Language is vital to First Nation identity


The îyÂrhe Nakoda (Stoney) language is a living language. It is a language that is spoken daily in our community of Morley. However, it is a language that is at risk because there is less and less desire among our youth to learn the ancestral language of our people. In addition, leadership is not focused on culture, or language. At a recent national meeting on Indigenous languages only two Chiefs from our entire country were present. This is unfortunate because language connects us to our culture, and our identity.

The effects of colonization and cultural genocide are wide-ranging. In residential schools, children were socialized to denigrate First Nations ways of knowing. To achieve this, they were prohibited from speaking their languages by law and told that their ancestral teachings were evil, wrong, and heathen.

The destruction of Indigenous worldviews was the objective and education in the form of residential schools was the medium. The result was a loss of culture, knowledge, language, and identity. Now we have to deconstruct the process that took place.

First Nations people are in the process of decolonization. I believe language and identity is very important to this process.

The challenge for Elders, leaders, and educators is to design programs that will make our youth want to learn our language, to be proud of their ability to speak our language. Essentially, to be proud of who they are.

Recently, I was invited by the University of Alberta to take part in a national symposium on Indigenous language sustainability. I was invited as a doctoral student in education at the University of Calgary. Linguists and educators from across Canada and from the US were in attendance. Their objective was to get feedback in terms of developing a national database for Indigenous languages. What they received was an education.

First Nations leaders, scholars, and educators conveyed that First Nations people have been researched over and over. It is time now for action and that action needs to be taken by First Nations people themselves. I believe this is true. Research and consultation is necessary. However, any strategy must be community driven and within an Indigenous worldview.

Linguist and author, Dr. Warren Harbeck supports decolonization. I asked him as my linguistic mentor why he has not published his research on the Stoney language. He said he did not have the right to do so. He believes that right belongs to the Stoney people themselves. His position demonstrates respect for his teachers and the knowledge system of the îyÂrhe Nakoda.

Dr. Harbeck provides linguistic advice. However, he gives credit to people such as the late Jimmy Kaquitts, Shirley Crawler, and Rod Mark for their research into the Stoney vowel system and development of the alphabet. It is their legacies I turn to in my own research.

The revitalization of First Nations languages is dependent on fostering positive self-identities as First Nations people. It is dependent on decolonization.

The reality is that First Nations people are now living in a Western society. As such, First Nations language educators are competing with Kim Kardashian, Snapchat, Twitter, and other forms of multimedia for the attention of our youth. How then do we make First Nations want to learn their language?

Inclusion of multimedia in the design of programs is part of the answer. However, identity is key. It is necessary to decolonize and affirm our Indigeneity. As my mother, Elder Tina Fox, often says, “You are what you speak. ”


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Cochrane Eagle