How Indigenous Peoples Turned Language into a Post-Colonial Tool

For centuries the English language has served the colonial project of the British Crown. Today, Indigenous peoples across the world are reclaiming their Indigenous toponyms.

Mar 9, 2024By Sara Relli, MA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA Screenwriting
indigenous languages post colonial


As soon as they landed on a foreign shore in North America or the Pacific, European explorers would proceed to name the land after their patrons, or the country they came from, before claiming it as part of the Crown’s possessions. The English language was to all intents and purposes a colonial tool at the hands of the British Crown. Today, Indigenous peoples from all over the world have managed to reverse this process by reclaiming the original names of their tribes and territories.


Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Names

stan williams indigenous people marching
Bring Our Children Home, photo by Stan Williams, 2019, Source: Photographers Without Borders


On May 22, 2013, a group of Indigenous people from the Tsawout Nation gathered in Saanich, British Columbia, before walking up Mount Douglas. Towards the end of the 19th century, Captain Henry Kellett named the mountain after James Douglas, the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia and an officer of the Hudson Bay Company. The Douglas Treaties, which were drafted in the 1850s and had the effect of dispossessing Indigenous peoples from the area now known as Vancouver Island, were named after him as well.


In 2012 the marchers planted a sign on top of the mountain. The sign read “PKOLS” (translated into English as “White Head”), the Indigenous name by which the mountain had been known for millennia before the coming of European colonists.  In her book, As We Have Always Done, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, one of the most influential Indigenous voices of her generation, calls the PKOLS Reclamation a watershed moment in Indigenous history, part of a resurgence in what is now Canada.


pkols reclamation anniversary indigenous peoples
Chief Eric Pekley leads a walk to mark the one-year anniversary of the PKOLS Reclamation, 2014, Source: The Times Colonist


In 2003, ten years before the PKOLS Reclamation, Ayers Rock, the massive sandstone rock formation sacred to the Pitjantjatjara (Aṉangu) people in the Central Desert of Australia, had been officially acknowledged by its Indigenous name, Uluṟu. Indigenous renaming in Australia has an additional symbolic meaning, as it represents a re-enactment of the ancestral naming of the land that took place, according to Aboriginal stories, in the Dreamtime era.

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Back then, various Dreamtime ancestral human and non-human beings, some of them of heroic proportions and with supernatural abilities, began to roam the Earth, which was still flat, dry, and formless, assigning names to all landforms, plants, human beings, and animals. Dreamtime stories provide Aborigines with all they need to know about their spiritual beliefs, their land, their moral codes, and their kinship system. In this context, the attempted erasure of Aboriginal placenames by colonialism has also represented an attempt at erasing millennia of Aboriginal history.


uluru aboriginal land traditional owners
Uluru commemorative poster, by Chips Mackinolty, 1985, Source: The National Museum of Australia


Just as it was crucial to colonization, language has now become an integral part of the decolonization process. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across North and South America and the Pacific are now engaged in a rethinking and a refusal not only of the colonial mindset but also of the English terminology employed to convey it.


In his ground-breaking book Elements of Indigenous Style, Indigenous scholar Gregory Younging urges non-Indigenous writers to use the English language in a way that does not offend Indigenous Peoples. A renowned publisher and member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation from northern Manitoba, he invites other publishers to avoid inappropriate, vague, or judgemental terminology derived from the works of explorers and missionaries, such as pagan, barbarian, squaw, or redskin.


Decolonization, he suggests, is a gradual process of unlearning old stereotypes and traditionally accepted colonial terminology. Through the practice of replacing European names with Indigenous ones, language is finally being used as an affirmative and proactive tool, and not, as happened during the colonial area, as an instrument of violence.


