Engaging the challenges of language reclamation through participatory theatre

Shaw, Patricia A.
Patricia A. Shaw
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Major challenges for many Aboriginal language revitalization programs are the complex and often covert tensions stemming from deeply internalized, fundamentally conflictual attitudes and values. Many of the very people who are the most treasured assets for language reclamation are also those who were the most negatively impacted by socio-political hostilities towards the value of that heritage. How does such an individual reconcile painfully buried memories of external judgments that their language was ugly, heathen, savage, an assured path to eternal damnation in the afterworld, and a guaranteed impediment to educational and social survival in the present world with the current tidal reversal which honours that same language for its beauty, structural complexity, cultural coherence, spiritual power, historical validity, intellectual insights, and cognitive breadth? How do subsequent generations reconcile their anger at having been deprived of their linguistic and cultural birthright with the historically contextualized fact that it was often the protective, loving, conscious decision of fluent parents not to pass on their ancestral language because it had engendered so much pain and degradation in their own lives? How do the profound intergenerational differences in world view that stem from an (“illiterate”) oral traditions culture versus our current literacy-dependent society interface with the challenges of teaching/learning what is now a critically endangered language? How do other values of the “dominant” socio-cultural institutions (economic utility, contextually delimited functionality, curricular choices, etc.) interface with Aboriginal language reclamation efforts? Such conflicts may be simultaneously internal, interpersonal, and intergenerational, and can constitute a major impediment to revitalization initiatives. This paper documents a process of engagement with these challenges through participatory theatre as an empowering art. Sponsored by a post-secondary Aboriginal language revitalization program in collaboration with a renowned theatre workshop director, 16 people from 15 different Aboriginal nations across Canada, ranging from adolescents to elders, came together to create audience-interactive plays about their struggles with language loss and the challenges of reclamation. The impact of this project, on both the participants and the audience, was extremely powerful. Drawing on video sections of the performances to illustrate specific points, this presentation will discuss first the particular issues that the workshop participants chose to focus on; secondly, the insights gained from the audience interventions; and finally, the effectiveness of the process of participatory theatre and staged dramatization as a means of engaging with issues of passionate import in people’s lives that, off-stage, are often too conflictual for individuals to address.
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