Web-savvy Atikamekw communities bring mother tongue to life online

Atikamekw communities in Quebec are building a Wikipedia site in a trailblazing effort to boost the presence of their native language online.

Internet-based encyclopedia in native language draws Wikimedia’s interest, support

Workshops at Otapi Secondary School in Manawan trained community members to create a version of Wikipedia in their own language. (Nathalie Casemajor)

Atikamekw communities in Quebec are building a Wikipedia site in a trailblazing effort to boost the presence of their native language online.

The Atikamekw nation includes about 7,000 people living in the communities of Manawan, Obedjiwan and Wemotaci in their ancestral homeland of Nitaskinan — the Saint-Maurice River valley, between 200 and 360 kilometres north of Montreal.

Nearly all Atikamekw, 97 per cent, speak their native language, considered to be a dialect of Cree. That makes Atikamekw the most actively spoken Indigenous language in Canada.

However, four years ago, the vibrancy of the language was scarcely evident online. Atikamekw people surfed the internet using French, their second language.

The Atikamekw initiative is Wikimedia's strongest Indigenous language project in Canada. (Nathalie Casemajor)

Linguist Nastasia Herold visited Manawan for five months in 2013 while working on her master's thesis and proposed writing Wikipedia pages in Atikamekw.

"The aim is really to preserve this wonderful language," she told CBC's Quebec AM. She said fostering it in its written form is especially important as more people use the digital world to communicate.

"We want them to use the Internet in their own language," she said.

A perfect fit

Nastasia Herold's initiative to write Wikipedia pages in Atikamekw has taken off, with more than 100 people contributing articles in their native language. (Fly Ralf Menzel)

How the 28-year-old German came to Manawan is a matter of chance.

She wanted to find a community where people speak their mother tongue actively and have French as second language, since she had studied French and Portuguese linguistics.

When she looked up all the communities in a book at university, Atikamekw was at the beginning, since it starts with the letter A.

The fit was perfect. She didn't look any further.

Project takes off

Herold's idea of creating Wikipedia pages grew into part of a computer science class for senior high school students in Manawan.

"They really wanted to do the project," said Herold, who now spends a couple months a year in Manawan while doing a doctorate on the history of the Atikamekw language. 

With the help of the teacher and a linguistic specialist, students learned how to write wikicode, insert pictures and use references. They crafted 160 articles in their first year, focusing on topics in their own culture, ancestral territory, community, and animals and plants in the territory.

Now, all three Atikamekw communities are involved, and about 100 people have contributed articles.

Although they began writing articles that could be used as reference material in class, Herold said now that they know how to build the pages, they can explore any topic that interests them at home.

"Now they can write about Metallica or the Dominican Republic or whatever they want," she said.

'Best project' for First Nations in Canada

A year ago, Wikimedia — the organization behind Wikipedia — approached the creators, saying the Atikamekw initiative was their strongest Indigenous-language project in Canada.

"For First Nations in Canada, it's the best project," Herold said. "They wanted to jump on the project."

Wikimedia experts have travelled to Nitaskinan to give onsite workshops.

The Atikemekw version of Wikipedia is now on a platform called an incubator, where it can be worked on and tested while Wikimedia helps contributors transform the project into an official Wikipedia site.

Wikimedia specialists conducted workshops in Manawan to help contributors turn their language project into an official Wikipedia site. (Pierre Coulombe)

Elders' essential role

Not only do the articles need to be in Atikemekw, but the interface that writers work with to create them has to be translated as well, including 500 to 600 computer-based expressions such as "log out" and "modify."

Instead of coining new words, several of the best Atikemekw speakers hold video conferences to discuss which existing words should be used.

The word for "log out," for example, is now the Atikamekw word for "leave." As a result, elders play an essential role in the project because of their sharp language skills.

"Their language comes from the forest. It all depends on nature, so they were looking for similar meanings in their language," Herold said.

Participants have still chosen to keep some sacred knowledge away from the prying eyes of the internet.

"Like secret ceremonies, for example. They shouldn't be written," Herold explained. "There shouldn't be articles on this."

With files from Marika Wheeler