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Debbie Folaron discusses the role of language and translation in endangered Aboriginal communities (Cree, Naskapi, Innu) with Julie Brittain and Marguerite MacKenzie


According to the 2011 Census of Population conducted and published by Statistics Canada, there are over 60 Aboriginal languages grouped into 12 distinct language families in Canada. Approximately 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue and nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home. The Aboriginal language family with the largest number of people was Algonquian, and the ones most often reported were Cree languages, Ojibway, Innu/Montagnais and Oji-Cree. Three Aboriginal languages - the Cree languages, Inuktitut and Ojibway- accounted for almost two-thirds of the population having an Aboriginal language as mother tongue. These facts are examined in preliminary notes preceding an interview, in which Julie Brittain and Marguerite MacKenzie discuss the roles of language and translation in the Cree, Naskapi, and Innu communities with whom they work.


Endangered languages, Aboriginal translation, Canadian dialects, Algonquian languages.

Preliminary notes

Marianne Mithun’s The Languages of Native North America (2001) provides information on the nature of the languages as well as a catalogue of documented language families, languages, isolates, pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages of the approximately 300 distinct languages that would have been spoken in North America before European contact (see also Goddard 1996; 1999). By UNESCO standards, many of these languages are already extinct, and many of those which survived are critically endangered.  For information, the standard refers to intergenerational language transmission. “Critically endangered” means that “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently” (UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger).

The total number of indigenous North American language families that could have survived ─ a small subset of which actually have survived ─ include: Algic, Caddoan, Chimakuan, Chinookan, Eskimo-Aleut, Haida, Iroquoian, Karuk, Keres, Kiowa-Tanoan, Klamath-Modoc, Kutenai, Maiduan, Muskogean, Palaihnihan, Pomoan, Salishan, Shahaptian, Sha stan, Siouan-Catawban, Tsimshianic, Utian, Uto-Aztecan, Wakashan, Washo, Wintuan, Yokutsan, Yuchi, Yuman, and Zuni. In Canada, the language family of Eskimo-Aleut is of particular importance. It comprises the Siberian and Alaskan Yupik languages (Sirenikski, Naukanski, Central Siberian Yupik, Pacific Gulf Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik) and the Iñupiaq-Inuktitut languages (sub-grouped into Iñupiaq, Western Canadian Inuktun, Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, and Greenlandic Kalaallisut). The Eskimo-Aleut family “covers a vast area stretching from Siberia to Greenland […] and has two main branches, Aleut, spoken on the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, and the Eskimoan languages [consisting of two main sub-branches, Yupik and Iñupiaq-Inuktitut], which cover the remainder of the territory [from the Russian Far East and Alaska to the east coast of Greenland]…” (1999: 401).  According to Mithun, “Kalaallisut may be the only unendangered indigenous speech of North America…” (Goddard 1999: 405). The Algonquian languages (Eastern Algonquian: Micmac, Maliseet, Eastern and Western Abenaki, Munsee, Unami, Powhatan, Pamlico; and Central and Plains Algonquian: Shawnee, Fox, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Cree, Menominee, Cheyenne, Arapaho-Atsina, Blackfoot) are included in the Algic family, which covers the widest territory. The Algonquian languages stretch from Labrador south into present North Carolina and west across the Plains into Alberta and Montana […] and were the first with which Europeans had prolonged contact…” (1999: 328).

According to the 2010 Census conducted in the U.S., 2.9 million people declared themselves to be “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” alone (that is, not combined with other races). In terms of population rankings, the largest tribal groupings for American Indians were Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Mexican American Indian, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache, Blackfeet, Creek, and Iroquois, while for the Alaska Native, they were Yup’ik, Inupiat, Tlingit-Haida, Alaskan Athabascan, Aleut, and Tsimshian (Census 2010). A 2011 report on the Native American languages spoken at home in the U.S. and Puerto Rico from 2006-2010 lists the following top ten: Navajo, Yupik, Dakota, Apache, Keres, Cherokee, Choctaw, Zuni, Ojibwa, and Pima, with the top seven reporting more than 10,000 speakers each (Census 2011).

