“Land back, language back” — this was the focus of community organizer Eva Blake’s remarks at the Intercultural Center’s annual Indigenous Peoples' Day teach-in on Oct. 5, which was centered around the theme of building Indigenous sovereignty through community. The event included a discussion with Blake, a member of the Wampanoag Nation, on Indigenous language reclamation and the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, as well as the opportunity to participate in a round dance, a type of Indigenous group dance performed in social settings.

The event opened with remarks from ICC Director Habiba Braimah, who emphasized the significance of observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an alternative to Columbus Day. This is the second year that Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been observed as a federal holiday, and over the past decade, over 29 states and 195 cities, including Boston, have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Brandeis was traditionally observed as a staff holiday with classes still in session; beginning last year in fall 2022, it has become a day of observance for the entire Brandeis community. 

Braimah called upon the Brandeis community to use their day off to remember the historical legacy of colonization and to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. “I call on us to join in solidarity with Indigenous peoples by honoring and respecting the sovereignty and life of Indigenous nations and call for justice and equity … I invite us to move towards reconciliation and healing by promoting critical and healthy dialogue and collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”

Following Braimah’s introduction to the event, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lee Bitsoí discussed the inspiration behind this year’s teach-in theme and its connections to the evening’s discussions. “When we’re talking about sovereignty, we’re talking about really understanding that government-to-government relationship that tribal nations have with not only the U.S. government, but also the state governments as well,” he said. “Part of that sovereignty is recognizing the importance of maintaining language and culture.”

Blake focused her discussion around the idea of reclaiming Indigenous languages as a political act and the connection between climate justice and the protection of Indigenous languages. Following her discussion with an introduction in the Wôpanâak language, Blake affirmed that “it was important for me to introduce myself to you today in my native language … as a political act to establish who I am and who my people are.”

Blake discussed her background learning Wôpanâak and her involvement with the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, which was co-founded by community member Jessie Littledoe Baird. Baird, who holds a master’s degree in Algonquian Linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had a prophetic dream about the return of the language. She worked with linguists at MIT and Indigenous communities to establish what became the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, which includes an orthography — a set of conventions for Wôpanâak as a written language — and a dictionary, in addition to curricula and educational programs, including the language immersion camps where Blake had first started learning and teaching Wôpanâak. 

Blake also drew attention to the idea that the loss of Indigenous languages occurred through intentionally constructed systems of oppression that still exist today, which further inhibit Indigenous communities’ abilities to reclaim and revitalize their languages. According to the Harvard International Review, an Indigenous language dies every two weeks. Blake emphasized that it’s not just a language that dies — it’s also an ancient way of understanding the world and how to care for it through acts of reciprocity. She pointed out the fact that regions in which Indigenous languages are spoken are heavily correlated with biodiversity hotspots, a testament to Indigenous peoples’ history of living sustainably with the land and the embodiment of these principles in their languages.

According to Blake, these principles make it all the more important to protect, revitalize, and return Indigenous languages to their communities, and also offers a glimmer of hope that the solution to many pressing environmental problems today may lie in the protection of Indigenous languages. “Protecting our languages is working towards protecting our Earth,” she stated.

Blake also emphasized the relational nature of language and its role in building community and Indigenous sovereignty. “Language is life, and language is community.” she said. “For me, sovereignty means self-determination. What better way to determine your own life than to be able to speak it into being?”

Following Blake’s remarks, Visiting Professor Evangelina Macias (WGS) of the Amskapi Pikuni Blackfeet and A'aninin GrosVentre nation led a Round Dance in the ICC Multipurpose Room. For many Indigenous communities, Round Dances take place in social settings and embody themes of unity, inclusivity, and community. These themes are represented through the shape the dance takes — most notably, as its name implies, a circular formation with movement in the clockwise, or “sunwise,” direction. Attendees packed into the small room, held hands, and formed two concentric circles that moved in time to rhythmic drum beats.

The event concluded with a dinner, where attendees continued the conversation on language reclamation and building community.