Preserving an Indigenous language? There's an app for that

The Athabasca Tribal Council is launching a new mobile phone app that it hopes will help preserve the Cree language dialect of northeastern Alberta.

The mobile app ATC Cree features Cree words, their pronunciations and English translations

A screen capture shows the new Athabasca Cree language translator for mobile phones. (Courtesy of the Athabasca Tribal Council)

The Athabasca Tribal Council is launching a new mobile phone app that it hopes will help preserve the Cree language dialect of northeastern Alberta. 

The app is called ATC Cree. It translates 120 Cree words into English and plays audio of their pronunciations. Close to 450 words have been recorded and are expected to be added to the app later.

Byron Bates, an app developer and Athabasca Tribal Council member, created the app with help from other ATC members. In 2000, the council helped fund Bates' four-year education in software development. He sees this as a way to pay them back, while helping to preserve the language of his people, he says.

"Your language is a big part of your identity and I think this will help with the younger generation who all have smart phones and they all use apps and it will help keep the language alive a little bit better," said Bates.
Lana Whiskeyjack lights sweetgrass in her home. She's teaching Cree language and traditions to her children. (Radio-Canada)

The Athabasca Tribal Council represents 5,000 Cree and Dene people from five First Nations in the Fort McMurray area, including the Athabasca Chipewyan, Chipewyan Prairie, Fort McKay, Fort McMurray, and Mikisew Cree nations.

Bates admits he didn't know many Cree words before working on the app, but says the words he knew were from signs on the Fort McMurray First Nation where he lives. He says he has learned a lot more Cree while designing the app and plans to continue to use it himself.

If it's not taught then we're going to lose it- Rita  Marten, the ATC's director of education

In 1995, the Athabasca Tribal Council started an education department that focuses on the culture and languages of its five First Nations.

Students there take Cree language classes at school, but this app is designed to encourage those students to bring the language home and to practise it with their parents.

"This Cree app would entice them," said Rita Marten, the ATC's director of education. "They can review the Cree words that they learn at the school and then start speaking fluently with the elders and other students."

Only 49,810 people speak the Cree language fluently at home, according to the 2011 census. Of those, 7,630 were Albertans.

'It was punished and beaten out of me'

I did not know my language, I did not know my culture- Lana Whiskeyjack , Saddle Lake Cree artist

Across northern Alberta, Indigenous people are trying to preserve their languages.

Lana Whiskeyjack is a Saddle Lake Cree artist living in Edmonton. She says she felt disconnected from her culture without its language.

"I did not know my language, I did not know my culture, I did not know my history; I did not know any of that," Whiskeyjack said.

That changed when she heard a shocking testimony from a residential school survivor.
Steve Wood teaches Cree words to students at a school on the Ermineskin Cree Nation. (CBC)

"I never taught my children Cree because it was punished and beaten out of me," Whiskeyjack said.

She learned Cree and now she's teaching it and other traditions to her three children, hoping to pass on the language that was not meant to be spoken in residential schools.

Steve Wood, a Grammy award-nominated musician, teaches Cree at a school on the Ermineskin Cree Nation. He says over the last couple years, more young people are attending traditional ceremonies and social events.

"Our young people learn how to re-establish Aboriginal family values ​​in their families," said Wood. "They learn the Cree language and teach it to their parents and brothers and sisters.

"We have to relearn our language before it disappears."

The ATC Cree app is available for Apple and Android devices.

With files from Marie-Eve DuSablon