Another Slice of Linguistic Racism

Recently, a video of the racist ranting of a white woman in a Mississauga, Ontario, medical clinic has been getting a lot of media attention across Canada. This has been used to exemplify how, despite the ways that Canadians love to situate themselves as free from racism or more tolerant of multiculturalism than our neighbours in the US, we still see even the most overt forms of racism manifesting here. And make no mistake – as others have pointed out, it is the overtness of this instance, the direct demand that this woman makes to have her son seen by a white doctor, that forces many people to acknowledge that it is, in fact, racism (and even then, some will refuse and find ways to justify this behaviour, as Paradkar documents in a follow-up post).

Among all the articles covering this story, though, this column by Shree Paradkar caught my linguistic attention (h/t @meg2386 for firing it at me on Twitter). Paradkar outlines a number of characteristics of linguistic racism, including the ways that certain types of speech are given authority and seen as ‘correct’, as well as how the apparent compliment that someone is ‘articulate’ or ‘well-spoken’ is deployed in classist and racist ways. The article, and the follow-up, make a lot of good points, but there is one aspect in particular I think deserves further attention – the role of racism in perceptions of accents, and the racial implications of demands that others speak English (and often, as here, perfect English).

I think these points matter because I suspect that, in the absence of the specific inclusion of race qualifications about the type of doctor this woman wanted her son to see, other elements of this demand would have gone less noticed. In other words, if she had simply asked for a doctor who speaks English, many more people would view that as a reasonable request, because who doesn’t want a doctor that they can understand? There are a number of complicated angles around this, including the question of how ‘official’ languages work in different places, how linguistic standards relate to licensing standards for professions like medicine, and who is expected to accommodate whom in a ‘multicultural’ society, and these bigger picture questions help to create a terrain that fosters racist beliefs. On top of that, we can see how these “speak English” demands take specific forms in specific types of interactions – even when it’s not relevant, people speaking certain languages (like Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese) are subjected to random others who tell them they can’t speak those languages, that those languages mark them as not good Canadians (or Americans). Nelson Flores’ blog often addresses this topic, specifically in reference to how bilingualism and bilingual education are not neutrally interpreted, as native Spanish-speakers, regardless of their level of fluency in English, are frequently subjected to tests and categorizations that render their language use “deficient” and requiring surveillance. This is the same type of thing that emerges in this woman’s rant – certain types of speakers are put in a position of repeatedly having to prove their capacity in English, both to authoritative bodies and to members of the general public with whom they interact. It’s tiring, it’s time-consuming, it’s degrading, and it can, as in many of the examples Flores uses in his work, it can have material consequences on where a student is placed in classes.

I realize I keep saying “certain types of speakers” without clarifying what I mean by that, though I’m assuming that most of you are able to read in to my intent there anyway. This is, however, extremely important – when people try to legitimize their desire for a specific type of doctor by saying they find certain accents, or strong accents, difficult to understand, they are tapping into what is, of course, a reasonable requirement for certain relationships. We all need to be able to understand our doctors, or our teachers, or other people in positions of public service. But they are also making a tacit assumption that there is an objective, measurable, degree of intelligibility, or proximity to ‘normal’ English, that these other speakers are failing to meet, and that it is not the listener’s fault that they can’t understand them. This is driven home, in this woman’s rant, by the demand for a doctor whose English is perfect, as though this is an objective assessment, like the 10/10 you can get on an elementary math quiz. Paradkar’s follow up post makes note of part of the problem underlying this idea by highlighting that intelligibility is, in part, a matter of custom and familiarity. One reason people might find certain accents difficult to understand, then, is because they have, as a result of structural racism or pervasive patterns of racial/cultural segregation, avoided the need to learn to understand them. In other words, while members of minority communities almost always have to accommodate dominant speakers in order to function, part of the function of dominance is to allow people to never have to try to accommodate others.

There are, however, deeper levels to this limited understanding that I think also need to be addressed. The main one is that perceptions of people’s speech is not, in fact, detached from their physical appearance. In various types of experimental and statistical studies (one example is discussed here), sociolinguists have shown that students judge professors whose names or features are Asian as less comprehensible, and complain about their accents – even when these instructors are actually native speakers of English. Our brains absorb information from other sources – like visual appearance and indexical associations with names, ways of dressing, etc – and develop a much more complex, and decidedly not straightforward, interpretation of what that person sounds like. In so many ways, the presence or absence of an “accent” is a socially constituted thing, not an objective reality in the world, and so it is subject to all the dynamics of categorization and power that exist within the social matrix.

