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April 18, 2019 — How can old Jesuit manuscripts written in indigenous languages have become such a hot topic? Because they fit perfectly into one of the four Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preferences and into UNESCO’s theme for 2019, namely the International Year of Indigenous Languages.  

UNESCO chose this theme “to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages, including as an educational medium, and to take further urgent steps to that end at the national and international levels.”  However, the number of speakers of several of these languages is on the decline in Canada and elsewhere in the world. This phenomenon has grown to such an extent that each year, multiple indigenous languages become dormant. This is a shocking observation since they carry the identity, knowledge and culture of the nation that uses it.  

Yet, it is possible to revitalize indigenous languages, even those that have not had native speakers in many decades. For example, the revitalization of the Huron-Wendat language was – and still is – at the heart of several major projects, such as Yawenda and Natives4Linguistics. These projects are partly based on Jesuit linguistic documents. In fact, the former missionaries of New France learnt Huron-Wendat thanks to its native speakers and recorded this knowledge in grammar books, dictionaries and other texts. Moreover, many of these texts are kept in the Archives of the Jesuits of Canada, even if they are not in the UNESCO Register.  

The purpose of the archives is to preserve these linguistic documents; indeed, these conservation efforts fit into the reconciliation process with indigenous peoples. Are you interested in knowing more about this? Some manuscripts are easily accessible online via a digital exhibit.  You can also visit the NFB site to hear speakers of indigenous languages.  

In order to participate in the International Year of Indigenous Languages, over the coming weeks we will publish a series of articles to help you discover manuscripts and printed materials written by Jesuits on this topic.  

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