Saskatoon

Saskatchewan's Indigenous languages, basis of culture, threatened

Albert Scott learned Saulteaux — or Nakawe, as it known to people who speak it — organically and holistically, as he was learning everything else he would need to know about the world around him. "It starts off when you're inside your mom's belly. You hear all the voices and the language spoken," said Scott, now the language and culture coordinator at the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

With 58 distinct languages, First Nation communities in Saskatchewan struggle to preserve their own.

Albert Scott, language and culture coordinator for the Saskatoon Tribal Council, worries what could happen when Indigenous languages are erased. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

Albert Scott learned Saulteaux — or Nakawe, as it known to people who speak it — organically and holistically, as he was learning everything else he would need to know about the world around him.

"It starts off when you're inside your mom's belly. You hear all the voices and the language spoken," said Scott, now the language and culture coordinator at the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

Then, he learned it in lullabies.

Then, he was sent to a residential school.

"It came back, naturally. I'm thankful to the people who introduced me at an early age," he said.

Scott tries to teach his children and grandchildren to speak Nakawe — he still sings those same lullabies to the youngest children — but has been less successful than his ancestors. The language is not so prevalent as it was when Scott was taught, and the world has changed. English and French are the dominant languages of Canada, and Indigenous language speakers are aging.

New data from Statistics Canada shows that in 2016, the number of people in Saskatchewan who identify an Indigenous language as their mother tongue dropped from 30,895 in 2011 to 28,340.

Scott's language is not even listed as an option in the census. It is under the umbrella "Ojibway" language, rather than being listed as Saulteaux, or Nakawe. It is one of the smaller, but still significant issues facing those trying to protect and preserve any of the 58 Indigenous languages in Canada.
"The sacred language is being lost," said Albert Scott. He's working on a curriculum to help teach Indigenous youth about their language, and its relationship to their culture. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

'Not overly surprising'

Still, in some areas, like Regina, the 2016 census actually shows a small increase in mother tongue Indigenous language speakers - up from 370 in 2011 to 460. The general trend, however, is downard.

Indigenous language has been under attack for a long time in this country, or at least when it's not under attack, not protected and not perpetuated.-Arok Wolvengrey, professor of Algonquian languages at First Nations University of Canada.

"Indigenous language has been under attack for a long time in this country, or at least when it's not under attack, not protected and not perpetuated," said Arok Wolvengrey, a professor of Algonquian languages and linguistics at the First Nations University of Canada.

"It's disappointing to hear but not overly surprising," he said. "It's the continuation of a trend we've been seeing for centuries, or longer."

Wolvengrey believes previous census data may even have been skewed on the subject because of uncertainty about how to answer certain questions.

"How fluent are they and what level of language do they have?" said Wolvengrey.

Some languages, like various Cree languages, tend to be regarded as safer, because of Cree immersion programs, and higher numbers of speakers.

First Nations University of Canada offers Indigenous language courses. Arok Wolvengrey, a professor there, says "the only way to become fluent," is for students "to simply start using it in the community." (First Nations University of Canada)

Still, the level of fluency and everyday use has yet to be measured in Saskatchewan First Nation communities.

Other languages, like Nakota, are in dire need of a boost, or else they risk extinction.

"It's hard to find anyone under 60 who can really speak the language fluently and there is definitely a sense of urgency in working with these languages and preserving as much as possible," said Wolvengrey.

Part of that preservation involves creating materials and curriculum.

Scott has put Indigenous-focused curriculum on his "wishlist." But, because Canadian Indigenous languages are so diverse, the creation of this kind of curriculum could be costly and time-consuming.

"It's not like a one-size-fits-all concept. Each community is unique and has its different-sounding dialect. That's what we need to capture and develop our own spelling systems and pronunciations."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first announced the creation of an Indigenous language law in a 2015 mandate letter to the heritage minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Legislation promised

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a Canadian Indigenous Language Act in 2017, slated to hit parliament sometime in 2018.

"We need to be recognized within the laws, within the land," said Scott.

Part of that recognition, he hopes, will be funding to create curriculum and train more teachers who will be in classrooms for more than an hour at a time.

Part of the strategy of Indigenous language teachers is how to make due with shoestring budgets.

"I think the funding would have to go up if there was any kind of act that guarantees Indigenous language instruction for instance. There has to be funding attached to that," said Wolvengrey.

Even in immersion programs, some children do not receive the strong foundation needed to be fluent speakers, especially if parents do not speak the dialect taught at school.

"They forget what they learned in school and they don't use it the way they should," said Scott.

'The Creator won't understand'

Once we lose our ceremonies we'll be just like everyone else - lost.  A person without any culture or identity - nothing to feel proud of- Albert Scott, language and culture coordinator, Saskatoon Tribal Council

Despite the decline of Indigenous language in First Nation communities across the province, ceremonies continue to be performed in the mother tongue of each community.

"We have to do them in one hundred per cent our language.  We can't take the pipe and start using English," said Scott.

If the language is lost, so are the ceremonies, which are so integral to spiritual life as an Indigenous person.  Language is taught holistically, because it encompasses more than just words. This, according to Scott, is how Nakawe "stuck" for him.

"When you teach the language, you teach the physical part, the emotional part, the mental part, and the spirituality," said Scott.

When performing ceremonies, "the Creator won't understand" languages like English or French.

When Scott was taught the word for "blackbird" in Nakawe, he was taught about the colour, the way the bird lived, and how it protects its territory. The word holds much more than a simple definition.

"Once we lose our ceremonies we'll be just like everyone else — lost. A person without any culture or identity — nothing to feel proud of," said Scott.

About the Author

Bridget Yard

Reporter

Bridget Yard is a video journalist based in Saskatoon. She has also worked for CBC in Fredericton and Bathurst, N.B.