'Nothing but the language': On-the-land immersion instils Dene Zahtie in young man

Brandon Jumbo credits immersion in Dene Zahtie for his fluency in the language.

Brandon Jumbo speaks an Indigenous language, Dene Zahtie, defying a declining trend in the N.W.T.

Brandon Jumbo says time on the land with community members speaking Dene Zahtie was a big part of his learning the language. (Brandon Jumbo/Facebook)

Brandon Jumbo is bucking a trend.

He is fluent in Dene Zahtie, a language in the Dene language family, and one of nine official Indigenous languages of the Northwest Territories.

According to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, the number of people in the Northwest Territories who can hold a conversation in an Indigenous language has decreased by 4.5 per cent in the five years prior to 2016 census data.

Jumbo didn't say exactly when he first learned the language, but he was immersed in it from a young age at home in Sambaa K'e (Trout Lake), a community of about 100 in the heart of the N.W.T.'s Dehcho region with no summer road access.

He says he was probably still a "toddler" when he began to learn the language — young enough to have his drymeat pre-chewed by his grandmother before he could eat it.

"As the years went on they started taking me out to bush camps and around the community," Jumbo said.

But learning his traditional language, even in his small remote community, wasn't simply a matter of learning through osmosis.

"You got to make yourself want to learn," he said. "I wanted to learn it because it's traditional. So I hung around elders and learned it from the school back in Sombaa K'e."

'Nothing but the language'

Jumbo says getting out into the bush in the spring and fall with community members helped solidify his hold on the language.

He said the "band would supply all the locals and their kids … with food, groceries and 45 gallons of gas and you're out in the bush for two weeks."

It would be weeks of "nothing but the language," and learning about the traditional way of surviving on the land: skinning beaver, making canoes, carving moose, "and all the little stuff they used to do back in the day."

I would just observe and see what they're saying.

English is the principle language of instruction at Liidlii Kue Regional High School in Fort Simpson where he goes to school. Jumbo has kept his language skills up through calls home to speak the language with family.

He says not very many people in Fort Simpson realized he speaks Dene Zahtie, but some in the community picked up on it when they realized he could understand their conversations.

"When people are joking around in Dene, they don't know — I would just observe and see what they're saying and sometimes they'd catch me laughing," Jumbo said.

"That's how some of them caught on I understood Dene Zahtie."

Jumbo graduates this year. He'd like to go to college and get into an apprenticeship program, but he says he still has more to learn about the traditional ways.

Written by Walter Strong, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally