Aboriginal language: When it's gone, that's it. No more Indians


October 1997

By Rob McKinley

Windspeaker Staff Writer


Museums and cultural centres preserve a people's history. The artifacts and memories can be seen in display cases or in photographs, but what about a language?

Who preserves a culture's language?

Historically, Aboriginal language has been passed down from one generation to the next. It is an oral relay from a community's Elders to the youth. So what happens if the flow is disturbed? What happens if a single generation fails to pass on the wisdom of the Elders?

According to a report compiled in 1990 by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal People, 43 of Canada's 53 Native languages are "on the verge of extinction." Ten more are described as threatened. Only three: Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut were believed to be strong enough to survive.

Joe Chosa, an Elder with the Lac du Flambeau Ojibway Tribe in Wisconsin, is one of three people taking on the task of teaching the local dialect of the Ojibway language to the people there.

Chosa said teaching a language is more than just words.

"We are trying to teach them to be proud of who they are and proud of their heritage; proud of the things that we do."

He said it is a slow process for several reasons. The Ojibway language is complex, consisting of a number of words that are very similar, but mean very different things. Another reason is that the language has been nearly wiped out after years of attempted assimilation.

"The culture was taken away from us during the boarding school days and from. . . religion. We'd like to bring the language back to our people," Chosa said.

The language classes are getting a good reception from the community, Chosa said, but more can be done.

Local schools are now offering Ojibway language classes. Grade 1 to 8 students in the Lac du Flambeau area are now being taught the language.

Gregg Guthrie, the acting director at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibway Museum and Cultural Centre in Lac du Flambeau is one of the big supporters of the language revitalization.

Although the Ojibway language is one of the stronger Aboriginal languages, the local dialect is in danger of disappearing, said Guthrie.

He compared the threat to that of endangered animals and birds.

"When its gone, its gone for ever."

He said the three Elders teaching now are just about the last of the 3,000 tribal members who still know the language and the customs of their people.

In order to boost the number of people speaking their language, Guthrie said the Elders have recorded audio tapes. The tapes and classroom lessons are available to anyone who is interested, he said.

The tapes will help to spread the teachings on a wider scale.

"Before that there were only individuals talking in the homes. Now it's a matter of public access," he said.

Aboriginal language classes are becoming more and more of a common sight across the continent.

In Canada, public school boards are now offering Native language classes in many schools. First Nation schools are also realizing the need to begin traditional language instruction.

The Chief Taylor Elementary School in Onion Lake, Sask., is taking the learning a step further. The school is teaching Cree immersion. Songs, books, pictures and lessons are all taught in the Plains Cree dialect. The students stay in the immersion program from nursery school to Grade 3. They then switch to a combination of Cree and English instruction.

"If the teachers can talk to them in Cree and the parents reinforce it at home, then the language becomes a natural, living part of their lives," said Brian MacDonald, head of the Cree curriculum development team at Onion Lake's Saskatchewan Learning Centre.

Keeping a language alive and useful is paramount to its survival. One language that has survived and is expected to remain strong is Inuktitut.

Part of the reason for that is that the language has not been allowed to fade away. It is estimated that there are at least 60,000 Inuktitut speakers in Canada.

As Aboriginal immersion schools are not yet common across the country, neither are newspapers written in Native text.

Nunatsiaq News is the exception. The paper has been serving the eastern Arctic region of the country for over 20 years and prints stories in both English and Inuktitut.

In the mainstream papers, said Nunatsiaq News editor Dwane Wilkin, there are a few more which are bilingual with French and English printing, but none with Aboriginal and English words.

"For us it is the ability to reach readers who are unilingual—Inuktitut readers who only know Inuktitut."

Wilkin said he hopes the paper is helping to keep the language alive.

"It's a working language and if people don't use it, then it becomes a dead language."

The paper is helping to keep the language "vibrant and useful," he said.

Relying on the written words or recorded words instead of direct relay of a language from one generation to the next may be a benefit in the survival of a language. It is also opening up some economic benefits for Aboriginal people.

Joe Chalifoux is with the marketing wing of Duval House Publishing Inc. in Edmonton. Duval House has created a First Nation's language learning series made up of books, tapes and now CD's for school-aged children across the country.

"The response has been great, phenomenal," said Chalifoux. "We've been getting orders from across the country."

Duval House offers starter courses and intermediate courses in Cree, and starter courses in Ojibway, Dene and Swampy Cree, just to name a few.

The use of written and recorded teachings is very important in keeping a language alive, said Chalifoux.

"It is teaching more and preserving [the languages]," he said.

