In Langscape Magazine Articles

As Violent as Words: An Innu Woman’s Thoughts about Decolonizing Language

June 15, 2020

Marie-Émilie Lacroix interviewed by Marco Romagnoli

“Dialogue is a way of knowing myself and of disentangling my own point of view from other viewpoints and from me, because it is grounded so deeply in my own roots as to be utterly hidden from me.”

—Raimon Panikkar

This is, at its simplest, the reason behind my exchange with Marie-Émilie: dialogue. Gold nuggets are worthless compared to the infinite richness of meeting someone whose only difference from yourself lies in the person’s uniqueness. Each diversity is, in this sense, equal to the very other. I first met Marie-Émilie at a conference, and what called my attention during her presentation was her statement that the word “reconciliation” doesn’t exist in Innu. I was fascinated by the conceptions and imaginaries that Marie-Émilie explained. It was real food for thought, which eventually matured into this interview.

This interview is our way to spread or, better, to seed knowledge about Innu and Indigenous cultures. How can words be interpreted differently through the lens of Innu culture? That’s the fil rouge of the exchange between an Italian who emigrated to Canada and a Medicine Woman from the Canadian North with a double nationality: Quebecer on paper and Innu at heart. We hope this storytelling adds a tessera to the mosaic of biocultural diversity while expressing how language can be a resistance and rebellion tool. (MR)

canoe by Etchemin River

Marie-Émilie on the bank of Etchemin River, ready for a paddle on a canoe she built herself, using cedar and pine wood. With her on the canoe is a drum made by a Wendake artisan and used by Marie-Émilie for ceremonies and during pow-wows. Photo: René Laforest, 2014

MARCO ROMAGNOLI: Good morning Marie-Émilie, thank you for having me at your community center. May I ask you to introduce yourself? Your name [Lacroix, meaning “the cross” in French] doesn’t sound Indigenous but has Christian references. Could you tell me why?

MARIE-ÉMILIE LACROIX: Kuei (good morning), Marco. Welcome to my community center. My roots are Innu, but I have no papers certifying it. In fact, I’m an Innu by origin and a Quebecer by adoption. Innu are the Indigenous people of Eastern Quebec and Labrador in Canada. You too are Indigenous—from the Mediterranean, aren’t you? Basically, you’re not called that way because the word “Indigenous” refers to Native Americans and to other peoples around the world colonized by Europeans who settled and occupied our lands. We haven’t been “discovered” because we existed before—they just didn’t know. Canada, or Nitassinan (“Our Land” in Innu), was already our ancestral home.

Renaud Blais, Diane Picard, Geneviève McKenzie . . . These are all Indigenous names. Marie-Émilie Lacroix doesn’t mean anything to me. While civil and religious names are compulsory in Western culture, Innu have spiritual names. Since last year, we have had the legal right to bear them. Mine is Messinak Kameltutasset, meaning “The one who does good.” Messinak is the turtle, Mother Land carrying life. My name is not a categorization; it identifies me. Elders assign names according to what they see in you, not because you have diplomas certifying your skills, and the name can change throughout your life because any individual naturally evolves. Your name is the responsibility you have in life, and I know what people expect from me: through social work, teaching, and being a Medicine Woman, I do good. In an Indigenous community, everyone is important and valued; nobody is more than anybody else because we are as unique as we are interdependent.

Elders assign names according to what they see in you, and the name can change throughout your life because any individual naturally evolves.

MR: How does the concept of “Other Extinction Rebellion” translate to you?

M-ÉL: We react to the movement of extinction directed toward Indigenous Peoples through actions, via negotiation, with resistance. For example, when Métis people in Western Canada were killed, Whites won a major “battle,” because Métis were the negotiators par excellence between Natives and Whites by virtue of their mixed descent from both Indigenous North Americans and European settlers.

