Monday, November 16, 2009

NAT: Blackfoot on Language

Aboriginal identity threatened through loss of language Print E-mail
Written by editor Caroline Zentner, Lethbridge Herald, Friday, 13 November 2009

Finding a person under the age of 20 who speaks Blackfoot is so rare that elders are concerned the loss of the language will lead to loss of identity.

Members of the Blackfoot Confederacy gathered at Red Crow Community College Friday to brainstorm ways of renewing the language for upcoming generations.

“We don’t have a generation to carry on the language, for the most part,” said Betty Bastien, a University of Calgary social work professor.

Bastien studied intergenerational trauma of First Nations in a four-year research project funded by Health Canada. Epidemics, loss of the buffalo, residential schools and the reservation system created trauma for First Nations people historically and the consequences are evident in today’s social, economic and political problems.

“After working with the elders for four years, we’ve come to understand that the way any society governs itself is through their language,” Bastien said during a break in the day-long meeting. “Their language is what creates distinctions in the world in which we live.”

Language gives people a way to relate to the world and make sense of things. Blackfoot and other indigenous languages carry traditional knowledge about the world which is needed to survive. In ancient times, Blackfoot people were spiritually connected to the world around them. That relationship has been severed and, with it, the connection to human survival needs.

“The language — it informs us and governs how we relate to that world in which we live. It’s premised on balance,” Bastien said.

“In the olden days, all the kids spoke the native language,” said Bruce Wolf Child, an elder advisor at Red Crow Community College. “When I was at the residential school, we were told to forget about our language and punished if we spoke it. Today we’re trying to bring it back because our kids are getting lost.”

Elders on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Mont., are also worried and they hope to increase the opportunities for young people to listen to Blackfoot language speakers. Having a gathering place where young people can hear the language being spoken by elders as they tell their stories creates a link between the generations much more than attending an Indian-language class, said Robert Many Guns, a Blackfeet elder.

“We’re trying to find an alley to get to our younger generation to make them interested in understanding the language,” he said.

Herman Yellow Old Woman, a leader and tribal councillor with the Siksika First Nation, agreed that efforts must go beyond language classes in school.

“We’re teaching them in the schools but the current curriculum isn’t working,” Yellow Old Woman said. “They emphasize too much on the spelling instead of speaking and understanding the language.”

Blackfoot classes are offered in Siksika schools as an option but Yellow Old Woman would like to see it made a priority. In addition, all school employees should be able to speak the language and parents and grandparents who speak Blackfoot should make a point of speaking the language to younger generations.

“In Siksika, my generation is between 35 and 45 and we’re still at 80 to 85 per cent fluency,” he said. “But it’s the generation after that that we’re worried about. Twenty per cent at the most are Blackfoot speakers. Below 20, I can honestly say there’s no speakers any more.”

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