This woman’s rantings, along with some of the ways people have reacted to them, are examples of how racist discourses work, in both overt and more covert ways. Linguistic racism is a complex and multifaceted topic, and discussions of racism (or the limitations of idealized Canadian multiculturalism) need to attune to things like expectations of accommodation and effort in mutual understanding, as well as the interrelationships between different types of information that go in to interpreting someone as “intelligible” or not. This particular incident was absolutely vile, and blatantly racist and white supremacist, but it also included some more subtle reinforcements of these power dynamics that may have, in the absence of those other statements, gone unnoticed, when in fact they are pernicious and potent elements of racial inequality.

Pseudoarchaeology Spoiler Alert! Nope, It’s Not Aliens.


One of the effects of being an expert is that people solicit your opinion. There is nothing wrong with that and I am always happy to talk about archaeology (thus this blog, my twitter feed, my career path, my outreach activities, etc.). Add in the inherent sexiness of archaeology and the popular misrepresentations of what archaeologists do, which I’ve briefly touched upon before, and I frequently find myself being asked to comment on “the latest greatest discovery that will shake our understanding of humankind to its very core” or “that challenges everything we know” or “that academics don’t want the public to know about”. So yeah, aliens. But not just aliens a whole bunch of content, theories, interpretations, and explanations about “the past” that can only be described as pseudoarchaeology.

Archaeology is the study of the past (and increasingly the contemporary) through material culture (i.e., stuff). I always spend a portion of my Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course talking about pseudoarchaeology to demonstrate to students the process of evaluating explanations in archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology is any interpretation or explanation about real or alleged phenomena/events/humans that are not supported by the basic logical and evidence-based standards of archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology has some characteristics of archaeology (and thus of science) so it takes some serious examination to identify it.

For example, here is the video a friend asked me about on Facebook that sparked this post, which I’ll just refer to as the Unearthing Gaia project. To demonstrate the process of identifying pseudoarchaeology, I’m going to critically assess the video and associated website using Fagan’s (2006) defining characteristics of pseudoarchaeology, characteristics of attitude and of procedure.

First and foremost, the evidence lacks context. I’m sorry but “near” a famous site is not enough contextual evidence. The number one concept we emphasize in archaeology is the context of our finds i.e., where and how we found them (note: trying to “protect” the site by not sharing that information is not how archaeologists protect sites nor disseminate knowledge). Context is everything in archaeology. If you don’t have good context, for the find and for the date (more on that below), then your explanation is going to be difficult to support. The Nazca lines are part of the “canonical suite of ‘mysterious’ sites” (Fagan 2006:27) and elsewhere on the site there are references to other cultures (the Maya) and sites (Gobekli Tepe) that are also part of the “recycling plant” (Fagan 2006:27) of pseudoarchaeology’s kitchen-sink mode of explanation. Basically the same body of selected evidence is presented time and time again.

Second, outrageous claims are another red flag – if you click through the website you’ll find statements like “discover what the history books won’t tell you”. This type of language sensationalizes archaeology and suggests that archaeologists a) won’t share the “good” stuff with lay people (because we privilege our own), and b) that we are conspiring to prevent this information from widespread dissemination. Further the whole video and website implies that there is something mysterious about our past. One of the characteristics of pseudoarchaeologists is that they seem to be unsatisfied by archaeological explanations that are “simple” or “mundane” and that the lack of evidence of life in the past being anything but mundane means not that this evidence does not exist but rather that it must be hidden – hidden by archaeologists who do not want you to know the truth.

Third, to suggest archaeologists “hide” information is part of the pseudoarchaeology attitude that both disparages academia and appeals to academic authority; there is both suspicion towards the scholars (and often critique of their elitism) but a willingness to state and emphasize the credentials of any theory or work done by any scholar that seems to support the hypothesis presented. Take the radiocarbon date presented in the video as an example – they defer to the authority of the science of radiocarbon dating but do not indicate what was dated (a date is no good if the sample has no context), fail to report it to standard (use of AD instead of BP), and do not state which lab conducted the dating (important because radiocarbon dates must be calibrated and corrected, the procedure for doing which can vary somewhat by lab). A CT-scan is prominently featured in the video but again no explanation nor context for the scan (including who performed it) is provided other than a quick comment that it proves their hypothesis.

