Saturday, March 28, 2009

NAT: Bringing Back Blackfoot

Bringing back Blackfoot
Rachel Ermineskin preserves her language for future generations
Published March 26, 2009 by Jeremy Klaszus in City

Oki. When Siksika elder Rachel Ermineskin speaks the Blackfoot greeting, there’s a musicality to it. It’s like a tiny, one-second song. Oki. Hello.

It comes naturally to Ermineskin. She grew up on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary and has been speaking Siksika Blackfoot — “my language,” she always says — from childhood. “My parents spoke Blackfoot, and then they went to school in residential schools,” recalls Ermineskin, 75.

She eventually went to Saint Joseph’s Residential School, where she and the other students were forbidden to speak their own language and forced to use English instead. “My mother prepared me for my residential school experience,” says Ermineskin. “I spent 10 years there, and I didn’t lose my language because we still spoke it when we got home during the summer holidays.”

Today, Ermineskin’s fluency makes her a rarity. Sitting in a sparely decorated band house on the open Siksika reserve south of Gleichen, she laments the language’s decline. “[Our young people] are mostly into English language,” says Ermineskin, who recently moved back home from the city. Only one in four aboriginal people speaks an aboriginal language, according to Statistics Canada. Estimates peg the number of Blackfoot speakers at around 3,500. (Cree, by contrast, has around 80,000 speakers.) The Blackfoot language, once widely spoken by a proud warrior people that dominated the Prairies of southern Alberta and Montana, is endangered — and this generous, silver-haired grandmother has been instrumental in helping local linguists preserve it.

Blackfoot has four dialects: Siksika, Kainai (Blood), Apatohsipiikani (Peigan) and Amsskaapipiikani (South Peigan). “We all speak the same language, but we all say some words a little different,” explains Ermineskin. A professor at the University of Lethbridge created a Kainai-English dictionary in the ’80s, but less has been done to preserve Siksika Blackfoot. “[It’s] a really largely ignored dialect of the language,” says Elizabeth Ritter, a linguistics professor at the University of Calgary. “…For us, the loss of a language is like the loss of a species.”

Ermineskin, then, is a Blackfoot conservationist of sorts. The mother of 10 spent most of her life working in community health on southern Alberta reserves and, later, working with residential school survivors. It was only after she retired in 2000 that she started mentoring students and staff and developing Siksika Blackfoot teaching material for the university.

“The term we use is ‘language consultant,’” says Ritter. “But we often refer to her as our teacher, because essentially that’s what she does. She teaches us about her language.” More specifically, Ermineskin explains the structure and meanings of the language, correcting the errors of researchers who didn’t grow up speaking Blackfoot.

“What she tries to do is make conscious her unconscious knowledge of her language so that we can study it,” says Ritter. “It takes remarkable patience and insight and, I think, real intelligence to do the job as well as Rachel does it.”

A BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE

Heather Bliss met Ermineskin at the U of C while studying Blackfoot, and she wanted to learn how — exactly how — Ermineskin speaks the way she does. Blackfoot often contains “voiceless vowels” at the ends of words, says Bliss, who’s now a linguistics PhD student at the University of British Columbia. “They’re really, really de-voiced.”

To study these voiceless vowels further, Bliss took ultrasounds of Ermineskin’s mouth as she spoke words ending in the two different vowels. She could hear no audible difference, but the ultrasound revealed something important: “the shape of her tongue is actually different when she’s making these different ‘sounds,’ even though there’s no sound difference at all,” Bliss says.

Discoveries like these are invaluable to researchers trying to grasp a very challenging language. “Some say it’s a hard language because it’s fairly guttural,” says Ermineskin. “Some say it’s a beautiful language to know.”