According to the 2011 Census of Population conducted and published by Statistics Canada, there are over 60 Aboriginal languages grouped into 12 distinct language families in Canada. The same census mentions that almost 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue and nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home. The Aboriginal language family with the largest number of people was Algonquian (with a total of 144,015 people reporting a mother tongue from this language family), and the ones most often reported were: Cree languages (83,475), Ojibway (19,275), Innu/Montagnais (10,965) and Oji-Cree (10,180). Three Aboriginal languages ─ the Cree languages, Inuktitut and Ojibway ─ accounted for almost two-thirds of the population having an Aboriginal language as mother tongue.


DF: As a starting point, it is interesting to see ─ when comparing Census results in North America (the U.S. and Canada) ─ that different terms are used to designate indigenous peoples on the continent. In fact, the “Indigenous Peoples of the Americas” portal online (Wikipedia: Indigenous_peoples_of_the_Americas) welcomes users with an explanation on the diverse terms used not only in the U.S. and Canada, but also in Central and South America.

MM: Yes, as reflected in the Census, the term that is most prevalent in Canada is ‘Aboriginal Peoples,’ with the terms ‘First Nations,’ ‘Inuit,’ and ‘Métis’ used to further distinguish between the groups. First Nations were formerly referred to as Indians, and Inuit as Eskimo, while Métis are of mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry. In the U.S., ‘Native Americans’ or ‘American Indians’ is used, with ‘Alaska Native’ (or sometimes ‘Eskimo’) referring to those Indigenous peoples who inhabit Alaska.

DF: Are these designations used by the communities themselves? If not, how do they self-identify?

MM: The communities that we’ve worked in, particularly the Naskapi and Innu communities, were always named differently by European people. For example, the Innu were named ‘the Montagnais’ by the early explorers and missionaries, and it’s only been about 20 years since the Innu began to insist on not using the word Montagnais but using their term for themselves, which is Innu ─ which means ‘person.’ Many Aboriginal people now do not want themselves or their languages to be referred to by the colonial term, so that the Tłı̨chǫ, for example, are no longer referred to as Dogrib. When you look at the colonial names you’ll find that they are being replaced. It’s a political statement.

Naskapi is a word that is used by the neighbouring Innu to refer to the people living north of them, and it’s always been somewhat pejorative. But the Naskapi themselves, whom we work with primarily on these texts, have embraced the word Naskapi. They use it and they’ve become proud of it. So, I guess the main point that I want to make is that different groups are taking control of how they are represented in European media, etc.

In the instance of Cree, everybody just says ‘Cree.’ Although, certainly the Ojibwe for instance are insisting on their own name for themselves. It varies. The thing about the Aboriginal language groups in Canada, and probably in the U.S. as well, is that they are quite fragmented. They are divided by provincial borders, and certainly by second languages of the majority culture. The majority of the Innu live in Québec and speak French as a second language while the Innu in Labrador speak English as a second language. And in Québec the Cree have always spoken English as a second language. Québec didn’t wake up and realise that it had a North until the 1970s and until the 1970s the Quebec Cree oriented towards the rest of Canada, Anglophone Canada.

And it’s difficult to get people together. There are statistics for the Cree language saying there are 60,000 or 70,000 speakers but in fact they all speak very different dialects. And because they are in different provinces, they all have different levels of administration, schooling, and literacy; in fact, they don’t get together very much at all.

DF: Are people using technologies, using social media, and typing out the languages ─ how do they communicate with each other?

MM: Well, it happens only within a language, and in fact the Innu speakers from the different dialects in Québec and Labrador try to type in Innu, because it is their common language. It may be a mix of languages and spellings, really whatever they can manage. And it’s not necessarily true that all languages have the same version of an orthographic system. The syllabic system as the Naskapi use it is different from the way the Cree people use it. And the Innu use the roman system. We’re still implementing the standard spelling. We’ve just finished a big dictionary, so even though a standard has been created, getting people trained to use it actually takes a very long time.