Fourth, the language that is used is poorly or not defined. For example, what is meant by “primitive humanoid”. The use of the term “primitive” is extremely problematic in archaeology and anthropology unless it’s explicit use is defined, such as “primitive here is used to refer to biological traits that are inherited”. Primitive is not used to refer to ancestral populations because of the colonial, racist implications. “Humanoid” is also not used because it doesn’t really mean anything clearly nor easily identifiable other than what I think their intended use is, which is likely human-like but also non-human at the same time. That I need to infer intended uses of terms and their likely definitions is a major problem. It means that someone else could interpret those terms differently, which then impacts how they assess the explanation provided.

Fifth, one of the best ways to evaluate an explanation in archaeology (or any science really) is to apply the principle known as Occam’s Razor, which posits that the simpler explanation is usually the better explanation. Consider the “mummy”. There is much evidence of humans, both past and present, practicing cranial modification – the shape and size of the cranial vault was intentionally modified. This means that the best explanation for the elongated skull of the mummy is that they were part of a human community that practiced cranial modification, which is a far simpler explanation than this individual cannot be human and therefore MUST be extra-terrestrial.

So thanks to my friend for sharing the site with me as I do honestly love this stuff as it is an excellent example of pseudoarchaeology but I don’t buy what they are trying to sell (literally trying to sell as having to “buy” access to their “secret” insights…well that is another red flag…and yes I am aware of the issue with academic journals and paywalls but you are wrong if you want to suggest that they are the same thing because they aren’t).


Reference Cited: Fagan, G.C.  2006. Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology. In Archaeological Fantasies, edited by G.C. Fagan. New York: Routledge.

The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

After my last post on the use of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) in the Canadian House of Commons, I received a comment on Twitter that asked why I was changing the name of the language. When I objected that I was not, in fact, the one making the change (since the name I was using was the one used by its speakers for generations prior to colonization), the commenter responded:


I was…a bit swift and facetious in my dismissal of this comment on Twitter (Ed: You kind of have to work on how Twitter does that to you. SS: Yeah, that’s fair). I was somewhat surprised (because Twitter) to learn that the commenter, Martin Haspelmath, is actually a linguist who has thought quite extensively on the implications of language naming. As another commenter pointed out, he has, in fact, written an article on the subject which was published in the (OPEN ACCESS!) journal Language Documentation and Conservation. So stepping back from my initial reaction, I wanted to consider the argument presented.

The first point to note is that proper names – for people, places, and things like languages – are complex and unique linguistic items. Their degree of specificity (in other words, the limited nature of their referent) makes them function differently than other nouns, including with respect to processes of translation, which is particularly relevant to the example discussed. In Haspelmath’s article, he outlines principles for naming languages for the purposes of the English-language resource Glottolog, which is intended to provide accessible information about lesser-known languages of the world. These principles include some motivations for changing the name of the language, including the possibility that old names become “unacceptable” for some reason and therefore require changing, and that speakers themselves should be the central in bringing forward that objection. He also acknowledges complexity in establishing how these objections emerge, especially in cases where there is no formal body that speaks for “the community” to which the language belongs (the idea of an easily definable “community” is one that I have also pointed out as problematic for purposes of “community-based” research, so I appreciate this point).

At the same time, I think there is a fundamental point missing in the article as a whole, and definitely in the short conversation that emerged under the constraints of 140 character interactions. That point is one that we, as anthropologists, are always hammering at: context.

Part of my snappy response to Haspelmath’s tweet was based on what I still find to be incredibly condescending in his judgment about the use of “Kanien’kéha” instead of “Mohawk” – the idea that the decision to use the former term denies the language an English form and therefore impoverishes it. In this formulation, the English language name, and the apparent accessibility that it provides to a general audience, is a pathway for transference of wealth, a formulation that reeks of colonial ideologies. And, as others commented in the Twitter exchange, this is precisely the grounds on which a name like “Mohawk” is only now starting to fall out of favour – the language acquired its English-language name under circumstances of genocidal violence, land theft, cultural destruction, and linguistic elimination (aka “colonialism”). The quick comparison to Japanese or German completely erases that vast difference in context, and the use of a metaphor like “deprivation” of an English name (when English naming has been primarily used to deprive Indigenous peoples and languages of their value and place in the social order) is downright offensive.