We resist extinction by teaching and practicing our language, by transmitting culture and traditions. Orality is what saved the Innu: stories and history were handed down orally from one generation to the next. First Nations are proud, strong, and resilient, having survived an extinction plan, an actual genocide, with significant intergenerational injuries. Language has been one of the tools to make survival possible, not only physical survival but also enduring centuries of injustices. You know, I love Latin languages, like Italian or Spanish. For me, they are carriers of the sun, and I do believe that languages partially define a person by telling your family’s story and mirroring your culture.

For Innu, the language is inseparable from the territory, in a trinomial language–identity–territory. For example, Inuit have multiple ways to convey the concept of “snow.” Although sources differ considerably and there’s not a total precise number, let me give you a few examples: qanik (“falling snow”), aputi (“snow on the ground”), aniu (“snow used to make water”), siku (“ice” in general), nilak (“freshwater ice for drinking”), qinu (“slurry ice”). When you go out in the morning and name the snow, you know what you can or cannot do that day. If you lose your language, you are also deprived of this richness.

MR: During our exchanges, I noticed a “linguistic dissonance”: words and concepts from my Italo-European culture may differ from your Innu-Canadian one. I would like to discuss a few key words with you. Other: who do you think “the Other” is?

M-ÉL: I prefer not to use this term as we try to create bridges of equality and cooperation today. In Indigenous culture, “the Other” (or “the stranger”) is the friend you don’t know yet. It’s true, we don’t have the same language; we don’t call things the same way. In Innu, for example, niman means “you and me,” together. If I say tshinanu, this is the “inclusive us,” and it means that I welcome you; you become equal to us and are safe. Just these two terms make a huge difference.

In an Indigenous community, everyone is important and valued; nobody is more than anybody else because we are as unique as we are interdependent.

MR: Indigenous, Indian (American), Native . . . What is the correct term to use?

M-ÉL: Ideally, Innu and Indigenous Peoples in Canada want to be called “First Nations” or “First Peoples.” We had territories and borders, but they weren’t delimited by fences. We didn’t even use such a word. That’s why there are words from your language that we don’t understand, because they don’t exist physically or conceptually in ours. There were nomadic peoples, like the Innu, whose territory was vast, and a second group of sedentary nations, like the Huron-Wendat Nation. There were conflicts in the past, of course, but not as important and sharp as in today’s world, and nomads’ passage through another territory wasn’t considered an invasion.

First Nations are proud, strong, and resilient, having survived an extinction plan, an actual genocide, with significant intergenerational injuries.

MR: Colonization. How would you define it?

M-ÉL: Colonization is a dangerous shapeshifter. It’s not just a past event in which arms and violence were used. Today, it’s more ideological and insidious. For example, to me it’s visible in universities, taking the form of imparted knowledge and biased teachings. To understand this word, I found it useful to read Albert Memmi (The Colonizer and the Colonized, 1957) or Axel Honneth (La lutte pour la reconnaissance, 2000), who describes how to kill a population: first, by finding a breach (faille), then by creating a gap (clivage), and finally by dividing the group (désolidarisation).

It’s easy to apply this to Natives’ history in Canada. The breach was something through which we could be weakened. Since there was none, Whites created one by introducing diseases from Europe. The Medicine (Wo)men, healing people with herbs and plants, were powerless against the unknown European diseases. That created a gap between our traditional medicine and European medicine, shattering the image and utility of ancestral Native medicine, although traditional medicine saved White people from scurvy and other diseases upon their arrival here. The division came with the missionary system and the evangelization process: Natives were Christianized and baptized. If you weren’t a Catholic, you were sent off the Indigenous community.

In Indigenous culture, “the Other” (or “the stranger”) is the friend you don’t know yet.

MR: (Indian) Reserve.