DF: Over the past few years we’ve heard multiple calls of alarm concerning many of the 7,000 languages currently spoken around the world. Some linguists calculate that up to 90% of the world’s languages could disappear by the end of the 21st century, and other sources like “The Endangered Languages Catalogue” state that over 40% of our human languages are at risk of disappearing. Have you noticed any particular trends in the areas you research?

MM: Yes, they are all endangered to some extent, depending on the definition of endangerment. There is less danger for the linguistic communities in the northern area of the country. The further south you go the more people have interactions with the dominant colonial languages ─ English and French. So, for the communities that we work in, it’s the case that the further north you go, the more speakers you find of the Aboriginal languages. In the Cree-speaking area of northern Quebec you find that the languages are stronger. If you go to the communities further south, we’re finding that fewer children are learning the languages. Sometimes it coincides with length of contact with European people, which tends to go from south to north.  

DF: Is it possible to generalise certain linguistic similarities and differences when comparing and contrasting Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal languages? Can you provide us with any examples of similarities and differences? Any observations with regard to translation and interpretation?

JB: We couldn’t really give you examples that would hold for all the Aboriginal languages, and many of the typological features relatively common to languages of the Americas are found in languages in other parts of the world. In Cree, for example, there is, no masculine/feminine distinction in the pronoun system or in third person verb agreement, but we can find this same feature in many other languages ─ Tibetan, for example, is similar.

You can’t generalise about the structure of Native or Aboriginal North American languages. The whole North American continent contains languages that are diverse typologically, even more so when you take in South America. But certainly for Algonquian, and for a number of other Canadian Aboriginal languages, there’s a tendency for the typology to be what we call polysynthetic, where ─ to put it simply ─ what you would say in a simple sentence in English, you can say with just the verb. So, a verb in these languages contains a lot of information ─ the subject, the object, sometimes the indirect object, sometimes a noun, sometimes an adjective, an adverb. You’ll see this if you look at some of the entries in the Cree or Innu online dictionaries. You’ll be able to see that the verbs have to be translated into English by a whole sentence. It’s not the case that you don’t find these types of languages in other parts of the world; it’s not unique to Canada or North America. You find this typology of languages all over the world, but there’s a high concentration of Aboriginal languages in North America of that type of typology.

You asked about how linguistic structure might impact translation, moving between two languages. Innu has ‘evidential’ suffixes ─ and I’ll let Marguerite explain what evidentials are ─ but here we have a good example of how you have to really understand how two languages differ in terms of their grammars to translate properly.

MM: There are certain linguistic structures that may create problems for interpreters in court situations. In Innu, for example, there are a lot of prefixes and suffixes that tell the listener what the provenance of the information is – these are what we call ‘evidential.’ When someone hears a verb in Innu they’ll know whether the person who says the word was an eyewitness to an event or is deducing what went on from other kinds of evidence, or inferring or guessing, and that sort of thing.

There can be problems for court interpretation when a speaker is asked to swear “this is the truth,” etc., and we have seen Cree elders who say “I can’t tell the truth, I can only tell what I know.”  So, certainly the Innu and Cree languages forces speakers to be quite careful about where they got their information, or whether they’re passing on second-hand information. Now, I’m not sure to what extent other Aboriginal languages do that, but it is a particular problem here.

DF: I was reading in one of your essays about how in the Naskapi community there are certain constraints on who can tell a particular story, and even on when a story can be told.

MM: Yes, there is the case that certain stories can only be told in the winter, for example, and others that can only be told in the summer. I was recently reading about a winter story which had to have permission to be told at a different time of the year. We have an article in Sky Loom about Umâyichîs, or “Little Shit Man,” which belongs to the âtiyûhkin, or ‘traditional tales’ genre of Algonquian oral literature (Brittain and MacKenzie 2014: 379). All the shit left in the camp gets itself together, dresses itself up nicely, and goes off to find people. But eventually because of contact with water, it just washes away. So we were asking “what’s the point of this story?”  As we found out by talking with Naskapi people, it’s not what the story’s about, but rather what it is for, its function. It’s told when people want to change the weather ─ it’s a ‘weather-changing story.’ These are people who live in the north, and you really want cold weather for travelling on frozen rivers, and so when you want it to become colder or warmer there are a number of things that people do, and one of them is to tell this story.

