NAT: Alberta Languages
Siksika youth embrace future, while learning words of the past
By Jamie Komarnicki, Calgary Herald, October 11, 2009
Ko, mo, no, po, so to, wo, yo.
Alvine Eagle Speaker stands at the front of her classroom, introducing a group of teenagers to her language.
The teacher's yardstick taps a pattern on a whiteboard upon which 126 Blackfoot syllables are scribbled.
Her dark eyes peering from thick-framed glasses, Eagle Speaker surveys the 30-odd students mumbling the Blackfoot fragments.
Kih, mih, nih, pih, sih, tih, wih, yih.
"I want you to say them, don't hum them. You're not bees," Eagle Speaker says, chuckling.
"You need to figure out what your tongue is doing in your mouth. If you have gum, swallow it, or it will fall out. If you have dentures, I hope you have Polident."
Her words are sharp but often humorous as she guides the Blackfoot for Beginners class through the syllables on the whiteboard.
The chart, which she created herself, takes a native language known for its lengthy words and breaks it down into its most basic building blocks.
"There's a reason I put this up there," Eagle Speaker says, pointing to the rows of syllables. "I'm teaching you how to preserve your language, how you should be as a Siksika member.
"We're going to learn how to be humble, patient, respectful, because the language is all that."
For students at Siksika Nation High School, the 80-minute lesson is sandwiched between biology and math, and all the other trappings of school life.
For the past two years, Eagle Speaker has pioneered the class on the reserve about an hour's drive east of Calgary. By the time the students graduate from her Blackfoot 10, 20 and 30 classes, they should be able to hold simple conversations in the language.
Teaching students the words of their ancestors is one way to reconnect Siksika youth to the past, Eagle Speaker says.
But the real challenge is how to connect the historic language to their future.
When the class is over, iPods and cellphones get turned back on.
Backpacks slung over their shoulders, students troop out of the school and into a society where, for the most part, their language exists only among a few thousand elders.
Nineteen-year-old Elaine Poor Eagle is striving to straddle both worlds.
The trendy young lady, who wants to study animation at the University of Lethbridge, is constantly on her cellphone, texting to stay in touch with her family, friends and work.
Yet, Poor Eagle can also rattle off her family history in Blackfoot, including her traditional name-- Somiitkomi, or Strange Hollow, given her by her grandmother -- and carry on conversations in the language of her ancestors.
"Some students are like, 'Why are you saying that?' They're making fun of us because we're speaking and they don't know what we're speaking," says Poor Eagle, a graduate of Blackfoot 10, 20 and 30 classes.
"To me it shows where I've come from, and makes me more proud of where I come from."
Learning the language isn't all conjugation and memorization, though.
Poor Eagle swaps text messages with friends, sounding out the syllables on her cellphone, and writes Facebook messages in Blackfoot to her aunties, who are also fluent.
Even when she leaves Siksika to go to university, the teenager remains confident she can find ways to weave Blackfoot into everyday life.
Such attitudes provide hope to those striving to save native languages across Canada.
First Nations are now watching a massive baby boom unfold, and connecting youth to their history is critical to keeping native languages alive.
In Alberta, aboriginals are the fastest-growing segment of the population. More than one in three aboriginals in the province are 14 years old and younger. They're also the generation least likely to know how to speak native languages.
Experts estimate there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Blackfoot speakers of southern Alberta's three dialects spoken by the Siksika, Piikani and Blood tribes.
"They have a lot of older speakers of the language, but the kids aren't learning it," says Darin Flynn, a University of Calgary aboriginal language expert.
This dynamic "means very dramatically, the number of speakers will drop, unless they find some way."
Throughout the Blackfoot territories, educators are trying to do just that.
In southern Alberta, Blackfoot teachers are taking their knowledge into the schools, directly integrating their language into course curriculum.
There are also efforts to move Blackfoot language training out of the classroom and into the sweat lodge.
Norton (Spike) Eagle Speaker is a leader of the Horns, a sacred Blackfoot society.
The ceremonies that Eagle Speaker performs are as "ageless as the sun," he says.
"A lot of our ways, a lot of our translations from the Blackfoot language, there's no way (to say them) in the English language," says Eagle Speaker, sitting outside a sweat lodge in his backyard on the Siksika reserve, clad in the black that signifies his spiritual authority.