M-ÉL: It’s the prison. The word itself recalls a place apart where you put someone. I prefer the word communauté autochtone (Indigenous community). The government first promised schools in the reserves, but in the end built pensionnats (Indian residential schools) outside the reserves. Look [handing me a crown woven with sweet grass that grows on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River], this is Mother Earth’s braided hair. It’s the same as my hair [showing me her long braid]: if you cut my hair as soon as I enter a residential school, who am I after? You just cut me off from Mother Earth. This is the first trauma when entering a pensionnat.

Braided sweetgrass

Braided sweetgrass. The braid symbolizes Mother Earth’s braided hair. By cutting an Indigenous person’s hair, you cut him/her off from Mother Earth. Photo: Marie-Émilie Lacroix, 2020

After cutting your hair, they stripped you naked, sprayed you with some sort of DDT because you were “dirty,” and threw the very clothes your mother had made into the fire. You lived within four walls, cut off from your beloved land, and learned toughness while absorbing the violence surrounding you. Natives were often forced to sleep in places without blankets, and many children died of pneumonia. No attention or tenderness were granted. Speaking your mother tongue was forbidden unless you wanted a punishment. But there were priests and nuns who were attached to children and treated them well (although only if pensionnat administrators didn’t impose rules to which they had to submit). During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, there were witnesses who cried, having discovered that by submitting to the vow of obedience they had participated in this dreadful project. Many children survived but may have alcohol or drugs problems today. Some have rejoined their families; others committed suicide.

In my adoptive family, I experienced the same treatment as residential school children without being there. I am one of those estimated 20,000 Indigenous children who are the product of the so-called “Sixties Scoop” (which actually took place between the 1950s and the 1980s): the practice of taking, “scooping up,” Indigenous children from their families and communities to place them in foster homes or put them out for adoption. This way, families and Native communities were broken up while children were raised “the White way.” Voilà, that’s a strategy to kill Indian culture.

You cannot advance the Natives’ cause if you don’t consider our history and culture.

MR: Indians assaulting train and tax exemptions. I believe these are two among many stereotypes about Indigenous people. Any thoughts?

M-ÉL [with a big laugh]: There are many stereotypes about Innu culture and Indigenous people in general, but no, we don’t live in tepees or plunder trains, and yes, we do pay taxes. It’s only true that we don’t pay certain taxes if we live in the Indigenous community. But when you live in an Indigenous community, you are not seizable and, not being seizable, no one is going to lend you money. If you want to build a $350,000 house, you don’t go to the bank and borrow money. You go to the bank council and once the money is lent, you are going to pay a lot of interest, so your house can easily cost $600,000! But if you come to a pow-wow (an Indigenous social gathering open to everyone), you won’t pay any taxes either!

Grand Pow-wow in Kanesatake

Dancers dressed in traditional leather regalia at a Grand Pow-wow in Kanesatake, a Mohawk settlement on the shores of Lake of Two Mountains in southwestern Quebec. Photo: Marie-Émilie Lacroix, 2019

The “privilege” of not paying taxes was a government “gift” given in the early days of the reserves. The government said that we would never pay taxes if we lived on the reserve. Here’s the rib-tickler: back then, people didn’t pay taxes at all! They didn’t even know the concept. Taxes for White people started after WWI to bail out the country because of the damage caused by war. Initially, they were temporary, and then they were maintained because of the profitability. I pay my taxes and I have nothing against them, but it’s fundamental to be well-informed—that’s it! You cannot advance the Natives’ cause if you don’t consider our history and culture. Also, there are differences between eastern and western Native culture: for example, totems and dreamcatchers are not traditional Innu objects, but they are stereotypically depicted as being so.

MR: Point-blank question. Are you ready? If you had to name important values in life, what would you think of?

M-ÉL: I’d tell you about our spirituality and our life values called the “Seven Grandfather Teachings” or “Seven Sacred Teachings.” Grandfathers are rocks, like strata that have accumulated life knowledge, and their teachings are love, respect, humility, honesty, wisdom, truth, and bravery. While it’s impossible to apply them all, like, in a year, you spend your life applying them.