As noted, the article acknowledges a much greater degree of complexity, but still, to my mind, shows some disturbing trends. For one, it unquestioningly accepts certain forms of authority as entitled to sanction name-changes. These include academic prominence (“the usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight”, point 11 on the list outlined on p. 91), or minimally, status as an academic linguist. Where speakers’ own valuations are introduced, it’s with caveats that this is best done within defined structures of community authority – and while, as I’ve already noted, communities are incredibly complex things, these types of organizations are often formed in relation to and using models based in colonial governments. All in all, the result is a context in which colonial terms of reference and academic hierarchies are used as gatekeepers to a community’s right to self-definition and self-labeling, and that’s uncomfortable at best.

In the end, I want to call in to question the central assumption Haspelmath introduces to the conversation – that language names are, first and foremost, English words. Without delving in to a long theoretical argument about how the boundaries – and even the idea of boundedness – of languages are socially constructed, and not objective, entities, this claim works to define the context on terms that centralize English-speaking users of the names. In other words, rather than attuning to nuanced multilingual contexts of the meaning of different types of English-language names, it creates a context in which the rules are set, first and foremost, by English speakers, and, ultimately, colonial ideologies about language and its meanings. This is not to dismiss the problem Haspelmath faces with respect to his Glottolog project, which requires him to make decisions about the names assigned to and information given about a huge range of languages, many of which are currently undergoing shifts in sociopolitical status and meaning as a result of language revitalization projects and other Indigenous rights initiatives. But it is to emphasize that the project of naming and cataloguing languages is an act of power, situated within fields of power that are both pre-existing and actively created by the language namers.

Power and context, and the power to create context, may not be explicitly acknowledged, but they are never in fact absent from discussions about languages and the language we use to talk about them. Indeed, in the context of motivating his work on Glottolog, Haspelmath’s tweet makes a lot more sense – but even there, the role that English (and those who define the boundaries of what counts as English) plays in these descriptions should not be presumed as a neutral field. I could outline some specifics of my discomfort with “Mohawk” over “Kanien’kéha”, but ultimately these are less significant than my discomfort with accepting English as the field that sets the rules about language names. Hard to change? Of course it is. But no one said decolonization would be easy.

Biittner’s Book Reviews: Here by Richard McGuire

Sit back in your chair a second, I’d like to try something with you.

Take a look around the space you are in. Really observe it closely. Mark what occupies, what shares the same space as you. Feel the movement of air or lack thereof. Are you warm? Are you cold? Once you feel like you know and have experienced your space I want you to close your eyes for one minute (don’t cheat) then resume reading.

So one minute passed while your eyes were closed and the seconds continue to mark the passage of time as you read these words. Look around the space again and see if you can identify if and how it changed in those sixty seconds.

Now get ready to close your eyes again; when you do I want you now to try to picture that same space but imagine that someone hit the rewind button. What did that space look like one, ten, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand years ago?

Can you do it? Can you see in your mind’s eye time reversing? Can you visualize the transformation of place over time?

HereHere, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, represents a similar thought exercise in that it presents on each and every two page layout a single, specific place with a date; every two page panel represents the same place, “here”. Through reading Here we see the transformation of a single space into place over time. On some pages this main panel has one or more smaller inset panels, which also have a date. The panels are not arranged chronologically – one larger two page spread may represent a loud house party in the living room of a house in 2008 with smaller inset panels of a single child with a balloon from 1958 and a deer frolicking in the woods in 1858, then on the next page the full panel takes us back thousands of years when the same space was just forest but the panel of the child from 1958 remains having moved forward just a few seconds to when the child has lost their grasp on the balloon and it slowly floats away. As time is not linear in the novel, you’ll find yourself flipping back and forth through the novel – is the child who loses the balloon in 1958 the elderly couch sitter of 2008? It is!? So the child chasing the cat must be their…and so on – we read ahead then flip back tracing and reconstructing the lives of the people who lived in and constructed that place.

