By Lilly Lin
What is in the power of language? How could it fundamentally transform both the speaker and the listener experiencing it? In conversing with Dr. Bernard Perley, our guest for this interview feature, the answers to these questions naturally unravel and the seeds to new inquiries and perspectives bloom.
Dr. Perley, or Bernie as we came to call him, is the Director of Critical Indigenous Studies and an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. He is Maliseet from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick and is an activist/advocate Indigenous anthropologist. He has done much work in language research and advocacy, including publications and conferences, and community-based projects such as language revitalization workshops.
When Bernie first arrived at the interview location, I noticed that his hair was much longer than in the photos I had seen of him online; it was tied behind him in a long ponytail. We broke the ice with a bit of conversation and he asked Jonathan and I what our majors were at UBC. When we both said English Literature, he let out what seemed like an exclamation of disapproval—in jest. He himself was quite multidisciplinary, having received a Bachelors in Fine Arts, a Masters in Architecture, and a PhD in Social Anthropology. When Keiko pointed out how interesting his wide scope of disciplines was, Bernie remarked that he was rather “undisciplined” instead.
Being “undisciplined” would open up our conversation and lead us to one of our first discussion points, which would come up again throughout the interview, that of finding “blindspots”. To contextualize this, Bernie framed himself as an Indigenous person going through the American educational system. Right away he noticed the “blindspots” in that system and in many academic disciplines he would encounter afterwards.
“As I went through the American educational system … the teacher said ‘who discovered America,’ and being Native American, I had a pretty good understanding of who discovered America,” he recounted, “and when Columbus was the name that was brought forward, then I said ‘well okay, something’s wrong with this picture.’ There’s a serious blind spot.”
He didn’t speak English when he attended elementary school, as his first language was Maliseet. All of a sudden, everything “he knew to be true and right with the world was rendered meaningless and mute.” He needed a way to recontextualize himself and make sense of this new world. He found, partly through the guidance of his mother, that art was his way of doing this.
“My mother was really important in helping me navigate those early years,” he said.
She would tell him stories in Maliseet about his home—the reservation—when he grew tired of studying the English language, and she would draw pictures too.
“I remember one story about a cabin,” he recalled, “and there was a canoe out in the lake and there were these hills, and there was like a moon coming up over … from between the hills. And I just remember that so vividly. And that’s what sparked my interest in art. And I thought ‘wow, I want to be able to draw just like mom.’”
That was a kind of starting point for him in his journey of art-making. Art became a way of expressing himself, of dealing with the sense of alienation, and was an alternative form of storytelling. As we progressed in the conversation, he shared with us an art installation that was close to his heart.
As part of his fieldwork in the mid-90s, in helping the Maliseet language teacher at Mah-Sos school at Tobique First Nation create “content for language instruction and practice,” he created a Maliseet prayer of thanksgiving.
“How do we get students to understand and use the language in a way that re-integrates the landscape, spirituality, and the language so that it’s not just about the code,” he said, “it’s about our relationships to our ancestral land.”
He then turned that prayer piece into an art installation. Each of the stanzas of the prayer was placed on 3’ by 7’ panels and arranged in a circle. For the first line of the prayer, you faced east and gave thanks to the sun, “and then you go clockwise for all 12 stanzas.”
“One of the things I wanted to do was create that sense of primordial time,” he said, “Maliseet ancestral time.”
He unveiled a “first draft” of the installation and observed people as they experienced it. In particular, he shared what a colleague from Geography told him after viewing the piece.
“He was in there for the longest time,” Bernie recalled, “And he came out and came up to me, and he said, ‘Bernie’-” here Bernie paused. I thought for a moment that he was re-enacting the gestures of his colleague when the man came up to him afterwards, but that wasn’t the case. In recalling his colleague’s words, Bernie had become emotional himself.
“When I’m in that space,” his colleague had said, “I feel pure joy.”