Marie-Émilie Lacroix

Marie-Émilie and a wolf. In some Indigenous cultures, the wolf symbolizes the Grandfather Teaching of humility. Photo: Marie-Émilie Lacroix, 2017

MR: You were telling me about a workshop where you used blankets and dolls. How does it work?

M-ÉL: Yes, it’s called exercice des couvertures (“blanket exercise”). The objective of the activity is to educate citizens about the historic experience of dispossession suffered by Indigenous people in Canada and its consequences today. At the beginning of the activity, several blankets (standing for First Nations before Europeans’ arrival) are spread on the floor in a room. The participants represent Indigenous people and move freely on the blankets. Participants then receive dolls (symbolizing Indigenous children); cards of different colors corresponding to different outcomes for the children who suffered from illnesses, were abused in residential schools, or died; and traditional Indigenous objects.

During the exercise, blankets are folded (signifying the loss of land by treaty and newly legislated reserves) and dolls are taken away (to indicate children’s abduction from their families or death). At the end of the exercise, only a few “survivors” remain on the blankets. The exercise ends with a traditional circle. All participants are invited to consider the difference between the initial and final situation and to share their convictions in a circle, to help fill the gaps that still exist in our society.

Once, after the exercise, a lady blamed Indigenous people for talking incessantly about wanting more and more territories. As a facilitator, I couldn’t speak right away but only at the end. The others kept sharing but had been influenced (one lady said we don’t pay taxes) or felt uncomfortable. When my turn came, I thanked everyone for sharing their opinions and thoughts, provided general feedback and, only then, answered that the 623 Indigenous communities across Canada occupy just between 0.5% and 1% of the entire country. Once the activity was over, both ladies left right away. There will always be dissidents—not everyone can understand or is willing to do so. I like the blanket exercise because people “become” the Natives. They really attach themselves to objects, and when these are torn off, they are shocked. It’s a real experience to live through.

We do talk different languages, but we breathe alike. So why don’t we create a katimavik (“meeting place” in Inuktitut) to walk and breathe together in peace?

MR: Thank you for your time and your storytelling! You have the last word. I just have one last question: how do you say “thank you” in Innu?

M-ÉL: Stereotypes around Innu and Indigenous people permeated the common imaginary and created a gulf of lies that translated into people’s rejection of First Nations. We do talk different languages, but we breathe alike. So why don’t we create a katimavik (“meeting place” in Inuktitut) to walk and breathe together in peace?

My teaching is observe, écoute, agis (“observe, listen, act”). When I meet a person, I do just that: I observe the person, listen to him/her and then know how, and if, I can build a relationship with this person. This philosophy can be applied with everyone and everywhere, even in the forest, a space that deeply represents my spirituality. The woods are my sanctuary. I don’t cry over my past. Rather, I am a fighter because of it. It’s my resilience.

Tshiniskumitin: this word is the equivalent of “thank you” in Innu. Translated literally, it means: “I appreciate what you did for me so much that I would give you a goose.” So, tshiniskumitin, Marco, and niaut (“goodbye”).

I don’t cry over my past. Rather, I am a fighter because of it. It’s my resilience.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Innu community as a whole or of all Indigenous people in Canada.

Marie Émilie Lacroix.

Marie-Émilie Lacroix (Messinak Kameltutasset) is a proud Innu Elder of Mashteuiatsh, Quebec, Canada. She spent her life as a midwife, teacher, social worker, and Medicine Woman using nature’s products. She teaches Aboriginal Culture at Université du Québec à Rimouski (regional university) and is very engaged in the recognition and “reconciliation” of First Nations people.


.Marco Romagnoli

Marco Romagnoli is an Italian researcher in ethnology and heritage at Université Laval in Quebec, Canada. Interested in “the Other,” he has studied foreign languages, tourism, and anthropology. His research focuses on UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, the Mediterranean diet, and cultural tourism.

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