School of Arts & Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Langauge & Cultural Sovereignty

The survival of Indigenous languages into the 21st century despite the active repression on the part of states and the national government has transformed these languages into powerful symbols that serve as the basis for larger discussions related to identity, self-determination, and sovereignty.” ~ Mindy J. Morgan


In many ways and for a plethora of reasons, Native languages have become a symbol of sovereignty for the people who speak it. One of these reasons lies in their sheer existence despite federal efforts to forcibly silence their speakers. Although many Native languages are in dire need of revitalization and many have disappeared, it is a testament to the resilience of their speakers that so many are still used and will be preserved. Though culture can be preserved in ways other than through language, indigenous languages became something tangible to hold on to, a concrete indicator of the uniqueness of a group of people, saved in silence. Preserving these languages was a beautiful act of one of the strongest forms of passive resistance, so seamless and unassuming yet so powerful and necessary that it is one of the crucial fuels revitalizing indigenous cultures.  Thanks to the existence of these languages, aging generations have been able to share their cultural knowledge with younger generations. Combined, the historical and cultural content of indigenous languages, make them true symbols of cultural sovereignty.

Indigenous languages not only symbolize cultural sovereignty, they also enable it. They facilitate the communication of knowledge and values unique to indigenous cultures by carrying them within their roots and connotations. For many Native American nations, values and knowledge are passed down through stories. Because all native cultures have their own key figures and stories, it is important to narrow the focus, for example, to the OJibwe. The Ojibwe people have an extensive network of stories, each of which upholds the values needed for the Ojbiwe way of life: humility, generosity and kindness. Because storytelling is sharing such important importation, the process is an intimate experience between the storyteller and the listener. Each of the two therefore personalizes the story in a subtle way, whether it is by the tone, word choice, or pace of the storyteller or the state of mind or life experiences of the listener. But while each listener may interpret stories differently, all stories must carry the underlying values of the culture.

“The Anishinaabe approach to interpreting and controlling myth stressed values over meaning. Instead of arguing the meaning of a myth, the question becomes whether or not a given interpretation expresses Anishinaabe values.”

As such, each story invokes both an individual and communal experience of which the communal experience takes precedent, leading to the “acceptance of a plurality of interpretations interacting with the values and functioning of the community.” The following video of Larry Aitken, the tribal historian for the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation and the Director of American Indian Studies at Itasca Community College, tells the story of Waynaboozhoo and exemplifies the sacred power of storytelling discussed above. 


Thunderbird, Larry Aitken

This story epitomizes the interplay between community and individual both during the interpretative process and within the story itself. On one layer, it recounts the story of a community in dire needs being saved by a messenger to the Creator. On another, it tells the story of a brave individual who risked his life to save his community and eventually became a messenger to the creator. But the two depend on each other to work; they are part of a same story that undeniably teaches humility, generosity and kindness. Stories are valuable, and some are even sacred to the community because stories, values and religion are inextricably linked. Because the Western concept of religion does not apply to the Ojibwe, they call it “a way of life,” a way of life that is passed on through the oral tradition. Learning the Ojibwe language is lifelong process, especially learning to use it in the context of sacred stories. Ojibwe people are not told how to interpret a story because it is their life experiences that add the meaning. Therefore stories hold knowledge that transforms into actions at some point in the listener’s life. 


Revitalizing the Ojibwe Language