What these kids are doing to keep Indigenous languages alive

Story by CBC Kids News • 2020-01-16 16:04

Kids want to maintain a connection to their past

We often hear stories about animals going extinct, but languages are equally under threat.

That includes some Indigenous languages spoken right here in Canada.

When languages are lost, cultures and traditions are lost as well.

That’s why Rotehrhatá:se (pronounced Row-dahr-ha-da-ze) Lahache, 9, is learning the Mohawk language.

Rotehrhatá:se uses dictionaries and apps to expand his vocabulary in different languages. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

“It's part of our culture, our language, so I like to keep it going and keep it in our culture,” he said.

Rotehrhatá:se lives in Kahnawake, Que., and he’s been learning another Indigenous language, Cayuga.

Why Indigenous languages in Canada need help 

Since Europeans settled in Canada, Indigenous peoples’ cultures have been threatened.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the Canadian government took Indigenous children from their families and sent them to residential schools.

Many Indigenous children forgot or never learned their family’s language.

A list of all the Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, by region

There are more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada. A new interactive website from the CBC, Originalvoices.ca, provides a platform to learn more about them. (CBC)

Over time, the government has realized the importance of preserving languages, which is why Canada was part of the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019.

Irmgarda Kasinskaite, a program specialist who works at the UN, helped organize meetings and events in countries like Canada last year to help raise awareness about Indigenous languages and find ways to preserve them.

“Kids and youth are important because this is a group that will learn the languages from their elders, from their parents,” she said.

Rotehrhatá:se builds on his Mohawk by visiting and speaking with his two great-grandmothers, who also speak it.

Kahente Leborgne, Rotehrhatá:se’s mom, says he spends a lot of time outside school and sports learning different languages. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

When it comes to protecting Indigenous languages, Rotehrhatá:se agreed that kids are important in order to pass them on.

“Someday they can get older, and maybe they'll have children. And then they can teach their children,” he said. “Then it just keeps going on, and eventually that will be really helping the culture.”

Sharing language through books

Jewel Charles, 17, is working on preserving her family’s language through a children’s book she wrote in both Cree and English.

Jewel lives in Saskatoon, and wrote the book about her childhood adventures in La Ronge, in northern Saskatchewan.

Her grandmother went to a residential school, so she was never able to teach Jewel’s mother Cree, meaning Jewel never learned, either.

Because of her family’s history, Jewel felt it was important to translate her book into Cree.

A painting of a mountain landscape, with words below in English and in Cree

In addition to writing the book, Jewel also painted all of her book’s illustrations. (Jewel Charles)

“Someone told me, ‘If you want to learn your culture, it's all in the language.’ So that kind of stayed with me,” Jewel told CBC Kids News.

Jewel said she thinks there should be more education about Indigenous cultures and languages in school.

A teen stands beside a large painting hanging on a wall.

Jewel Charles has been painting since she was three years old and was stealing her mother's paints. She now does commissioned pieces. (Submitted by Colleen Charles)

Greater awareness would “get rid of that stigma and ignorance that is already prominent in a lot of our provinces,” she said.

Feelings of isolation

Shaia Davis, 16, often asks her mom to speak to her in Innu-aimun, so she can keep the language alive in her home.

But the Innu teen from Sheshatshui, N.L., can’t speak it herself.

“It's hard for me to learn the language, because it's such an oral language,” she said.

A teen stands beside a school project.

Shaia Davis suggests kids spend time with their grandparents or other elders in their community if they want to learn their language. (Submitted by Shaia Davis)

But she knows it’s the best way to preserve her culture and feel connected with her family.

“I still feel like when I'm around my family and they're speaking to each other in Innu, I'm just sitting there clueless,” she said. “I do feel a bit isolated when that happens.”

She’s using online resources to help her learn the language, but would like to see Innu people and hear them in mainstream media more as well.

Want to know more about Indigenous languages?

CBC Indigenous created Original Voices to celebrate Indigenous languages, and help preserve the Indigenous languages of Canada.

With files from Jessica Deer and Heidi Atter/CBC News 

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