"When they come to the sweat lodge, to the ceremonies, all I do is speak Blackfoot."
About nine youths are under his tutelage in the mystical society of bundle-carriers that marks the highest level of Blackfoot spirituality.
"I'm training them how to build sweats, how to pick rocks, how to use tobacco, how to respect women--all of these things I'm teaching them, it's a long process," says Eagle Speaker, his words carrying across the plains as the sun sets.
"I use a lot of Blackfoot. I just go right ahead. . . . They in turn start realizing the value of our societies, they start realizing the value of how our people were back then."
His classroom is different than his wife's--Alvine Eagle Speaker, the high school teacher--but the two share similar goals: training the under-30 generation to carry on the language.
"It is a need. I'm thinking about my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren," says Alvine.
"I want the children here and in the future to have a nation. . . . Language and culture are like salt and pepper, cream and sugar. They have to be together."
Blackfoot - An Algonquin Language - Known For Its Extremely Long Words - In Canada, Three Dialects Spoken Among The Siksika, Piikani And Blood Tribes, Also Spoken By The Blackfeet Of Montana. - Speakers: About 3,000 To 4,000
Source: Darin Flynn, University Of Calgary
Native communities fighting to keep traditional languages alive
By Jamie Komarnicki, Canwest News Service, October 11, 2009
TSUU T'INA NATION, Alta. -- Late-morning sun pours down on a group of children in a clearing on the Tsuu T'ina Nation, just west of Calgary.
Two native leaders kneel in the grass, tying together spruce teepee poles with twine. A large piece of canvas rests nearby.
Before all their eyes, the skeleton of a buffalo springs to life.
The teepee's towering structure represents the buffalo's silhouette, storyteller Gerald Meguinis explains to the youth, switching back and forth effortlessly between English and Tsuu T'ina words.
In the past, when such shelters were built, it was as if the disappearing buffalo had returned, he says.
Like the beast that was once nearly wiped out from the Canadian plains, the language of the Tsuu T'ina people is also vanishing.
Meguinis, the youngest Tsuu T'ina speaker, is 60.
"It's a big concern to us," says Bruce Starlight, director of the Tsuu T'ina Gunaha project, which arranged the cultural camp.
"We're all in this together, our language survival."
Indeed, the silence is creeping beyond Tsuu T'ina to other reserves.
The Stoneys to the west and the Blackfoot to the east are each facing their own worries to keep their languages alive.
"We're in dire straights," says Blackfoot educator Alvine Eagle Speaker.
By official count, there are more than 50 First Nations languages across Canada.
Some are thriving.
The Cree, for example, have as many as 80,000 everyday speakers. Dozens others, though, are in danger of disappearing. In 1998, the Assembly of First Nations declared a state of language emergency.
First Nations people aren't the only ones concerned about the vanishing words. Linguists frantic to preserve the historical tongues are furiously collecting and recording data before all those speak them pass away.
"There's a sense of desperation, of our data disappearing before our eyes," laments aboriginal language expert Darin Flynn from the University of Calgary.
Southern Alberta provides an example of the dangers facing First Nation languages across the country.
The Treaty 7 languages - Tsuu T'ina, Stoney Nakoda and Blackfoot - are each at different stages of decline.
With more than 1,500 speakers among 4,000 band members, the Siouan dialect spoken by the Stoneys is in the healthiest shape.
Their strong oral tradition, though, is beginning to show signs of fracture.
To the southeast of the Stoneys, the Blackfoot nations are believed to have as many as 4,000 speakers. But the children aren't learning the Algonquian language.
A generational breakdown looms, Flynn says.
The smallest of the bands, Tsuu T'ina, is in the roughest shape. Within a few decades, most speakers will have died.
Educators today have the challenge of convincing today's generation of "Facebookers" and texters that the native words aren't simply old-fashioned.
"The only way I see it is to teach it, teach it, teach it," says Eagle Speaker, who leads a culture and language class on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary.
"If there are people that don't think there's a need for it, well that's wrong," she says.
"If there are people out there that think it'll never be revived, that's wrong too."
Eagle Speaker is just one among many natives hopeful about their languages' future, but there's little doubt they're trying to reverse more than 100 years of history.