DF: Is it safe to say that in general communities are interested in safeguarding their heritage in some kind of written form? It has been passed on for so many generations orally…

MM: Well, it very much depends on the community. The Naskapi who we work with are very happy that these stories, which were recorded in 1967/1968, are being transcribed and put in written form, in illustrated books. And in fact, partly because the oral performance is played on the radio in the community, young people have said “well, it was only when I actually read the written version that I understood what John was saying, because his dialect is older and I didn’t understand everything that he was saying.” When the students saw the edited written story, they understood it better. There are also communities who do want to safeguard the oral history, oral culture, and forbid it to be written or published outside of their own community. There are linguists who have done a lot of work with the community but then that work is not allowed to be made public.

DF: The cultural turn of translation studies initiated research that focuses on questions of representation, and awareness of subjectivity in the translation process. In the area of your research, in what ways do you see the role of translators (or interpreters) as one of cultural mediators? The very concept of translation seems tightly intertwined with the history of how communities have been represented, ‘translated.’ How does cultural translation figure into the ways Aboriginal communities have interacted with non-Aboriginal populations (and vice versa), and has it played a role in relations among Aboriginal communities (heterogeneous) themselves?

JB: There is subjectivity in the translation process, and translators bring that subjectivity to their attempts to be cultural mediators. In our work with the Naskapi, we work as a team with Naskapi people. We couldn’t do what we do unless we worked in a team. If you think of translation as moving material from one language and one culture into another language and another culture, as we see it, you need a team who are familiar with the language and the culture of the source language and also the language and culture of the target language. If we didn’t work as a team we wouldn’t be able to bridge the gaps between the two cultures. Marguerite has the advantage of having lived with Cree people in the country and has seen traditional Cree life. If you hear some of the stories about people getting a fire ready to cook dinner, and how dinner’s cooked, you might have no idea what it means to take your roasting stick and make some bannock, but because Marguerite’s been there and done it, she knows exactly what process is being referred to. You need to understand the culture that the story’s coming from, and to do that you definitely have to work with the people. You can’t just take the story and translate it. I guess that’s probably true for all translation though… But we feel very strongly about this: that it takes a team to translate. We can’t do it without a team approach.

Storytellers assume a common ground of knowledge of his or her listeners ─ certain pieces of information, such as how people go about their every day lives ─ and if you don’t share in that common ground of knowledge, then you can get quite lost … Part of our process is to call in the Elders whenever necessary, and have them explain things to us that nobody else can.  Sometimes, even when we’re working with people in the community who are in their 40s and 50s, because the culture is changing so quickly even they may not have a very clear idea about what exactly is happening in a particular part of a story. So it might take calling in someone who is much older to say “Oh, yeah, we used to do that,” and suddenly the light goes on for us all and everybody understands. We work quite hard to fully understand the storyteller.

DF: In your experience, what are types of translation activity are most practiced with regard to Aboriginal communities? Medical, legal, commercial, social services, literary, journalistic, websites, entertainment (movies, games), etc.? Are there any official translation policies in place, or are there translator training programs or classes?

MM: Well, in addition to the translation of stories, with the Innu in Labrador we’ve been creating workplace glossaries. We just launched our medical glossary which has free apps and sound files to go with it. We’ve done a couple of glossaries for different kinds of legal vocabulary and for environmental assessment vocabulary. These again are for the use of interpreters as research documents in their own work because the people we work with do not have a particularly high level of education; they may or may not have finished high school, and may not have post-secondary education, and they don’t always understand the English term, especially in the legal field and in the medical field. So we hold workshops with people who are interpreters and we work our way through a list of words, a list of terms that they need to understand. These workshops function as training sessions, and the product is a book with a glossary. For the medical one, we’ve added an app with sound files, so people who don’t read their language fluently can just listen to the audio version.

