Meet one of the signers who translated the Mi'kmaq Honour Song into sign language

Mi'kmaw signers Holly Green and Sheila Johnson helped translate the Honour Song, which was featured in a video for the Nova Scotia Community College. (Mel Hattie/NSCC - image credit)
Mi'kmaw signers Holly Green and Sheila Johnson helped translate the Honour Song, which was featured in a video for the Nova Scotia Community College. (Mel Hattie/NSCC - image credit)

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired on Information Morning Cape Breton on Jan. 23. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Host Steve Sutherland: Earlier this week on Information Morning, we had an interview with George Paul, the writer of the Mi'kmaq Honour Song, about a new children's book that shares the story of the song. 

Today, we're talking about another project to help share the Honour Song with another audience: people who are not able to hear it.

The Honour Song translation project is a collaboration of deaf Mi'kmaw signers, Mi'kmaw elders and others to translate the song into sign language. 

One of the Mi'kmaw translators who helped create the sign language version is Holly Green.

Holly also performs the sign language version in a video created by the Nova Scotia Community College which was shown at the Atlantic International Film Festival.

Also joining us is Denise DiGiosia. She is senior adviser for Mi'kmaw Indigenous initiatives, human rights, & equity and inclusion for NSCC. She is also Mi'kmaq.

And by the way, I should mention that Holly is deaf. We are working with an ASL-English interpreter throughout this interview,  and actually we can all see each other on Zoom.

Holly and Denise good morning, Kwe'.

Denise: Weli eksitpu'k.

Steve: Maybe we'll start with you, Denise. Could you tell us a little bit about NSCC's involvement? How did this project come together?

Denise: Well, I will share with your audience that I've just been in this role [for] over a year. This project had some roots before I arrived at Nova Scotia Community College and it was brought to me by one of our translators that was working with sign language at the college for events like graduation, convocation — different events that the Mi'kmaq Honour Song was being played. [The translator] expressed how there was a gap in being able to sign O Canada, but when it came to signing the Mi'kmaq Honour Song, they had to leave the stage.

There was no official sign in Mi'kmaw and it was flagged [to] me that this was an opportunity. Nova Scotia, at the time, was just starting to enact its legislation to adopt Mi'kmaw language as its official first language. So it was really important in acknowledging the opportunity for NSCC to honour and implement some of the calls to action in the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] of creating that opportunity for language to be developed and also to bring community together in this work, so we jumped on it immediately. I thought that it was a very important act of reconciliation for the college.

Steve: Wow, that's really interesting. So your ASL interpreter said there was no way to interpret the Honour Song into sign language and had to leave the stage after O Canada, that's really interesting. So Holly Green, you are one of the interpreters and signers. Before getting into that process, tell me a little bit about you. You actually use Mi'kmaw sign language for the Honour Song?

Holly: Yes, so for myself, my father is Mi'kmaq, but I was raised by my mother who is a white woman, so I lost a lot of that part of my life until I would say about 10 years ago. I started on this personal journey to find out who I was and where I'm from, and when I started asking some questions about my history and started finding out a little bit more, I connected with some elders and with some of my friends growing up and I started learning where my family was from and a little bit more about my background. 

This project came into my life about two years ago and it was a great opportunity for me to do some more of that exploring and more of that learning about my culture and my history. I can feel that history and that passed-down tradition, but I didn't have it growing up. The other deaf translator, Sheila Johnson, [had] a lot of the Mi'kmaw signs passed down to her. I didn't have a lot of them. So we did this together, understanding that Mi'kmaq is an oral language that also has a written component sometimes, so we're learning more and more as I go along. I'm happy to be able to show [this] to a wider audience, while working with Sheila Johnson.

Steve: So what is the Mi'kmaw sign language?

Holly: Sure. It's a really old language. If you think about spoken Mi'kmaw at the time when people were still hunting and were still out on the land existing in this way, there were deaf people there too, and people were communicating with spoken language, with sign language, all sorts of different varieties of a mixture of spoken and language together, and that's really where the old Mi'kmaw signs come from. Sheila has a deaf family and has a lot of those signs passed down in her family, and that's a lot of what we relied on as well.

There's a history of residential schools that has an impact on all of these languages, and we're trying to revitalize it now with this project.

Steve: Can you tell me a little bit about the process, how you take the Mi'kmaq Honour Song and turn it into sign language? What was the process?

Holly: It was a little bit of a complicated process because we are talking about translating the Mi'kmaw sung language into signs and how to make those connection points there. So you do have to use colonized languages as a bridge to get there, but we really didn't want to dwell in those spaces for too long, so we spoke with the community, with language keepers, what the words really meant and tried to find equivalents to signs to convey those meanings. So we worked just to feel what the feeling was in each of the words, in each of the concepts, and between the two of us, Sheila and I, we talked about what signs would be the most conceptually accurate to depict those meanings.

Steve: And just out of curiosity, do you also use American Sign Language?