Alberta's Treaty 6, and in particular the Saddle Lake First Nation, helped to get the Cree learning series going, and the Samson Cree are currently working on getting a course ready for the publishing company to market.

Chalifoux said it is important for all First Nations to work together to help preserve the language and cultures of all Aboriginal people.

"We work with the Elders all the time. We make sure the Elders and the nations are involved."

Donna Peskemin is the new Cree language instructor at the University of Alberta Native Studies program. She sees the economic spin-off that the resurgence in the Aboriginal language is producing, and she also sees the need to keep the learning curve growing.

"We have to see our language not as a problem any more, but as a resource. I'm making a career out of my language."

Peskemin said to relearn your own language is a step toward the future that needs the lessons of the past to succeed.

"Now we have to return to the wisdom of our Elders to return to the language," she said.

She said all Aboriginal people need to work together to help the cause.

"We need to expand. We need to work together to promote our languages. . . We all need to come together and revive it and educate our Native youth."

Languages like Cree are moving in the right direction because most of the words are already in written form, she said.

"But a lot of other languages are disappearing. Elders who do have the wisdom are passing on so fast. We need to make the commitment and recognize the need now."

If nothing is done, it won't take long before even the Cree language will be gone, except for a few people who learned it.

"I don't want to be lonely in 15 years," she said.

Basil Johnston, a language instructor living in the Chippewas of Nawash [Cape Croker] First Nation near Wiarton, Ont., said he has been trying to increase the use of Aboriginal language for 30 years.

Johnston, who has published several teaching guides on Native languages along with a thesaurus for schools, said teaching an Aboriginal language has to be handled very delicately.

"There are all sorts of new things being taught, but they aren't getting down and doing something that will re-kindle the language."

He said the language needs to be learned as it was spoken by traditional ancestors of the community.

Teaching needs to be more than just linguistics, he said. It has to include the spirit and heart of the words.

"Students would learn to speak the language rather than just memorize lists of words and their genders."

He recommended that people first get the truth about the heritage and history of the Aboriginal people, then attempt to learn the language.

Johnston, who's mother tongue is Anishinabe, said teachers must also learn the language they are teaching, and learn it well.

"It is not just the grammar, not just the basic words. You need to know the meaning of words and their history and you need to know all that if you are going to be an effective teacher," he said.

After 30 years of teaching and researching, Johnston said he does not feel that he has succeeded and to him, that is a disappointment.

Johnston said what is left is hope.

"The only thing we can do is to do the best we can and be satisfied with that. We have to hope that there are people out there who will learn the language."

It is up to the strength, power and determination of individuals to keep languages alive, he said.

"When it's gone, that's it. No more Indians," he said.

If changes are to come, action needs to take place. Relying on the people is one thing, but giving them a way to deal with the situation is another.

Heather Blair, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Education, said steps need to be taken on three levels to make sure a language will survive.

The community, schools and Elders need to promote the use of the mother language. On a larger scale, more support for Aboriginal languages needs to come from provincial and federal levels.

People, including non- Native people, also need to place more value on Aboriginal languages, she said.

Blair helped to spearhead a study in Saskatchewan this past May on the importance of keeping language strong.

Blair said it is difficult to determine when a language is in danger of being lost. It can sometimes just be in a state of change, but when a language is on the verge of disappearing, it happens all too quickly, she said. It is hoped the study she and a number of researchers conducted will wake up many communities to the importance of preserving their languages, and to show others the importance of Aboriginal languages in any society.

The intensive study, “Indian Languages Policy and Planning in Saskatchewan: Research Report”, looked at language and language education in six northern Saskatchewan communities. Within the 127-page document, there is a quote from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations which reads:

“We, the Indian people of Saskatchewan, are determined to retain our languages. We are oral people. The spoken word holds the key to our reality. Our Elders are the trustees, teachers, and interpreters of our complex heritage. We are determined to return to the source of our wisdom and to learn anew. We hear the Elders’ words and are striving to understand. We are determined to give our children the opportunity to be involved in our unique world views, histories, legends, stories, humor, social rules, morality, and ways of seeing and describing our worlds. Our languages teach us these things. We cannot afford to lose them.

The study, available from Saskatchewan Education, contains action steps and recommendations for communities to follow as a way to preserve their languages.

A main goal noted in the study is for communities to organize action plans to keep language and language education strong. People can't just hope for change. We have to provide the means for change to happen.

"It is going to take time, effort and money. The task is enormous and urgent, but with comprehensive planning, commitment and serious work, some of these languages can be saved," noted Blair.