It is a lovely story of a place told through snapshots, through fragments of its existence. And that’s why I loved it so much as an archaeologist – through excavation and analyses we strive to reconstruct those places from fragments. We can reconstruct the environment through plant and animal remains; we may get glimpses of individuals through the stuff they created then discarded or simply lost or left behind. From those facts we can make interpretations and we can attempt in our mind’s eye to “see” what the site would have looked like in the past and how it changed over time. I tell my students this is one of the hardest tasks – to stand in a space and visualize what it looked like then versus how it looks today. Here captures this spirit of looking back (and of looking ahead).

Here also captures how people transform spaces into places. Spaces are not culturally meaningful; they are the environment, the landscape, the plants, the animals in a particular location at a particular point in time. Places are meaningful; many archaeologists, like myself, are very interested in how we enculture the landscape, how we give the landscape meaning, how we transform space into place. This process of enculturation includes naming places, leaving objects behind, removing objects from them, or transforming the landscape through building etc. There are representations in Here of space, a landscape not yet marked by humans, but everything else in the novel represents the creation and evolution of place. Here serves as a reminder of the history of our places, one that includes us and one that existed before we did. You too may remember the exact location of your first kiss or can visualize the layout and objects in your childhood bedroom but are you aware of what was there before? Do you know what came after? Here captures this phenomenon of place-making, one that is not simply nostalgia or memory. There is something very human about creating places.

Finally Here subtlety highlights the importance of context, the most important concept in all of archaeology. Place represents part of the context of our finds and our sites. We cannot interpret an artifact without considering place any more than we would attempt to do so without understanding its provenance or its provenience. The elderly person weeping on the couch becomes a more powerful image when you realize that they once were that child weeping over the loss of a balloon in the very same place. Time passes, people come and go, and places are made and remade as we move through them.

I would highly recommend Here. It is simply lovely to look at but the narrative of place is powerful. It will inspire you to consider your “here” more closely too.

3D Printing and Scanning in the Lab: Some Points on Practice & on Ethics

Recently our anthropology lab purchased a 3D printer and a 3D scanner. This acquisition was motivated by the increasing use of these technologies in archaeology, museums, classrooms, libraries, and every other place where learning is seen as something that is a) super fun and b) hands on. As a small department with a limited budget, 3D printing also seemed like an affordable way to supplement our existing teaching collections. One of my roles as lab instructor is to make sure we have sufficient resources for our students to engage with in the lab; this can mean having enough copies for each student or small group of students to examine (e.g., twenty human skeletons) and/or to have enough different versions of something to represent variation (e.g., a left humerus for a human, a chimpanzee, a bushbaby, a baboon, etc.).  As lab instructor I’ve also been brainstorming (but have yet to implement) ways to include these tools in lab activities and assignments. For example, if I produce a high quality 3D scan for one of our os coxae to create an open access 3D model of it, all of our students can access it on their personal electronic devices; in Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) this model would likely just be used for learning the bones of the body, while in Anthropology 390 (Human Osteology) it could be used for learning methods of sex and/or age estimation and for assessing the use of 3D models versus real or physical copies with these techniques.

So while I have many ideas but not enough time play with these new toys as much as I would like, nor integrate them into classroom learning beyond show-and-tell, I have been able to do some printing.

Femur of H. naledi.

One of the first successful prints I had was the femur of Homo naledi (pictured above with the rafts and supports still in place). It seemed like the only fitting selection as the open access publication of the 3D files of H. naledi was what motivated us to look into getting 3D printing equipment in the first place.  I’ve also printed off a talus, vertebrae, metatarsals, and an articulated hand (pictured below) for this species. We’ve been using them in our Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) labs where we set up stations focused on comparative primate and hominin anatomy. Students examine specimens (say a bunch of femora) and then make interpretations and inferences as to why the variations are present (e.g., locomotion, dietary adaptation, reliance on vision versus olfaction, etc.).  We introduced the printed H. naledi specimens to our station regarding locomotion this term. Our students compared these prints with casts of limbs representing quadrupeds, knuckle walkers, brachiators, and bipeds, and asked to interpret the pattern of locomotion used by the unknown hominin. Students were not only excited by having these recent finds to examine (once we revealed which hominin they represented), they loved that the specimens were printed in our own lab; as such this has proven an excellent means to discuss not just the printed specimens but classroom technologies and pedagogy with them.

Articulated hand of H. naledi. Watching this hand emerge from the print deck was awesome.