“And so for me,” Bernie continued, “that’s the goal of the artwork. How do we share that experience and celebrate what we can all share as we imagine possible worlds.”
He hopes that as a next step he can ship the installation across the country so that his community members can also experience it. And, ultimately, he hopes that it can have a permanent space in his ancestral land.
From Bernie’s words and his practice of art-making, I felt a sense of love. In making and sharing art with others, in his work and in conversing and connecting with people, what Bernie wanted to do was to convey love. When we asked him to share a word that he liked, he said “Koselomol,” which means “I love you” in Maliseet.
“I think we all have those words,” he said, “and so it’s not just the word, it’s relationship. It’s the sound that triggers particular kinds of emotions, a commitment to a relationship. And so our languages are all, you know, designed to do that. And so for me just paying attention to what those relationships are is extremely important.”
Bernie does a lot of work in language revitalization, and to him, language is about relationships. He spoke about wanting to shift the common practice in linguistics of focusing only on the “code” or the language itself—which was, again, another “blindspot”. Language is poetry, music, art, Bernie said. And language has the power to fundamentally change identities and perceptions.
The proper name for the Maliseet people is Wolastoqiyik, or “People of the Bright River”. The story goes that when the European settlers asked the Mi’kmaq who the people living up the river were, they said the “Maliseet”.
“The impression is that the Maliseet didn’t speak Mi’kmaq properly,” Bernie said, as “Maliseet” roughly translates to “broken talkers” in English. The river being referred to is the Wolastoq river, what is otherwise known as the “Saint John” River. “Was Saint John ever in New Brunswick? No!” Bernie said, “so why is it called the Saint John River?”
“But if we call it the Wolastoq River, and we understand what that means—the ‘Peaceful River’—then it changes things. But more importantly, what it does also do, is it describes a relationship. It says ‘we’re people of the Wolastoq River—Wolastoqiyik,’ so our preferred ethnonym is not Maliseet, it’s Wolastoqiyik … and that changes, fundamentally, our relationship to the river.”
This change in the language and the way we name things has the potential to alter a people’s relation to the land and their ancestral past, while at the same time inviting others to witness this change and to see things differently. Bernie noted with enthusiasm that during a language summit at Tobique First Nation the past June, a lot of young folks were not using “Maliseet” but rather “Wolastoqiyik”.
“And so for me that’s a real indication that the younger generation … can imagine themselves as Wolastoqiyik, not Maliseet. And so they’re kind of throwing off that kind of ‘colonial cloak’ and starting to re-assert their own sovereignty about who they are.”
This potential in the younger generation excited Bernie. He gave another example in the work of Jeremy Dutcher, whose music he heard one day on the radio while driving home after a dental appointment.
Jeremy is trained in opera, and he had taken “Maliseet songs from wax cylinders and … re-interpreted them.”
“These are like 19th century, early 20th century recordings. And so he’s brought those ancestral voices to today. And in one of them in particular he sings a duet with the wax cylinder … And so for me that’s what’s exciting. And now he’s celebrated across the globe for that kind of innovation … And the other thing is that now people get to hear Maliseet around the world.”
Bernie considered himself an optimist. To him, many things are an ongoing process. When asked what his vision was, what he considered his own “cosmogony” or world-making, he said that it was rather an approximation towards “what that vision is going to be.” Art-making, language, stories and conversations, they’re all a part of world-making. So there was no conclusion to our interview, no end to the conversations.
By speaking to Bernie, we shared a part in that world-making and approximated his vision of love, shared humanity, and of working together and collective healing. We take this knowledge and his stories and we carry the conversation forward, so that we can keep affecting new worlds with each person that we meet.
“Bernard Perley.” The Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia, https://cis.arts.ubc.ca/persons/bernard-perley/. Accessed 22 Aug 2022.
Perley, Bernard. Wolastokwi Cosmogenesis. https://sites.uwm.edu/bcperley/wolastokwi-cosmogenesis/. Accessed 22 Aug 2022.