Smiling faces could be seen across the entire ballroom of the Saskatoon Inn Wednesday as 10-year-old Bronte Big Eagle read his winning story out loud. 

Big Eagle's reading was part of the 12th annual First Nations Language Keepers Conference organized by the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC).

Since 2011, the conference has recognized young storytellers by having a writing contest. The educational catch is, the story has to be written in the student's own Indigenous language.

This year's winning submission came from Big Eagle who is from Ocean Man First Nation.

The budding storyteller was bombarded with congratulations by conference goers following his reading.

"It's about how a T-Rex got its short arms," he said.

"How he got [short arms] is being bad and then his arms shrink in his sleep."

According to the SICC, this is the first year a story was submitted in Nakoda.

Big Eagle read his story in front of the packed ballroom in Nakoda and followed up immediately in English.

Jaunita McArthur-Big Eagle and Bronte Big Eagle SICC Language 2017

Jaunita McArthur-Big Eagle and her son, Bronte Big Eagle with a copy of her Bronte's book. Bronte wrote the story in his own language of Nakoda and did the illustrations. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Telling stories

The young storyteller received $500 and his story submission was printed. He was presented with 20 full colour books that also featured his own illustrations.

His mother said Bronte always had a gift for telling stories.

"Every time he had a dinosaur, he had a story to go with it," said Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle.

When she got word that her son's story was selected as the winner of this year's contest, McArthur-Big Eagle said she was "so proud."

For Bronte and his mother, learning to speak the language is about honouring their ancestors. 

Bronte's uncle said the family is working hard to help keep the Nakoda language alive.

"It's his mom ... she is really pushing him to learn every avenue of the language," said Robert (JR) McArthur, who is from White Bear First Nation.

"Reading and writing, she is really big on the hand signs," he said.

Roger White Jr. at SICC 2017

Roger White Jr. shares his knowledge about teaching the Assiniboine (Nakoda) language at the conference. White Jr. is from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Nakoda sign language

This year's conference featured a special keynote address from Roger White Jr. and Michael Turcotte on traditional Nakoda sign language.

White Jr. is a cultural consultant with the University of Montana and an Assiniboine language instructor at Frazer School in Frazer, Mont. Turcotte is a Native American studies professor at the Fort Peck Community College in Fort Peck, Mont.

Their method of teaching the language is unique in the sense that it requires body movement called total physical response, or TPR.

"We try to utilize that in everything that we do in the classroom, games to the hand signs ... and the kids retain that," said White Jr.

White Jr. said most youth would say recess is the best part of school, so he tries to make learning the language fun by incorporating activities while in class.

'Heart and passion'

He and his brother, Turcotte, say the sign language they use has been around for a long time and different tribes used it to communicate with each other before the English language.

"My heart and passion is in the language," said Turcotte.

They have a summer camp dedicated to the Assiniboine language that they operate in Fort Peck and have built relationships with some of Saskatchewan's Nakoda communities. Turcotte said they have relatives at Carry the Kettle, White Bear, Pheasant Rump and Ocean Man First Nations.

Their presentation on Wednesday drew people from as far as Sioux Valley First Nation in Manitoba, and the large crowd was, to them, unexpected.

"Usually we get about 15-20 people," said Turcotte. 

At the Saskatoon conference, about 100 people listened to the brothers share their knowledge.

The SICC First Nations Language Keepers Conference ends Thursday.