Keeping Indigenous languages alive: professors in Sask. publish readers in First Nations languages

Language and culture are closely intertwined all across the world. In Saskatchewan, two professors of the First Nations University of Canada are doing their part to help reclaim Indigenous languages, and with that Indigenous cultures.

Project was inspired by well-known Cree author and educator Freda Ahenakew

Solomon Ratt, an associate professor of Indigenous languages at the First Nations University of Canada, wrote and translated the First Nations Language Reader called Woods Cree Stories. (Julie Paul/Provided by University of Regina Press)

Language and culture are closely intertwined all across the world. 

But in Canada, three out of four of all Indigenous languages still spoken here are endangered, according to the federal government.

In Saskatchewan two professors of the First Nations University of Canada are among those doing their part to help reclaim Indigenous languages, and with that Indigenous cultures.

Over the last 15 years, Arok Wolvengrey has been actively involved in creating a series of First Nations Language Readers, with new one in the works, according to the professor of Algonquian languages and linguistics at the FNU.

Each of the seven books currently in print includes a mix of traditional and new stories while introducing one Indigenous language, showing how that language is used today, according to The University of Regina Press.

"I just hope that more people see their language in print and think this is a wonderful thing," Wolvengrey said.

"Beyond simply hoping to inspire people to start reading their language, I'm also hoping to inspire people to start writing their language and sharing stories."

Wolvengrey is the series editor of the project, and edited the first First Nations Language Reader in 2007, Funny Little Stories.

For the last fifteen years the First Nations University of Canada has been creating language readers. Among them are a book of Funny Little Stories told in Cree, as well as Lilloeet and Saulteux legends. All of these books have a big goal in mind: reclaim culture by reclaiming language. Stories, of course, are one of the best ways to do this. Host Shauna Powers learns more from professors Solomon Ratt and Arok Wolvengrey.

The FNU professor says he got his inspiration for the project from his mentor, the Cree author and educator Freda Ahenakew.

During his first Cree class at the University of Saskatchewan, Wolvengrey's instructor used a small set of stories Ahenakew had collected from her students, Wolvengrey recalls.

"When I had collected a few stories from students of my own, I thought it would be a great thing to try and emulate what she had done, and pay tribute to what she had done by creating a collection like that very first one that she had produced."

Cree language expert joins project

Eventually, Wolvengrey recruited his colleague Solomon Ratt to join the team and help with the First Nations Language Readers.

Ratt, an associate professor and expert in Cree languages, was the perfect fit for the project since he was already writing stories for his students.

Woods Cree Stories is one of the seven First Nations Language Readers currently available. The University of Regina Press says its long-term goal is to publish all Indigenous languages of Canada. (Provided by the University of Regina Press)

"I have had to create materials for my classes," Ratt said.

"There are no materials available for any teacher [of senior level classes] to have access to, so I had to create stories along the way to be able to have materials for my students."

Ratt says he was happy to contribute to the project. He wrote and translated the book Woods Cree Stories, the fourth in the series of First Nations Language Readers, which was published in 2014.

Challenges of translating Cree language into English

The books are designed as a teaching tool: The stories are written in the Indigenous language, but also in English.

For example, in the Cree volumes, the texts are printed in syllabics, standard roman orthography as used in English or French, as well as English translations of the stories, Wolvengrey says.

However, there are some challenges when translating the texts into English, Ratt says.

"If we try to translate word for word from Cree to English, then the English sounds really awkward," he said. "So we've had to go from translating to interpreting in a lot of cases."

Indigenous languages stories important

Wolvengrey said it's important to have these collections of stories published in Indigenous languages.

Whatever the content of the volumes, it's great to see and experience the world through a different lens, he added.

"Most writers today, even when they're writing from their own Indigenous perspective, they're writing in English," Wolvengrey said. "So it's tremendous to have some writing in the [Indigenous] language itself."

Of the 70 Indigenous languages that remain in this country, more than two-thirds are classified as endangered. The Canadian government is funding various initiatives designed to help stem that tide, including the publication of a series of paperbacks, each in a different Indigenous language. Cree writer and scholar Solomon Ratt is a contributor.

Ratt hopes the First Nations Language Readers will help to promote accessibility to the Cree language, adding only a few people can read Cree because many didn't grow up doing it.

"We have to develop our literacy in reading out loud, reading our stories to our children out loud … This is what I'm hoping for. And in so doing, they [readers] will encourage their children to learn the language."


Theresa Kliem


Theresa Kliem is a journalist with CBC Saskatoon. She is an immigrant to Canada and loves telling stories about people in Saskatchewan. Email

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend