Ringside: Healing words


- Amanda Proctor

UVic grad Kahentehtha Angela Elijah studies the complex connection between emotion and speech as part of her work in Indigenous language revitalization.

Kahentehtha Angela Elijah (Cert ’07, MEd ’20) has always been able to understand Kanien’kéha, her language, but for many years she could not speak it. After 40 years of working in education, Elijah earned a Master of Education from the Indigenous Language Revitalization program, where she found that there was a term for people with her experience: “silent speakers.” 

While at UVic, Elijah’s research into silent speakers was centred on her own lived experiences, and she was able to reflect on her childhood in Ahkwesahsne, one of the communities of the Kanien’kehá:ka, also known as the Mohawk Nation. Elijah realized that for her siblings and herself, not speaking “started in our own thinking. It was all about our beliefs about ourselves and how we believed that we couldn’t speak.”

Elijah and her siblings could speak Kanien’kéha around other children, but when a fluent adult talked with them, they would “become silent.” For Elijah, this signalled that there was an emotional component to her relationship with the language. This realization led her to explore the mental, emotional, social and spiritual effects for silent speakers with the ability to understand but not speak their language. While teaching in a full-immersion Kanien’keha classroom, Elijah broke down some barriers by using what language she remembered with the students. This motivated her to begin using more of the language, which helped her gain the needed confidence to speak outside of the school setting. Elijah continues to learn new vocabulary.

When you feel that you have this inability to speak, it really affects your whole body, it affects your whole being, your whole spirit and how you relate back to Creation. It’s not just a tool used for communicating with one another, it’s deeper than that, because it is really closely connected to our worldview and how we exist in this world.”

—UVic M.Ed. grad Kahentehtha Angela Elijah

Using traditional methods to heal

In her master’s thesis, for which she was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Silver Medal, Elijah worked with silent speakers in three Wolf Clan families in Ahkwesáhsne, documenting their experiences of grief, shame, guilt and fear around losing their language.

To begin the healing process, Elijah used the Ka’nikonhrakétskwas: Uplifting of the Minds Condolence Ceremony as a part of her research, showing how some parts of the ceremony could be utilized in healing traumas which resulted in becoming silent speakers. The ceremony addresses the feelings, removes the burden of them and uplifts by creating a new path to healing and regenerating speakers through the use of wampum strings.

“It just made sense that I would go back to use my own traditional methods in order to heal and to go back through, to make sense of what we had actually experienced with the losses,” Elijah says.

Immersion learning on the land

As the final component of the project, Elijah worked with silent speakers to develop strategies to become speakers. For many, a traditional classroom setting was not the answer.

“When we were first language speakers we learned in a natural setting. Then to go back to a class or to school and to actually try to relearn the language, we have a lot of difficulty with learning like that. I found that a lot of us were around that same age [when we stopped speaking], which probably had a lot to do with the education system and learning English.”

When Elijah spoke to the silent speakers, she found that they wanted to come together to talk about their loss and to create a land-based education that involved immersion activities in nature that could bring them closer to the natural environment they initially learned in.

Elijah’s thesis is just the beginning of her work with silent speakers to revitalize Kanien’kéha. She hopes to implement the strategies that the silent speakers suggested: creating land-based immersion language education, while also providing access to culturally relevant therapeutic methods to work through their feelings. 

“The fear, the guilt, the shame, the grief: these are all different feelings that we have as we’re trying to speak. If we’re healing that, it should clear this path for us to be able to become speakers again.” 


In this story

Keywords: Indigenous languages, Indigenous, education

People: Kahentehtha Angela Elijah

Publication: The Torch

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