Tsuut'ina Nation aims to revitalize its language by targeting its children

The Tsuut'ina Nation is trying to save its language, in part by turning to technology and focusing on its youth.

Few of the 2,100 registered citizens are fluent speakers, but with technology and teaching, change may come

Stephen Crowchild, director of the Tsuut'ina Gunaha Institute, is working to revitalize the nation's language. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

The Tsuut'ina Nation is trying to save its language, in part by turning to technology and focusing on its youth. 

"Essentially it's going to be our children and young people with the help of our elders that are going to save our language," said Steven Crowchild, director of the Tsuut'ina Gunaha Institute, the nation's language revitalization program. 

Among other initiatives, including classes for adults and children alike, the nation is wrapping up a project that includes an interactive animated movie and website aimed at engaging young minds. 

"Essentially it's a pilot project and we hope to just continue using the same theme and creating more episodes," said Crowchild.

"The language learning objective for this one was greetings and introductions. So we took that concept and created a script and made it fun."

In the video, which will allow users to click on the screen to learn the names of objects, a young boy visits his grandmother and the two speak in Tsuut'ina. 

Crowchild said less than 40 people are fluent in the language, while the population is overwhelmingly young, with babies born into the nation every day. 

"Our language is really going to survive with the children, so we're targeting the children."

Loss of culture

There is a generation gap when it comes to the language, according to Crowchild, with elders teaching the young, but parents unable to communicate. 

The reason for the loss involves residential schools — which attempted to purge traditions and language from First Nations — to policies like the Indian Act, which meant women were forced to move or lose their status, he said.

"Women are the keepers of our language, they're the ones who comfort the children and spend a lot of time with the children," said Crowchild, on the importance of women. 

"There was a lot of intermarriages with other tribes and English was the meeting point between those two."

He said that preserving the language is about more than just words and conversations, language is an important component of nationhood. 

"Our language is what makes us Tsuut'ina, it's what makes us indigenous," he said. "It's a whole different worldview. It's a way of life, essentially."

Next steps

Beyond the animation and website, the nation is implementing a curriculum it developed with the help of Alberta Education, and Crowchild hopes to see full immersion programs in the nation's schools, starting with daycare programs.

He also wants more resources in homes, so that children and parents can continue to learn outside the classroom, including TV shows.

For now he's happy to see steps taken, no matter how small, towards revitalizing the language and demonstrating its importance to those within the nation, like the fact phones in the administration building are now answered in Tsuut'ina. 

"There's talk about truth and reconciliation and there's a feeling of waiting around for the government or general population to assist us in reclaiming these things, but it's really our responsibility," said Crowchild.