'It's a very emotional experience': Indigenous millennials share their journey of language reclamation

“I never imagined how much of an emotional process it is,” said Sandra Warriors, who's working to learn both Interior Salish languages spoken by her mother's and her father's communities.

'I never imagined how much of an emotional process it is,' says Sandra Warriors

Sandra Warriors, who is learning the two endangered languages of her parents' family line, nselxcin and nxa’amčin, said it’s both a grieving and empowering experience. (Submitted by Sandra Warriors)

Sandra Warriors, 28, knows time is running out to finish learning the dialect of her father's family line.

One of the last living fluent speakers of nxa'amčin (Moses-Columbia), Pauline Stensgar, is 91.

"It's a very emotional experience," said Warriors.

"It's kind of like a looming fear that's overlooking me. [Pauline] provides a lot of insight that's so valuable. She's done a lot of work to preserve the language through recordings, teachings … She's pretty tired now."

Nxa'amčin is a southern Interior Salish language that UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger lists as critically endangered. Warriors' father attended boarding school in Washington state and was punished for speaking his Indigenous language, losing most of his ability to speak it as a child.

Warriors grew up on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation in northeastern Washington state. It's comprised of 12 bands, including the Okanagan tribe her mother is from. The Okanagan tribes in British Columbia are related to the Colville Confederated Tribes; the communities were split apart when the U.S.-Canada boundary was drawn west of the Rockies in 1846.

Emotional journey

Now Warriors is on a mission to learn the nxa'amčin language of her father and the nselxcin (Okanagan) — another Interior Salish language — of her mother's family.

"I never imagined how much of an emotional process it is," she said.

"I have moments I feel overwhelmingly happy. Other times I break down crying, doubting myself, getting angry. It still is a struggle."

She first started learning her language after experiencing homelessness and leaving an abusive relationship. She then enrolled in classes being taught out of what she describes as a dilapidated building on her reservation. Despite the crumbling setting, she says it was a holistic learning environment and her teacher taught in a way that she could understand.

I felt lost in the class- Sandra Warriors

"I felt lost in the class, but then I learned about the meaning of my traditional name, 'tr'qmuł' which means, 'always winter dancing.' It was really powerful," she said.

Four years into language learning, and not having any close family members who speak fluently, Warriors is grateful to learn from tribal language teachers and the last remaining elder speakers. But it scares her to know that Pauline is growing older and when she dies one day, she'll take many of the stories, knowledge and cultural background of the nxa'amčin language with her.

Pauline Stensgar, 91, one of the last living fluent speakers of the nxa’amčin language. (submitted by Sandra Warriors)

"Each elder speaker has their own body of knowledge," she said.

"I learn about so much from them. More than just language: the plants, ecology, history, intimate family history that you can't get inside a textbook."

Just last week an elder who Warriors was close with died. He was her main teacher of the Okanagan language. The loss is a grieving process that she's struggling to work through.

"Language learning should be restorative and healing, but it's always in the back of your're trying to gain so much knowledge from this person before they pass. It's really hard to learn when you're feeling stressed out."

Nevertheless, she is determined to see things through and she's hopeful that this generation will succeed in revitalizing lost languages.

Reclaiming Ojibway

Serena Graves, 24, grew up on the Red Lake Nation in northwestern Minnesota, about an hour south of the Canadian border.

She had no exposure to her father's southern dialect Ojibway language growing up because it was almost wiped out in their community. Graves's father also attended boarding school where speaking Indigenous languages was banned.

In 2015 while attending her young nephew's funeral, Graves was inspired to begin a journey of language revitalization. The traditional funeral ceremony was spoken in Ojibway and Grave said she felt embarrassed and heartbroken that she couldn't understand what was being said.

Serena Graves is on a life-long mission to reclaim her Ojibway language. (Submitted by Serena Graves)

"I was just kind of sitting there and realized that I couldn't understand anything that they were saying," said Graves.

"It made me feel really shameful and bad. I didn't have an identity without my language. So, I took it upon myself to enrol into college where I knew I could learn it in an academic setting."

I didn't have an identity without my language- Serena Graves

Ojibway is a Central Algonquian language spoken by the Anishinaabe, living mostly between Ontario and Manitoba and between Michigan and Montana in the United States. According to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, Ojibway is classified as a "severely endangered" language in Minnesota where Graves attends university. But Ojibway on a whole is considered a relatively "safe" or "healthy" language.

Graves's ultimate goal is to become an Ojibway teacher. But she acknowledges she's got a lot of work ahead of her.

"It's going to be years before I'm at a level [where] I feel comfortable. There's no one in my family that speaks. It becomes a roadblock in language learning. It's not like I can just go home and speak the language or hear it. So I feel like it's going to be a lifelong journey," she said.

Language learning is must be incorporated into everyday life, she said.

"You cannot learn an Indigenous language by doing it every so often. You have to keep at it, you have to want to keep going. Find the motivation. Ask, engage with community members, elders, teachers."

Searching for Cree immersion

The Cree language is one of the most widely-spoken Indigenous languages in Canada, with 96,575 speakers counted by Statistics Canada in 2016. However, like all Indigenous languages it is still considered vulnerable.

Les Skinner, 29, is Métis and grew up in Edmonton. He had exposure to Cree speakers growing up, but it wasn't until he was 16 that he took a real interest in learning the language.

Now he is fluent in spoken Cree, reads and writes in Cree and teaches it at local schools, community classes, culture camps and currently, in a women's halfway house in Edmonton. He agrees that language learning takes commitment.

Les Skinner, Métis, learned Cree starting when he was 16. He is now fluent and teaches the language in various settings in and around Edmonton. (Submitted by Les Skinner)

"The hardest thing about learning Cree is finding immersion environments," said Skinner.

"Actually, Cree is the easiest language to learn, out of the ones I speak anyways [Cree, French, English and Michif] but it's hard to get the right exposure. There aren't many movies in Cree, places you can work or go to school in Cree, etc. If it's not your main language spoken at home, you really have to go out of your way to find it. It is there though, it can just be hard to find."

You have to look at children and see how they learn, and learn how to learn from them.- Les Skinner

His advice to new language learners is to let their guard down, and become like children again.

"You have to look at children and see how they learn, and learn how to learn from them. You have to be comfortable that you don't know everything or something about your identity, and that's what makes the space for learning. Sometimes people are going to laugh when you say something wrong — it's OK."

Meanwhile, Warriors is encouraged by the growing numbers of people reclaiming their languages.

"I see a lot of strong efforts towards language revitalization back home," she said.

"And on social media, I'm encouraged to see other people doing the same work. There's others going through the same learning journey after experiencing language loss and culture loss. It's not as lonely."

For now, Warriors is cherishing the time she has with Pauline to learn all she can.


Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News.