English, a Colonial Tool

missions australia indigenous people
Indigenous children in an Australian residential school, photo by Sam Hood, 1910-1950, Source: New South Wales State Library


“A language”, Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst writes in his A Story as Sharp as a Knife, “is an organism: a weightless, discontinuous organism that lives in the minds and bodies of those who speak it.” If the survival of a language can only be guaranteed through the survival of the bodies and minds of its speakers, then the systematic attack carried out by colonialism on Indigenous bodies was an attack on Indigenous languages too. An attack perpetrated first through physical violence, through shotguns and burnings and massacres, and then, on a more systematic level, through the imposition of the English language.


In residential schools, in fact, English monolingualism was usually associated with intelligence and literacy; the quicker pupils were able (or willing) to give up and forget the language of their parents and grandparents, the more likely they were to be accepted within white mainstream society.


numbered treaties canada indigenous peoples
Map of the Numbered Treaties in Canada, Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia


The naming of the land represented a precondition to its occupation and theft. So did treaty-making. Unlike Australia, Canada has a long history of treaties with its Indigenous peoples, starting with the so-called Robinson Treaties in the 1850s. They were followed by the Numbered Treaties, negotiated between 1871 and 1921, which made way for settlement and government-led railway projects in the Great Plains.


Needless to say, all treaties were written in English, therefore precluding Indigenous peoples from taking part in their drafting. This was the moment when the English language ceased to be what it was always meant to be — a communication tool — and joined the rifles and the shotguns in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. Within this framework, the reclaiming of Indigenous toponyms represents a symbolic act of resistance against colonialism, since it reaffirms an Indigenous presence outside the accepted Eurocentric narrative and a purely white cosmos.


Indigenous languages, Indigenous survival

indigenous groups australia map
Map of Indigenous Australia, David H. Horton, 1996, Source:AIATSIS


The preservation of Indigenous languages in Australia interestingly mirrors the history of the continent’s colonization. The state now known as New South Wales, for instance, was the first area to be settled as early as 1800. Settlers, concerned with urgent and practical issues — survival, namely — made few concrete efforts to annotate the languages spoken by the Indigenous peoples living in the area. However, in the 1820s and 1830s colonists and explorers penetrated deeper into Western and South Australia, missionaries and officials encountered a great diversity of languages and dialects among Indigenous groups. This was astonishing, to say the least, since Australia, just like Canada and the United States, had a long history of white, Eurocentric textual representations of Aborigines.


Although they sometimes differed about their expectations of Indigenous peoples’ future, most of them agreed on portraying them as members of an illiterate, backward, primitive, lazy, and degenerate race with virtually no culture, and as the ultimate link between men and monkeys. They belonged to a race that was not expected to survive the coming of the more advanced and enlightened Europeans. Ironically, European missionaries, with their classical education, played a crucial role in the preservation of Indigenous languages, as some of them started to gather paradigms of verbs, samples of sentences, structures of words, and table of pronouns.


residence of aborigines flinders island
Residence of the Aborigines, Flinders Island, by John Skinner Prout, 1846, Source: The National Museum of Australia


The correlation between linguistic preservation and colonialism is also underlined by Professor Robert M. W. Dixon, the author of the seminal book The Languages of Australia. Here he notes that “in times when Aboriginal Australians were being treated reasonably well there was a great deal of interest in their cultural and language; when they were being treated badly, there was a noticeable absence of linguistic work.” 


There is the case of Tasmania, for instance, whose history is emblematic of the immense cultural loss triggered by British colonialism. Colonization was particularly horrific in this island state of Australia and as a result, we now have only a handful of word lists. They suggest that Indigenous peoples on the island spoke something between eight to twelve languages. Any reconstruction of how the Tasmanian languages sounded is difficult, if not impossible.


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Point McLeay Mission, photograph by Herbert Read, 1860, Source: The AIATSIS Collection


On the mainland, it was only in the 1950s that anthropologists started to stress the need to try and understand Aboriginal culture. As a result, some liberal humanitarian missionaries began to allow Aborigines to retain what they envisioned as “the best” of their culture in an environment that was still, however, aimed at “civilizing” them.