Oki is easy to speak and understand, but beyond that, the words get much longer and more complex. Lions, for example, is aimoyokiniomitaiks. The number 857 is na-ni-si-ki-pip-poo-ni-si-tsip-poo-ih-kit-tsi-ki-kopoto. “A lot of them start to sound very similar,” says Sara Johansson, an instructor of the U of C’s intro to Blackfoot course — a class she and Ermineskin taught together. “There’s a lot of tsstss, and it’s hard for an English mind to parse that.”

While English sentences are built around tense — when something happened — Blackfoot sentences are very different. “What matters in Blackfoot is who’s involved,” says Bliss. “So it matters if the speaker is there or not, it matters if the addressee is there or not, it matters who else is involved in the discourse…. That’s a real fundamental difference.”

TOUGH BLACKFOOT WARRIORS

At Johansson’s undergraduate class, laughter is almost constant as students try to wrap their heads and tongues around long Blackfoot phrases. The words have to be deconstructed piece by piece, starting at the end of a word, to become pronounceable. Spa. Yo’sspa. Ta’aooyo’sspa. Kikata’aooyo’spa. (It means: do you cook?)

The class gives it a try, but they need Noreen Breaker, another Siksika elder and language consultant, to guide their pronunciation. Breaker speaks the phrase into a microphone, and the class repeats it until they get it. “You guys sound good,” Johansson says with a grin. “You’re tough Blackfoot warriors.”

Breaker makes the hour-plus drive from the reserve to the university twice a week for the class. Like Ermineskin, she wants her language to be preserved so it outlives her. “That’s very important to me,” she says. Even Breaker, a native speaker of Siksika Blackfoot, has expanded her knowledge of the language because of Ermineskin. “Some things I didn’t know about my language I know now,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot from her.”

After working through the cooking conversation, the group of about 12 students form a circle to play a game of Napi Says, a Blackfoot version of Simon Says. Breaker gives an instruction in Blackfoot — ihpiyik — and the students all start dancing until she says miin ihpiyik — stop dancing.

The course’s focus is conversational Blackfoot, and it’s intended to give students “a way to learn about the language, to learn about the cultures, to learn about the stories and the past and the people,” says John Archibald, head of the university’s linguistics department.

Indeed, when Ermineskin was teaching the course, she’d often sneak in a little Blackfoot history, telling stories about her nomadic ancestors. “In the winter time we moved towards the river in the bush for shelter, and then in the summertime we’d move out in the open prairie, close to rivers and wood, but out in the open for hunting,” she says. “We subsisted that way, and we didn’t have the garbage we have today…. We’re the ones that showed you Canada. You guys didn’t discover it. We were already here. And that’s why I say they should rewrite the Canadian history [with] the native perspective in it.”

HOPES FOR PRESERVATION

Even though the Blackfoot language is endangered, linguists are optimistic it can be preserved. Bliss notes that some West Coast languages are much closer to extinction. “Some of them have maybe 10 speakers left,” she says. Compared with those languages, Blackfoot has a brighter future. “I think Blackfoot’s still at a point where it could be saved,” says Bliss. “Like I said, there’s probably several thousand speakers, and they’re not all 80. There’s probably some that are in their 40s, 50s. This is an interesting language that has a lot of things to tell us about language in general.”

Ermineskin is also hopeful that her language can be preserved for future generations. “If we continue with the linguistic studies and if it’s put on computer, on tapes, on discs, whatever kind of recordings we can get them on, we can do that,” she says.

In early March, the university’s faculty association gave Ermineskin a recognition award for her work. “I never thought I would get anything from a university,” Ermineskin says. Now that she’s retired again and back on the reserve with Elvis, her little white chihuahua, she won’t be at the university anymore. But she has trouble retiring for good and plans to keep helping her friends at the university via phone and Internet. “We have the technology to preserve these kinds of things, so why not?”

She also plans to keep learning her language from elders on the reserve who know the language even better than she does. Even Ermineskin has trouble pronouncing some words. “My mother used to say there’s no end of learning until you die,” she says. “And that’s what I tell my kids."

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