DF: Do you ever have to coin new terms for these glossaries?

MM: Oh, all the time! And often what we end up with is a sentence which functions as an explanation, rather than a single word.

There’s actually quite a lot of translation going on all the time. It varies with the health of the language. With the Cree, Naskapi, and Innu communities, there are still many middle aged and older people who don’t speak English or don’t speak it well, and need translation. If you’re talking about communities in southern Canada, where people don’t speak their language to the same extent, then you don’t need that sort of interpreting service. As far as the translation of news and entertainment in print and on websites, it comes and goes depending on the community. There’s always been a strong, politically correct requirement from government agencies to translate government documents and pamphlets into the relevant language. There is actually a steady stream of work for people. But frankly, the literacy levels of people are not that high, so this is symbolic work rather than real information work, in many cases.

In terms of training for translators, there is not a great deal available for speakers of Aboriginal languages in Canada. Often translation is bundled in with other kinds of training, for instance Inuktitut at McGill, or Manitoba Algonquian languages at Red River College. The Naskapi translators from Kawawachikamach have regularly attended translation training provided by the Wycliffe Bible Translators. In contrast, Australia has more services available through regional government (Australian DLGCS).

DF: Translation studies has benefited from its investigation of aspects of orality, and the oral tradition, in translation practice. There is also the role of the transcriber, and the need to take into account processes of transcription in addition to translation when moving from one language to another. This is an area you have written about in your fascinating article on translating Algonquian oral texts. Could you give an example or two, to give us an idea of how orality should be treated in translation? Are there specific difficulties in transforming oral expression in written forms?

MM: There is the whole issue of oral literature, where there is usually a lot of repetition. Lisa Philips Valentine, who analyses Ojibwe oral narratives. (Brittain and MacKenzie 2014: 385, fn 3), has written about these repetitions as stylistic devices. Sometimes they occur in doublet pairs. When we’re editing stories for the page, the written page, we tend to edit out repetitions and false starts, etc. But it’s kind of normal in oral speech to repeat things because people need to have a chance to hear it again. In the Naskapi texts, we’re not taking out the repetitions but in the Innu stories we did take out certain repetitions. There’s also an oral style of recounting what other people said and again it’s related to being very clear about where the information came from so that instead of quote marks, oral people have certain words like itaaw and itikuw (he says to her, she says to him); people in general say “it is said,” “it’s said about them.” This is something that people who are transferring oral performances to the page have grappled with ─ What do you do with these many, many, many instances of itaaw and itikuw ─ they get boring on the page but their function is to tell you that this is a quote. They’re used as quote marks. So translators and transcribers do have to make quite a few decisions in this area. There is no set policy ─ people doing the work decide for themselves.  

One thing that we and other linguists find very important is to do very detailed and accurate transcriptions of the spoken word, and to use that as the basis of translation. It’s unfortunately extremely common for translation to take place just on the fly. This can be a problem for researchers, anthropologists, or people researching traditional ecological knowledge, scientific research, that sort of thing. It is important to interview elders to get the ‘real traditional knowledge’ but the speakers who do the translating on the fly don’t necessarily translate everything that the elders say. Some of the stories we’ve been producing with our team were translated in the 1970s by a young man who did speak English but didn’t have a very high level of education, so he left out a lot of bits and pieces. By doing the very detailed transcription, and we spend hours and hours and hours going over these tapes with people, we can then move on to a more accurate translation as well.

DF: This is what you refer to in your writings as “the linguist’s version…”

JB: Yes, we don’t always publish the linguist’s version, so it depends on who the audience is, but we have that as a faithful rendition of the original. And then we can turn it into a children’s story or turn it into an academic piece. There are different things that you can do once you have it; it’s your faithful record of what was said.

MM: The other thing we’ve been doing is to have the books illustrated. There are a lot of things that an illustrator needs to know before an appropriate picture or a set of pictures can be made to go with these stories, so we try to provide as much cultural information as possible. Our next book is going to be about a kind of monster figure, and I was speaking to someone else who said “Oh yes, and he always has that pail on his back.” Nowhere in that story is there a reference to the pail that he always carries around with him, so we had to tell the illustrator “Make sure there’s a pail!”