We’ve also used our printer and scanner for outreach. I try to post the print process (and fails) on my social media feeds; I rely heavily on the open access models my peers around the world share on their sites, which brings specimens from around the world into our lab. For our annual Open House I worked with our Social Media guru to do a time lapse capture of a scaled-down model of a human skill (seen below in its cleaned and finished form), which was used in a video during our annual Open House. We held lab tours throughout the day allowing visitors to see and handle the skull after watching it print in the video; many were both surprised to learn that what they saw happen in 30 seconds took closer to three hours, and that we are striving to integrate these kinds of tools and technologies into our lab courses.

Star of MacEwan’s Open House video.

While we do also have a scanner, I haven’t been as successful using it to create models for our existing materials. I had the opportunity to scan a Folsom point recovered from a site in Alberta but failed in my attempt; at least it represents a promise of this technology – to connect with archaeologists around our province to scan and print materials (including distributing the models for wider use). While I could blame the material and the quality of our scanner for my fail on this attempt, it is honestly because I still have a lot to learn in terms of using not just the scanner and printer but the excellent free software that’s out there for editing files. I do think my students appreciate my transparency in discussing these print and scan fails, an example of a print fail is pictured below, as they see that I am, and will always be, a learner in the lab. I guess this means I’m using the scanner and printer to model behaviour in addition to objects.

An example of a print fail. The raft, a stable base for the printed object that is removed after printing during the finishing process, detached from the print deck creating a mess. Luckily I monitor any prints closely so stopped it before a) I wasted too much filament and/or b) the printer broke.

Overall I’m very satisfied with the printer and scanner. I do not think this was a “trendy technology” purchase; I do believe that the applicability of this technology to our courses and in our lab will remain high for years to come. However, there are ethical considerations whenever any new technology is introduced into the classroom.

Recently I became involved in a discussion on Twitter regarding the sale of replicas of the Ancient One that led to the question of what our response to reproductions should be in light of the rise of 3D printing and modelling technologies in the classroom. These two topics are not unrelated. In light of replicas of the Ancient One being sold, we must carefully consider WHAT we reproduce. Should the Ancient One be replicated? I say absolutely not. The case of the Ancient One is easily one the most controversial and contentious cases in North American archaeology and anthropology for so many reasons and that alone should make anyone take pause before disseminating reproductions of him. Some objects should not be replicated nor printed but what those are must be established on an ongoing and object-by-object basis.  In some cases the reproduction of human remains can be perfectly acceptable when done with approvals and informed consent. This means we ask before we reproduce. We make explicit what the purpose, use, and audience(s) of the models and prints will be. We agree to make models open access or shared or closed on a scan by scan basis. We make plans for the curation of prints and of models – both short and long term – including what to do if the original is repatriated. Finally we cannot profit from these models nor the prints, especially if the item should a) not have been replicated in the first place and b) has been repatriated. April Beisaw aptly tweeted it is “inappropriate to profit from sales of something that was given back. Is the repatriation incomplete if reproducing info retained?”. The Ancient One was repatriated and reburied back in February of this year; can we consider the repatriation complete if so much information (including replicas) of this individual are still in wide circulation. Beisaw argues “unless the tribe an item was repatriated asked for or consented to a replica, making one and using it is counter to repatriation’s ideal”; I absolutely agree.

Clearly this discussion demonstrates that replication (and research) in the context of repatriation is much more complex than what I’ve briefly addressed here but I’m simply arguing that we must be proactive in considering the ethics of 3D scanning and printing technologies in our labs and in our classrooms rather than being reactive. This is part of my hesitation in just rushing forward with using these technologies in my lab – I want to do it right. I want to be deliberate, intentional, and ethical. If nothing else these are the behaviours I want to model for my students and see them replicate as they move forward in their studies and careers.

Kanien’kéha in the House

Last week, a Liberal MP from Quebec named Marc Miller made headlines around the world by delivering an address to Canada’s House of Commons entirely in the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language. Miller described his speech, and his year-old journey into learning the language of the territory he represents, as an act intended to honour the people and to support the revitalization of this, and other Indigenous languages. His language teacher, Zoe Hopkins, said that hearing her language in that context was a matter of great pride – it was “Like being inside a Heritage Moment“, which is likely the most Canadian way possible to express said pride.

The speech (included in its entirety on that CBC link) is about a minute long, and ends with Miller receiving an enthusiastic round of applause and congratulations. That short minute, though, is a pretty big deal for Indigenous languages in Canada.

