People & Culture

Languages of the land: Emma Stevens on kesalul, I love you

In the fifth part of the “Languages of the Land” digital series, the Mi’kmaq singer speaks to Canadian Geographic on love, music and language

  • Published Apr 28, 2024
  • Updated May 01
  • 522 words
  • 3 minutes
A smiling girl with long dark hair looks just off camera
Emma Stevens speaks with CanGeo associate editor Abi Hayward at the Canadian launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. (Photo: still from video by Daniel Arian/Canadian Geographic)
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My name is Emma Stevens, and I am from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I’m Mi’kmaq from Eskasoni First Nation.

On a word from your language that is meaningful

The first word that probably pops into my head is kesalul, and it means “I love you.” There’s not a lot of love in the world today, and I feel like everyone should at least, like, say it out loud, even if it’s in a different language and no one understands what you’re saying. Just saying “I love you” can make you feel warmer in the inside. And even if you are loved, many people want more people to love and you can’t have enough people to love you. You can always have more.

On hopes for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

Since I’m a musician, I want to add language and music together. And, like I’ve done in the past with Blackbird that I’ve done in Mi’kmaq, it was to show people that you can bring language into music, and people will understand it from other countries and other different religions, and they’ll still understand what you’re saying and what you’re trying to get your point across. So I want to make sure that in the next decade or so that there is more information about language with music, and there’s more options to learn with music.

On language and music

Music is a universal language. Everyone knows some type of music… And everyone understands it and they learn to like it, and all of these things. So why can’t we do the same with language? You can use music and language; they’re the exact same thing. Just one has melody and the other has purpose.

“You can use music and language; they’re the exact same thing. Just one has melody and the other has purpose.”

On hopes for Indigenous languages in the future

I hope we won’t be having one of these meetings to help language! Well, we’re going to need one, but I’m hoping that we won’t need this! And that most Indigenous communities will have more speakers, because my community is one that was really affected by [language loss]. But now there are children and kids that are learning — my nephews are all fluent and my nephew is teaching his son Mi’kmaq, and that’s all they talk to him in. And I hope that they can help with everything in the future also.

On Blackbird

The whole reason we recorded that song was for language preservation, and we recorded it for the Year of Indigenous Languages [in 2019]. So it’s just like: we’ve come so far. There are so many people that took Blackbird and they made it in their own language. It’s all over YouTube, it’s crazy. I’m glad I inspired other people to use their language or learn their language.

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