Persistence key to keeping language 'even with mistakes,' says Sask. elder

When it comes to retaining language, elder Lorraine Yuzicapi said those who want to learn it or teach it have to 'take the bull by the horns.'

Yuzicapi was keynote speaker at 1st Great Plains Cultural and Language Gathering in Fort Qu'Appelle

Yuzicapi (pictured in 2013) attended the residential school in Lebret, Sask. where students were not allowed to speak their mother tongue, but Yuzicapi and other children spoke it in secret. (Official First Nations University of Canada/Facebook)

At the first annual Great Plains Culture and Language Gathering in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask., keynote speaker Lorraine Yuzicapi spoke on the importance of language in the home.

Yuzicapi recalled a time when she as young as three or four years old, her late father began teaching her and her siblings English as they prepared to go to residential school in Lebret, Sask.

"He told us we'll never forget our language, it's always in our hearts," Yuzicapi said. "It's up to us to bring it out, nobody can't do it for us. So, however we learn, even with mistakes in our words, we gotta keep going like that."

The inaugural gathering featured presentations on the roles and responsibilities, as well as kinship and values, from some of the language groups found within Saskatchewan, such as Nehiyaw (Cree), Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakoda and Lakota.

Yuzicapi first began residential school in 1950 when she was six years old. Now an elder at 73, Yuzicapi recalled how she and her siblings spoke Dakota to other children from Standing Buffalo or Sioux Valley, but only when there were no nuns in earshot.

Yuzicapi said her father told her that children in residential school were punished if they were caught speaking their language.

"Sometimes it's a public strapping. They mainly hit your hands and then they wash your mouth with soap and water," Yuzicapi said.

At the gathering which took place Sept. 12-15, Yuzicapi, spoke twice on the importance of language in the home, as well as traditional food and preparation methods.

"It's up to us. So now, that's where where I, for the last 40 or 50 years, I've been on that trail with both my food and my language — trying to teach."

StatsCan suggests decline

The gathering was held on Treaty 4 territory and put a focus on the state of Indigenous languages in the province, giving those in attendance a chance to "strengthen, share, and assess the states of [the] languages and cultures," noting some were in "critical need of immediate attention," the Files Hill Qu'Appelle Tribal Council said in a news release.

People who identified an Indigenous language as their mother tongue decreased within the province in 2016, from 30,895 to 28,340 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada's 2016 census data.

In Saskatchewan, the other Indigenous languages spoken are Dene and Ojibwa.

Taking a proactive approach

Yuzicapi has been speaking Dakota in her home and to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which relies on feminine and masculine modes of speech, as if a man or woman were speaking.

Speaking in both the masculine and feminine tense is something Yuzicapi has had to do since her husband passed away 17 years ago, she said, though her older sons have been helping out in speaking in the masculine tense to the boys.

When it comes to language retention, Yuzicapi said people have to "take the bull by the horns" if they want to speak their mother tongues.

One of the ways Yuzicapi grabs the bull by the horns is having the language around the children, teaching them basic commands, numbers, objects or kinship terms through flash cards.

"Dream up all of these things," she said. "Dream them up and do them."

Her two-year-old great-grandson is her guinea pig for teaching the language, she said.

"He knows how to call each one of us," Yuzicapi said, adding he is able to distinguish his family members and can identify himself in pictures — though he does not yet know how to pronounce his last name.

"Things like that, it's surprising how little ones can learn."