DF: Working with ‘minority’ languages and cultures ─ including their translation ─ often entails involvement in some activities that are critically important to their survival. Endangered languages may need to be documented. Language revitalisation initiatives often require dealing with issues of standardisation and with the creation of new terminology, grammars, dictionaries, and other reference sources. In what ways have you had to deal with these aspects or issues? Is literacy a factor? How much literary production in the languages exists? What role have technologies played?

MM: Well, we do dictionaries, grammars, and glossaries which are then put on the internet and produced as apps and are used in schools. The translation work we do very much supports endangered languages. If you’re a translator you need a dictionary, but for many of the languages and the dialects we work with, there aren’t always comprehensive dictionaries available. For Naskapi there is only a really, really old dictionary of about 12,000 words. Also part of our work of translating the traditional stories is learning new words. We’re compiling a dictionary at the same time, and learning more about the grammar of the language. It’s all part and parcel of the translation processes, producing resources that can be used in the community.

We were recently looking at the Cree dictionary and realised that the words for ‘beginning to’ had several entries for ‘beginning to’ and they’re not sufficiently nuanced, so we don’t understand the context where one word would be used and another would not. So, we’re doing a lot of grammatical research at the same time. 

DF: This is a tremendous amount of work that you’re doing…. Do you work with other researchers working on other dialects?

MM: Yes, but there aren’t enough researchers. We need more. In our department, Carrie Dyck is working with Cayuga, which is very, very endangered, in southern Ontario. People feel good if they get 6,000 words into a dictionary, whereas the Innu dictionary that we’ve finished has 27,000 words, and there’s still lots more to go! One of our colleagues, Doug Wharram, also works on Labrador Inuktitut. In our department here we have quite a focus on endangered Canadian Aboriginal languages. All across Canada we have a circle of colleagues who tend to work toward the same end but for different languages. Our work is both theoretical and formal, but at the end of the day the goal is to support the languages that we work with.

DF: Are the young people in the communities you work with using technologies?

MM: Yes, they are. We’ve put the Cree and the Innu dictionaries on the Internet and both of them are available as free apps which can bee downloaded to phones and tablets. People are not very literate and as the teaching of the Aboriginal languages in the schools keeps retreating, people do not really have a chance to use written forms of the language.

There are Innu people working with linguists to create online games so the young people can start to learn reading and writing. The hope is that you build it, they will come ─ but it is really time and money intensive to do these things. As the populations for these Aboriginal languages are small, often under 20,000 people, 3 or 4 people who will work with a linguist on a language is a lot. The languages just don’t have the resources that, say, the official languages in Canada do.

DF: With all the diversity of the languages here…. Do you never fear that they all might just dwindle away?

MM: Yes, we see it happening all the time. With another colleague, we have a research project where we go to assess the children going into kindergarten in the schools. Every year fewer children speak Innu and more speak English or French. They’re definitely sliding away very slowly. And what we have come to see is that a language can stop being spoken by children within one or two generations. It’s hard to say whether it’s technology; a lot of it is the workplace. People need cash, and in order to get cash, you have to have a good paying job. In order to have a good paying job, you need to speak English and French. The Aboriginal language does not have the same place in people’s lives as it once did. And because you don’t have an overseas country where people are still using it as the first language, once people shift to a colonial language, or one of the official languages of Canada, there’s no network to go back to.

DF: Turning again for a moment to elementary school, are the children schooled at all in their Aboriginal language? Or are they taught their own language as a kind of ‘foreign language’?

MM: There are very few places in Canada where they can go to school in their own language at the primary grades. The single Naskapi community in northern Québec is doing this up through grade 3 and then the children repeat grade 3 with English brought in. They don’t bother with French. The Cree School Board on eastern James Bay used to do that, but they have stopped it, unfortunately, so Cree is now taught as a subject. I think as we see more children coming in speaking English rather than their own language, Cree will be more and more a subject of instruction. That seems to be the direction. We don’t know whether students will be taught speaking skills in the language , or just facts about the language. At the moment, they’re lucky if they get a class once a week in their own language. Literacy used to be the focus of these classes but now I’m encouraging people to just focus on speaking skills. Literacy can come along later.