In Alberta, the historic Treaty 7 was signed at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877. History books say it brought peace to southern Alberta; oral tradition among the tribes suggests otherwise.
Several key moments during treaty-making were marred by faulty interpretation, according to Flynn, the linguistics professor.
The official translators' grasp on the native languages was fragile. Some words - such as surrender or cede - couldn't be translated from legal English into three native languages, he says.
"They're very unanimous on the basis of language, they feel they were tricked to cede, release and surrender the land," says Flynn.
Then there were the schools.
In the 1840s, church-operated, government-funded residential schools began taking aboriginal children from their homes.
Such residential schools operated until the 1970s and, in many cases, the education was a painful one. Among a number of punishable offences, speaking native languages was an easy mark.
"I got slammed right across the face," says Olive Davis, 73, recalling her first days at the St. Paul Residential School near Cardston, Alta., in the early 1940s.
"I didn't know I wasn't supposed to speak Blackfoot. I didn't know a word of English."
Growing up, she knew only the language of her parents and grandparents. A slap to the face taught the seven-year-old girl to keep her mouth shut.
Davis eventually learned the English of her teachers, but never lost her first words.
"You always think in Blackfoot. That's the way I am," says Davis. Her own children, though, hardly spoke the language, and her grandchildren, not at all.
Typically, those now in their 20 to 50s were hit hardest by the schools' impact, in many cases stopping speaking their languages altogether.
"People quickly bought into this idea that it could hinder their kids in the new economy," says Flynn.
A split often occurred "right in the same family," says Don Frantz, a California-born missionary and linguist who travelled to southern Alberta in the 1960s to save souls and languages.
"Two brothers in the same family . . . the older one would be a speaker and the younger one would hardly speak at all," said Frantz, who worked with the Siksika tribe in the 1960s and 1970s.
Other changes furthered the language decline.
Buses began transporting kids to public school. At the same time, electricity came to the reserves. Soon, most families had televisions.
"Between the two things, going to school, being a minority . . . then coming home and watching TV in English - we noticed a change right away," says Frantz, a University of Lethbridge linguist specializing in Blackfoot.
Today, new technology such as the Internet is adding to the hurdles.
Students who file into Eagle Speaker's class at the Siksika high school are likely more comfortable with a BlackBerry than learning Blackfoot.
As a teacher, Eagle Speaker, tries to find ways to make language relevant. Her goal is twofold: teaching children the worth of their cultural history, while instilling the value of carrying it forward.
The new wave of native speakers, she says, will be led by those who learned English first, indigenous tongues, second.
Her hope, and the optimism of others, is fuelling what experts see as a resurgence of native languages in the form of second-language speakers.
The days of aboriginal languages in the "nursery and living rooms," are gone, says Flynn, but across southern Alberta, the sense of loss is spurring a language "renaissance."
"There's no question that, technically, the aboriginal languages have become obsolete under the influence of English," says Flynn.
"There is a revival now underway that's trying to counteract this."
In Morley, the Nakoda Stoney Owabize group is creating a dictionary. The Blackfoot are teaching language classes in schools. On Tsuu T'ina, a determined few have launched an expansive new language program.
Their efforts are no guarantee of success, but that doesn't stop those who care from fighting for the native words.
"It's hard to predict what will happen," Flynn concludes.
"But once they (the languages) are gone, they're gone from the planet. It's irreversible."
Saving Tsuu T'Ina
Band hopes new program can revive language, tradition
By Jamie Komarnicki, Calgary Herald, October 12, 2009
Wooden arrows placed onto their bowstrings, a row of spindly-armed youths take aim at a target in the sky.
The willow sticks, carved by hand over the past few days, drop harmlessly on the ground.
"One more time," the shooters plead.
The "hoop-and-wheel" game is one of the highlights of a three-day culture camp put on by the Tsuu T'ina Gunaha program.
About 20 Tsuu T'ina kids have already wandered the woods looking for herbs, practised beadwork and been taught the art of storytelling.
At night, they've worked on a different skill: learning the hunting ways of their ancestors. Each task teaches them the traditions of the Tsuu T'ina.
Such lessons serve as a bridge between the young and old -- and provide another way to impart the Tsuu T'ina language on a small group of children.
