Language revitalization efforts continue as UN Decade of Indigenous Languages begins

Dakota language teacher Donna Pratt continues her work at a Manitoba school as the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages starts.

United Nations declared 2022 the beginning of the decade of Indigenous Languages

Donna Pratt sings in Dakota to elementary students at Dakota Plains School. (Submitted by Southern Chiefs' Organization)

Preserving her family's language and teaching it to new generations is business as usual for Donna Pratt, as the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages begins. 

Pratt is the Dakota language instructor at Mahpiya Hdega (Dakota Plains) School at Dakota Plains First Nation in Manitoba. 

"Our language is going to be, in the future, forgotten if we as educators and [others] who speak Dakota language don't do the job," said Pratt.

Originally from Sioux Valley First Nation, Pratt has been teaching the language to the school's nursery to Grade 8 students for the last 20 years. She learned the language as a child from her father when he would play guitar and sing in Dakota. 

She incorporates music into each of her lessons, playing guitar and teaching songs translated into the language.

"Over the years that I've taught, I can see the music helps children learn," she said.

"Repetition with songs and teaching a language works quite well."

She said only about one or two people in Dakota Plains still speak Dakota fluently and that bringing back adult classes to the community would help the language flourish outside the classroom.

"I notice today, it's the adults and the parents that have to learn the language," she said.

"It's very tough to keep the language going, because if the adults don't speak it, it's harder for the children."

A call to action

The United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages runs from 2022 to 2032. In a statement to CBC News, the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (CCUNESCO) said the decade is a call to concerted action on issues that need attention over a long period. 

"Linguists predict that 50-90 per cent of the world's 7,000 languages will disappear by the end of the century; most of them are Indigenous and spoken by small numbers of people," the statement reads. 

CCUNESCO said it will take a holistic approach to advance the decade's objectives, calling on all its sectors to partake in the efforts.

The calendar cover art was created by Odawa-Ojibway artist Zoey Wood-Salomon. Giizisoo mzinigan means calendar in Ojibway. (Submitted by Anishinabek Nation)

Another local language initiative is an Ojibway language calendar that was distributed this month by the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario, which represents 39 First Nations across the province.

"The primary importance was promoting language revitalization," said Laurie McLeod-Shabogesic, family well-being co-ordinator for the Anishinabek Nation social services development department, from Nipissing First Nation.

The calendar includes quotes of the day, different dialects and pronounciation guides, QR codes that give access to online language learning, as well as cultural practices. 

McLeod-Shabogesic said initially the calendar was to be a daytimer for staff, but she realized other community members would also benefit.

"It's been a little crazy, I've had thousands of requests …. We've been sharing with whomever we can," said McLeod-Shabogesic. 

About 5,000 copies of the calendar were distributed for free, and a PDF version is available online. 


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.