerable state of these recordings and their value to the continuance of Innu-aimun and Innu-aitun (Innu culture).”

He says the recordings will then be accessible to a diverse audience, including teachers and learners of Innu-aimun, academic linguists researching the structure of the language, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with interest in Innu history, culture and genealogy.

“Online access will bring these recordings to Innu communities to support further efforts to preserve and strengthen the Innu language.”

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