Kanien’kéha Stop Sign, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (Photo by Moxy (Own work) (, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, to be clear, the first time an MP has addressed parliament in an Indigenous language. In fact, it happened just last month, when Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, also a Liberal, used Cree. The story then, however, was less about the symbolic significance of using the language and more about the pragmatic failure to support Indigenous languages through the provision of translations, as we do for English and French. And yes, the difference between these stories is that Ouellete is Indigenous, and Miller is not.

Into that minute of hesitant Kanien’kéha language use, and into the media’s responses, are packed a whole host of symbolic and practical implications. Indigenous people that I know or follow on social media have had varied reactions to this, and it’s fair to say that, at the very least, it’s complicated. All I want to do here is offer an overview of the many angles at work in this story.

  1. Miller’s own claim, and the perspective of his teacher and other language advocates I’ve heard, are that hearing Kanien’kéha in the place of decision making for Canada is a powerful statement of respect and outreach. If we are meeting, as we purport to, on a nation-to-nation basis, requiring only one nation to accommodate the use of the other’s language is a manifestation of a deep power imbalance that Miller seeks to mitigate, at least somewhat.
  2. The most obvious and significant counterpoint to this is that the language is still being used in a colonial house of government. The very existence of this institution and its role in shaping, circumscribing, and yes, limiting, the lives and languages of Indigenous peoples is the reason that Kanien’kéha, and many other languages, face the possibility of disappearing. It smacks, then, of the kind of purely symbolic, performative acts of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” that has characterized Justin Trudeau’s time in office thus far.
  3. That said, symbols matter. Canada’s parliament is a site of power, and Miller is not wrong in his observation that bringing Indigenous languages into places of power can be important ways of, essentially, given them more power (in the form of stronger motivation to learn them). The devaluation of Indigenous ways of being throughout colonialism has included various ways of devaluing Indigenous languages (and those who speak them) as “inferior” to European ones. Reversing that deeply embedded ideological relationship involves a lot of different types of actions, including symbolic valorization.
  4. There’s a lot to be said about what it means that a non-Indigenous person is the one using the Kanien’kéha language, but to my mind, the most important is to observe that it does, in fact, reveal the displacement of actual Indigenous people from positions of authority as well as from the levels of privilege that would enable them to actually learn their own languages. Classes are not publicly funded, as noted in more than one of the articles on this, and teachers work precariously. Miller is conscious of this element and has used the press coverage of his speech to emphasize the need to change this. At the same time, the structural barriers don’t stop there – Miller notes the challenge of learning the language, which is structured in fundamentally different ways from the English and French languages that he already knows. Some of the reason he is able to make progress, however, is that he has an academic background that facilitates classroom-based learning. The structural inequalities that produce disparities in education levels, income, health, incarceration rates, and any number of other measures, all combine to make it a lot harder for Indigenous learners to have the time, energy, resources, and skills to work on their language in this way. Programs do exist that address these realities, but they are often overlooked in favour of the more familiar, comfortable (to Euro-American minds), and measurable classroom methods.
  5. It remains to be seen what form of continuity will or will not emerge from this. A one-minute speech that did not lead directly to conversation, commentary, or debate in the House is not anywhere near the same thing as a robust use of an Indigenous language in a decision-making capacity in this country. The lack of translation is still an issue, as any MP who wants to make a substantive (rather than symbolic) contribution to the discussion would have to provide their own translations, making it a time-consuming process that others would likely find frustrating. The question of whether non-Indigenous people should try to learn Indigenous languages remains at a very surface level, and we are in no way trying to seriously engage with the idea of having to put in the effort that it would require for English speakers to accommodate them, rather than always expecting the opposite (this applies in a broad way to English globally, but I’ll leave that overall idea for another post). It’s a pipe-dream level conversation at this point, though it would really demonstrate a significant strengthening of Indigenous languages.
  6. Any commentary about this by Kanien’kéha speakers and Kanien’keha:ka people has been clearly focused on how they feel about this act for their own language, and that’s important. While I have tried to contextualize this in terms of Canada and Indigenous language revitalization more generally, it’s worth noting that the implications of non-group members using a particular Indigenous language are subject to the ideologies and context-based meanings associated with ethnolinguistic identity for those people and their own languages. In other words, there isn’t a blanket meaning to be attached to non-Indigenous people using any Indigenous language that would hold true for all languages, all people, or all contexts. The political context of “Canada” means that there may be some shared continuity among peoples within that geographical expanse, but even there, how much and in what form is not obvious.