At nine years old, Sonny Scout knows just a few Tsuu T'ina words, such as teepee and arrow.
But he wants to learn more Tsuu T'ina "so if my granny talks it, I can understand what she says," Sonny explains, his homemade bow slung over his shoulder.
As Bruce Starlight watches, the 62-year-old instructor can't help but feel satisfied.
"This gives them the one-on-one contact that is missing today. It's so important," says Starlight, who organized the summer camp.
"I'm happy. At my age, I need to give this knowledge to somebody -- whoever will listen."
The small southern Alberta reserve on Calgary's southwest edge is the only corner of the world where the Tsuu T'ina tongue exists.
Only the tiniest fraction of the 2,000 band members speak the language. Most are elderly.
The language is clearly on the verge of extinction, the trajectory moving downward as quickly as the falling arrow.
Aboriginal language expert Darin Flynn estimates fewer than 40 people speak the language, and Tsuu T'ina is indeed in "scary shape."
"That's a hard fact, that they just have very few fluent speakers left," says Flynn, a University of Calgary linguistics professor.
"On the other hand, they have some of the more exciting sort of teachings."
For example, Starlight approached the band council last year proposing a major new "gunaha," or language, program.
The initiative is far more sweeping than simply teaching the language through a textbook.
The Gunaha project strives to digitize, catalogue and archive Tsuu T'ina records.
The program, run in conjunction with the University of Alberta, also includes a printing press and audio sound studio, where members will soon be trained to come up with their own language recordings to be preserved for posterity.
A language certificate program on the reserve is also in the works, and the Tsuu T'ina dictionary is facing a major overhaul.
For nearly four decades, band members have tried in a number of ways to preserve the language, but haven't produced a single fluent speaker, says Starlight.
"As soon as you get something going, something stops it," he says.
The elder is hopeful the Gunaha program will be different.
The project, with startup funds of $800,000 from Tsuu T'ina's new casino, has 10 full-time and three part-time staff members on the payroll. Adults are already undergoing training twice a week.
"We're serious about it," says Starlight.
"If we don't do it now, it's never going to happen again."
It's difficult to say exactly why Tsuu T'ina got to this crisis point.
By the late 1960s, the tribe's youth had already lost their grasp of the language, says Ed Cook, author of a comprehensive analysis of Tsuu T'ina.
The situation became critical, he says, noting children are the "most important gauge" of a language's health.
"When the children are not learning the language as their first language, the language is beginning to die," says the former head of the University of Calgary linguistics department.
Isolation also played a role.
Legend has it that generations ago, a quarrel between two brothers prompted the Tsuu T'ina to part ways with their Dene family in northern Alberta to migrate to the province's southern region.
Regardless of how they arrived in the area, the tribe was surrounded by the drastically different language groups, the Blackfoot and Stoney.
Over time, band members married non-natives and spouses from other tribes who didn't speak Tsuu T'ina.
See video of initiatives to save native languages, plus a photo gallery from Calgaryarea reserves
Residential schools also took their toll last century.
When the tribe's population exploded in the past decade, "We weren't able to keep up," Starlight says.
Decades ago, Starlight learned linguistic analysis from Ed Cook at the U of C.
Today, he's combined academic knowledge with the traditional wisdom of the band.
When he considers the youth of Tsuu T'ina, Starlight knows the real work has just begun. About 41 per cent of band members are under the age of 18.
"You need to create the atmosphere that language is important, that identity is important, that Tsuu T'ina culture is important," he says.
Back at the culture camp, the kids have fun with their bows and arrows and other traditional games.
A fire smoulders near the four canvas teepees where the youth have camped out the past few nights. In a couple of hours, they'll break camp and head home.
Terence Starlight, 11, vows he'll try his best not to forget what he's learned about the language. His grandfather, Bruce Starlight, has taught him well.
"No one can really speak it," he says, before sprinting off to retrieve his arrow.
"It's important because (if we) forget everything about it, then no one will know how to speak Tsuu T'ina."
An Athabascan Language - Other Athabascan languages in the United States include Navajo. - Speakers: between 40 and 60 - Characterized by a popping sound. A tonal language, like Chinese, the different pitch levels radically change meaning.
Source: Darin Flynn, University Of Calgary
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