These are very small communities, many of them are remote and there are not many jobs. Many of these communities have serious social problems to deal with, and language is at the bottom of the list really. When you’re trying just to keep your daily life together, and make some money to feed your family, you don’t worry too much about the ideologies of language, unfortunately. There are a lot of pressures in these Aboriginal villages. People who grow up in the small communities often do come back to them. They find it difficult elsewhere. But the opportunities to participate in a really traditional lifestyle where people go off into the bush, for instance, for months at a time and live from what they hunt, are disappearing. It’s very, very difficult so young people will certainly not have the same experience that even I as a non-Aboriginal, as a non-Cree person was able to have in the 70s. Everybody’s life is changing.

DF: And there’s no real translation policy, then…

MM: Any policy would be province by province. There’s probably something in place in Nunavut, which is the one place where Inuktitut has been made an official language. Every other province and territory is just catch as catch can. As well, the Northwest Territories have supported terminology workshops for translators among First Nation languages.

There has been a series of Innu language workshops for workplace terminology which have allowed speakers to better understand the concepts and to regularise the spelling. For the legal, medical, and the environmental impact ones, we always have English-speaking resource people there who can explain some of the more difficult terminology. The workshops are not open to the public, and attendance varies, as these are small populations. For the legal one, we had maybe 10 people, but fewer for the medical one, due to lower funding. We initially targeted the people in the medical system working as interpreters health professionals and patient, but who knows where we’ll go in the future!

A problem with interpreters is that there is a lot of turnover in the positions, as people coma and go. There were well-attended courses held for the legal interpreters but there was only one job and they weren’t able to get anybody to actually stay in that job. There are a lot of issues in Labrador at the moment, since people can make a lot of money by going to work on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. So people are not available to teach at the schools, interpret in the courts, and that sort of thing, but go where the money is. When you have such a small population, it’s a problem.

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  • (1999). Native languages and language families of North America, text and map. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Mithun, Marianne [1999] (2001). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peastitute, John (2015). Achan: Naskapi Giant Stories. Marguerite MacKenzie (ed.), translated by Julie Brittain. Kawawachikamach: QC: Naskapi Development Corporation.
  • ─ (2014a). The Dancing Ants: a Naskapi Legend by John Peastitute. Marguerite MacKenzie (ed.), translated by Julie Brittain. Kawawachikamach: QC: Naskapi Development Corporation.
  • ─ (2014b). Kuihkwahchaw: Naskapi Wolverine Stories. Marguerite MacKenzie (ed.), translated by Julie Brittain. Kawawachikamach: QC: Naskapi Development Corporation.
  • ─ (2013). Chahkapas: a Naskapi Legend.  Marguerite MacKenzie (ed.), translated by Julie Brittain. Kawawachikamach: QC: Naskapi Development Corporation.
Websites for East Cree and Innu languages

MacKenzie portraitMarguerite MacKenzie is a retired Professor of Linguistics, Memorial University, Newfoundland who works with speakers of Cree, Innu (Montagnais) and Naskapi of Labrador, Quebec and Ontario on dictionaries, grammars, texts and language training materials. Her work is focused on assisting speakers of Aboriginal languages document and maintain their language in the face of increasing pressure from English and French. She is co-editor of dictionaries for each language, editor of workplace vocabularies for Innu-aimun, and a team member for the ongoing publication of Naskapi traditional texts. She can be reached at

Brittain portraitJulie Brittain is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada, who works with the central Algonquian languages Cree, Naskapi and Innu. She is director of the Chisasibi Child Language Acquisition Study, a naturalistic first language acquisition study of East Cree, and has expertise in the syntax of Algonquian languages. She has worked with the Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach in collaboration with Marguerite Mackenzie to edit and publish Naskapi and English versions of audio recordings of traditional stories made in the late 1960s. She can be reached at