The 1950s represented a watershed in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with language once again playing a crucial role in this shift. Some missionaries set themselves the task of learning and preaching in the local languages, and on various missions Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians went as far as working side by side to translate the Gospels into the local Indigenous language. This is the case, for instance, of Reverend Robert Love, who as early as the 1920s translated the Gospels of St Mark and St Luke into Worora, the language spoken in northern Western Australia.


All throughout the 20th century, on missions across Australia, Indigenous languages provided a common ground between the two groups, in what some consider to be the first steps in the troublesome process of reconciliation.


Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Literatures

montreal indigenous peoples
Tio’tia:ke, Montreal, Source: The Blue Metropolis Foundation


When asked where she was from, Māori writer Patricia Grace once said: “I was born on Te Upoko o Te Ika, the head of the fish, that, a long time ago, was fished up by demigod Maui from the great Ocean of Kiva, or, to put it another way, I was born in what is now known to most as Wellington, New Zealand”. 


Indigenous literature plays an important role in the reaffirmation of Indigenous terminology and Indigenous languages. Languages, they suggest, are more than just communication tools — they are the depositories of traditions, of stories, of distinct worldviews, and, potentially, of solutions to old and new issues. Killing a language means depriving the world of one of its means of survival in the face of social and environmental changes.


This view is shared by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. A Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg storyteller, songwriter, activist, and performer, she also happens to be a Canadian citizen. In her work, she repeatedly states that Nishnaabewin, that is, the intelligence and cultural practices of her people, are constantly mirrored and expressed by the language spoken by the Anishinaabeg, Nishnaabemowin, whose specific and nuanced terms are often impossible to translate into English. Literature, Simpson suggests, can vivify languages by placing them in the contemporary world wherein such works of art originate. By keeping records of oral stories and language changes, literature prevents languages from being “frozen” in time.


leanne betasamosake simpson
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, 2021, Source: Now Toronto


Leanne Simpson’s works are imbued with Nishnaabemowin terms, as well as with words from other Indigenous languages. The city of Montreal, for instance, is always referred to as Tio’tia:ke, as the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people call it, while Peterborough, the homeland of the Michi Saagiig section of the Anishinaabeg nation, features as Nogojiwanong.


In her stories, Toronto is Gchi Enchikiiwang, and Lake Ontario Chi’Niibish. The Iroquois, who appear so prominently in Canadian history, are addressed as Rotinonhseshá:ka, according to the Kanien’kehá terminology, the language of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people. The world, Indigenous languages tell us, is more diverse, varied, and nuanced than we think.


Renaming & Reconciliation

long plain celebration powwow indigenous people
Members of Long Plain First Nation participate in their Treaty Days powwow, 2019, Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia


In a post-colonial environment, language represents community cohesion and connection, as it reaffirms an Indigenous identity outside the white cosmos. It has the power to draw people together, to unite them, both physically and spiritually. In his article “The Language of Oppression”, scholar Michael Christie notes that “the oppression of Aborigines began with words.” This is true not only for Australia, but for all post-colonial countries. Today, it is precisely through words that Indigenous Peoples from across the world are finally able to reclaim the value of their cultures, the importance of their ancestral languages, their place in our society, and the unique contribution they can offer to the world.


northern kimberley gwion gwion indigenous peoples
Collecting samples of Gwion Gwion rock art in Northern Kimberley, by Sven Ouzman, Source:


The coexistence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous languages in post-colonial countries points to a cultural and linguistic diversity that the forcible imposition of English during colonialism attempted to silence. This diversity is now being reaffirmed and celebrated by Indigenous People around the world so that post-colonial countries may truly be, to borrow from the language of the Anishinaabeg, Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig, the place where we all live and work together.

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By Sara RelliMA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA ScreenwritingSara is a Berlin-based screenwriter and researcher from Italy. She holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of West London, as well as an MA (Hons) in Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures from the University of Bologna. Deeply passionate about the relationship between history and literature, her interests range from Irish literature to race representation (in literature and cinema), from post-memory to the response of Indigenous peoples to climate change.