Blackfoot Comics

Yesterday I briefly discussed the controversy around telling Native stories, but today a version of that I think everyone can agree on, as reported in the Calgary Herald.

Ak Skim Aan USAY comicCopyright Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth

Calgary-based Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth seek to empower native youth through activism, advocacy, education and (most interestingly to me as a former Linguistics major) classes in the local native language, Blackfoot.

Like many indigenous languages the world over, Blackfoot has lost speakers through combinations of loss of prestige, cultural genocide, majority language take-over, institutionalized punishment of native languages, etc.  Once your only native speakers are elders, as with Blackfoot, your language’s outlook is not looking so good.

So in addition to language classes, USAY also has native cartoonists work with kids to create bilingual comics like the one above, Ak Skim Aan, aka Hunter.  Sort of tacky-looking, sure, but it was made by a committee of teens, so cut ’em some slack.  The comic was made freely available in Calgary and it’s up in full online too, as is USAY‘s monthly New Tribe Magazine (I have my eye on that walnut pumpkin pie recipe…).

If you’re liking the sound of what USAY is doing, consider donating to their cause.

Marie Smith Jones, Eyak(PLUG ALERT: links to my art portfolio.)

Oh, and if you don’t believe me about native themes being touchy territory, just look at this random Tumblr write-up about a print I made as an art student of Marie Smith Jones, considered the last speaker of the Eyak language (being an Art/Linguistics double major can give you some weird ideas):

The questions unanswered: What does it mean to be a humanities major getting sad about the death of of language, or the death of a last living speaker? To describe the loss of Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, as “powerful” or “sad” or “eye-opening”? To what extent can linguistic preservation be a form of colonialism itself? What is the deal with The Linguists?

I don’t know. I’m not a linguist. 

But I do know that North American White English Speakers talking about their feelings about the “death” of an Indigenous North American Language is kind of imperial.  But I also know that this print is pretty neat.

I only discovered this like a month ago but I’m still pretty pissed.  I’d never been called an imperialist before, so thanks lady, I’m flattered by your simultaneous lack of expertise in the field and comfort delivering judgement.

On the other hand, she did call my art “pretty neat”, so win some, lose some.

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3 thoughts on “Blackfoot Comics

  1. Well, I may be biased, but I don’t think you were being imperialist. Though, I suppose she may see you as this foreign, privileged entity potentially creating a fetish out of noting the loss of exotic languages.

    • first off, thank you! for commenting AND calling me non-imperialist.
      secondly, i get kinda worked up about this, so let’s itemize it up in here:
      A) for linguists (which this lady isn’t (not that i am either, but i studied it and am coming from that perspective)), a language “dying” is like a species going extinct for a zoologist. it means less accumulated human knowledge to study, among other things, so it IS pretty sad. we “fetishize” indigenous languages because they’re simultaneously understudied and more at risk. for lots of, if not most, communities, “losing” their native language is also distressing, so i don’t see why it’s worse when a linguist feels bad about it.
      B) basically this lady’s hang-up is if a member of the dominant culture takes an interest. an indigenous person interested in indigenous languages is taken for granted and thus somehow “above reproach”. this relates to a sort of essentialist(?) philosophy, where people should only take an interest in groups they’re a part of, and outsiders looking in are always suspected of imperialism, etc.
      C) on privilege; there’s certainly privilege associated with NOT being a minority language speaker, but i don’t see how linguists wanting to study languages (since that’s what they do) are somehow imposing on indigenous language communities. if people don’t want to speak their native or ancestral language, linguists can’t force them to and the most they can do is record. if they do want to stem the tide of language loss, linguists have specialized knowledge about how to try and do so.

      i feel like this last point relates to something i said in my previous post. more indigenous and minority linguists (or anything) is always better, but that shouldn’t mean that, in the meantime, majority community members need to be automatically accused of “imperialism”. in fact, this particular situation seems like the opposite of imperialism; it’s not extending majority power, it’s encouraging a minority expression.

      i think these concerns are more valid in other fields, but what the heck is a linguist going to do with recordings of a language? no one’s gonna make mega-millions off of it guys. i mean, according to this lady just TALKING ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS about indigenous languages is imperialist, so she’s set a pretty low bar…

      anyway… thanks for hearing me rant! : P i respect linguists and don’t like knee-jerk accusations being thrown at them.

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