Holly: Yeah, especially during the translation process, we had a lot of those conversations in ASL and we had Mi'kmaw elders, who were hearing people, who spoke to us in English, using ASL-English interpreters and Mi'kmaq spoken language, as well. So we were using all of these languages that we had available to us, plus Sheila and I, taking all of that information, using the old Mi'kmaw signs and the sign language that she has to come up with the language that you see in the Honour Song.

It was a large group of us together. It was a little bit of a complicated process with Mi'kmaw language speakers, sign language interpreters working in the room, and all of us coming together to create this. It was a complicated process, but an enjoyable one.

Steve: So, what's a phrase whose evolution to what it ended up being in sign language was interesting to you that you could tell us about?

Holly: If I think about the structure of the Honour Song, toward the end of it, we talked about one of the phrases that was — it could have a very broad meaning, but we couldn't think about a specific sign to use with it. In the song, it flowed really well and we wanted to make sure it flowed really well in the signs as well, so we put it on pause for a moment and then we talked about the rest of the song. Conceptually, we got the song all together. Sheila and I talked about it for an hour and we moved on to a different part and then we went back up to revisit that one part that we were stuck on and then it came to us. It was really, really tough because when you think about Mi'kmaw spoken language and then talking about it in English and then figuring out what Mi'kmaw signs we wanted to put to it, while releasing ourselves from all of that very, very specific words throughout the whole process was really, really difficult.

Steve: What was the concept you were conveying and what's the sign you came up with?

Holly: The one in the song is when it talks about the roots and how people are all interconnected. So we brought all of our people together, they became roots conceptually and then they were brought up to the creator the same way that the honour comes from and conceptually that kept the tone of the song all the way around. That was the part that I really, really liked. It was a really tough part as well, especially considering that we were going back and forth between four languages the whole time: the spoken Mi'kmaw, spoken English, American Sign Language, and the Mi'kmaw signs you see in the video.

Steve: You're listening to Information Morning. We're at 92.1 FM in Eskasoni. We're having a conversation with Holly Green, who is a Mi'kmaw translator. Holly was one of the people involved with translating the Mi'kmaq Honour Song into sign. We're also speaking with Denise DiGiosia, who is with NSCC and was involved in this process. 

Holly, I saw the video that was produced for the song which recognized some of the drummers and dancers, too, from Eskasoni and it was interesting when the drummers were chanting, there was a sign that you used. The back of your right hand on the open palm of your left hand. over and over.

Holly: Yeah — I can talk about that. It's really about your heart and when they're chanting and we could see them doing that. We could feel them doing that. For me and how they explained it as well, is we really wanted to show the heartbeat of it. So if you think about the feeling and signs being visual and how it's a chant, we really wanted to express that in sign language as well and keeping the heart as part of it.

Steve: So Denise, what's your thoughts on how the process turned out and where the Honour Song goes from here?

Denise: It was really important to acknowledge — as we started doing this work in a way that transformationally has never been done, in engaging the community, honouring and acknowledging Indigenous intellectual property — it was really important for us to work directly with George Paul and he became quite important in helping us design the visuals on how, in his mind, this song looked, so a lot of the creative components of this are his, using his guidance.

What I'm really most touched by and impressed by is the ability of how it was difficult work, but pulling and centring [the] community and making sure that they led this and that we had people like Holly and Sheila, who are the leaders in this work, acknowledging the value that they hold in their lived experience, in their expertise. [That] was important for me to centre.

When Holly talks about the heartbeat, that's something that I don't think hearing communities acknowledge — that when we see a drum, we can feel it. It resonates in our body. That's not an experience that's shared with deaf communities. So to us, traditionally in our teachings, a drum is our heartbeat, our connection to the land. It replicates the sound that a baby would hear in the womb, so it connects us. It's intersectional and being able to bring that to a reality of a community that would never experience that — to me — is really what is the centre of all of this work, is that inclusive, equitable work that I really hope and dream for and intend to lead the college in.

Steve: Holly, a question for you that is kind of an odd question, I guess, because some of the language used was Mi'kmaw signs that are very old and as you say, not everybody knows them anymore. Some of them you had to collaborate on with Sheila, with elders, with others, to kind of get across a concept rather than a specific transliteration. If I speak ASL, or if I use ASL, and I'm a deaf person and I see it performed with the signs that you and Sheila ended up with, will I understand the language?

Holly: It's a very visual language, so yes, it's accessible to deaf people. Are they going to understand it completely? Probably not. Conceptually, it does make sense, but the words specifically, the same way that a hearing person who speaks English can hear the Honour Song, recognize it as the Honour Song kind of gets the gist of it, a deaf person who uses ASL only would watch that video and understand it in the same way.

Steve: Fascinating. Thank you both very much. Good luck with the new chapter for the Honour Song. We'lalioq.

Holly: We'lalin.

Denise: We'lalioq.

Steve: Holly Green is a Mi'kmaw sign language translator who helped create a new sign language translation of the Honour Song. Denise DiGiosia is senior adviser of Mi'kmaw Indigenous Initiatives, Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion for NSCC.