The Sunday Magazine

Preserving Indigenous languages, one story at a time

Of the 70 Indigenous languages that remain in this country, more than two-thirds are classified as endangered. There are several initiatives underway 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.
Solomon Ratt, a Cree scholar and writer, has contributed to The University of Regina Press' series of First Nation Language Readers. (Submitted by Solomon Ratt; University of Regina Press)

Roughly 70 Indigenous languages are still spoken in Canada today. Of these living languages, two-thirds are considered to be endangered

The Canadian government is funding various initiatives designed to protect Indigenous languages — including a series of paperbacks called First Nation Language Readers, published by the University of Regina Press.

Each volume is in a different language and contains traditional and new stories, legends and prayers. Each story is written in three different ways: syllabic, Standard Roman Orthography, and English. 

So far, the University of Regina Press has published six books in the First Nation Language Readers series. The publisher's goal is to eventually have one book for every First Nations language in Canada. (University of Regina Press)

Cree writer and scholar Solomon Ratt is a contributor to the series. He's a professor in the Department of Indigenous Languages, Literature and Linguistics at First Nations University of Canada. 

Ratt's book in the series, Woods Cree Stories, teaches big life lessons through funny -- occasionally bawdy -- tales.

Ratt is also the author of 'Beginning Cree', published in 2016. The book is an introduction to the Cree language, which includes a self-study guide. (University of Regina Press)

In a conversation with The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong, Ratt said this language revival is much bigger than the transfer of words. 

"Everything is language. Culture and language cannot be separated. Because language has all the aspects of being Indigenous or being a person," he said. 

"Family values, kinship systems, the respect that you learn through the kinship systems; they are all within the language." 

The University of Regina Press has published six books in the series, and plans to eventually chronicle every First Nations language.

The series, along with other language-preservation initiatives, could help mitigate what Ratt calls "a crisis in language." 

This crisis, he said, is due in large part to the residential school system, where Indigenous children were often punished for speaking their language. 

Now, language revival efforts are working to reverse that lasting damage. 

"We have to do it considering the state of the languages and most people not knowing the sacred stories," Ratt said.

"The future generations will have a resource to work with and they'll have access to written material, which will be helpful for them because they won't have the speakers handy; there's very few speakers around nowadays."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.