In the end, I applaud the effort that Miller put in, I think he has a pretty good handle on the symbolic potential and limitations of his actions, and I do think he is doing something better than many politicians. I am frustrated by many things about the media portrayal of the story, including how it exemplifies the way white people are given undue praise & credit for their involvement with Indigenous languages, but I’m glad they’re telling a story about concrete steps needed to support these languages. Yes, it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and give up on it all.

Biittner’s Book Reviews Resurrected: Ruins by Peter Kuper

I used to post book reviews on my personal blog about what I was reading and quite enjoyed doing so but have sadly let both my reviews, that blog, and my blogging here lapse. Starting with this post  I am going to resurrect “Biittner’s Book Reviews” but rather than just talking about what I liked and why, I’ll frame my discussion explicitly as anthropological.  As in the last few years the kinds of things I’ve reading has shifted to include more comics, graphic novels, and non-fiction (including ethnographies), what I select to review will be “books” very broadly defined. The only thread that will link those books I review will be that they triggered something in my anthropologist’s brain. Note that I’m not being compensated for these reviews unless otherwise stated.


The first book I’ve selected to review is Ruins by Peter Kuper. This graphic novel was suggested by A.M. Christensen on Twitter, who recommended it and Richard McGuire’s Here (next review I promise!) in a Public Archaeology Twitter Conference (PATC) presentation on comics and archaeology. Christensen argues that Ruins, and Here, are excellent examples of the “temporality of the landscape”. So let’s explore Ruins, and I’ll attempt to explain what Christensen means because I absolutely agree with their statement.

First the title is perfect. It refers not just to the archaeological sites (the ruins) the main characters visit, but also the state of their marriage (it is clearly in ruins) and to the rapidly crumbling state of local politics and the local economy. The title is also perfect because much like archaeological ruins, this book has many layers of meaning, of story, of time, and of place embedded in it. On its surface, Ruins is a story of a couple who take advantage of the wife’s sabbatical and the husband’s recent loss of his job to attempt to save their marriage via temporarily moving to Oaxaca. Oaxaca, modeled very closely on the actual city and its history, is situated in the book as the former field research site of the wife. The wife plans to use her time to write her book about the research she previously conducted in Oaxaca, while the husband, a now unemployed entomologist, is to use his time to reconnect with his past as an artist. Through writing the book, the wife is forced to reconnect with her past while considering her future. So in Oaxaca, the present of our characters quickly converges, intermixes, and colludes with the past and their pasts. This is what I think Christensen was getting at, that the past, present, and even future events of the book  are connected to and interconnected by a place, a landscape. In this book memory and history are often one and the same, experiences of the present are influenced by past events, and the future is slowly being shaped not just be experiences but also by the transformation of the place. Importantly the story of the couple is paralleled by the journey of a monarch butterfly. This is a powerful mechanism for revealing the dialectic of the past and present, and the connection to place all living organisms have.

And yes archaeology is very much present in the book.  As I want to avoid spoilers because there is something so lovely and haunting about how Kuper integrates the archaeological past with the personal past in this book I do not want to say too much but solid research went into information presented about the Zapotecs specifically and Mesoamerica more broadly.

Media is another important theme throughout; books, painting, photography, and graffiti all play key roles either in the background of panels or as explicitly undertaken and discussed by characters (most of the main characters are artists or photographers). What media appears and how it is used in the book and by the characters is very deliberate, and parallels another layer of the narrative the representation and communication of struggle. Protest is an important theme and plot point so signs, slogans, and shrines all are illustrated. Connected to media, is the use of colour (or lack thereof) on the pages. I love the shifts from black and white to colour panels to emphasize time and temporality.

Language is also important. The husband does not speak Spanish so struggles to communicate with the housekeeper that “came with” their rental property and most other residents of Oaxaca; this linguistic barrier between outsider and resident parallels the communication barrier between husband and wife. As his ability to communicate with the residents increases, a shift also occurs in his ability to communicate with his wife. This is yet another layer in this book.

Overall Ruins is an excellent read. It can easily be appreciated by a non-anthropologist but the examination of how place and time are interconnected really impressed me and what makes this stand out as an anthropological read.

OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.