An ancestral voice revived
Manon Sioui helps her father, Roland Sioui, during a game of Yawingo, a variation on bingo designed to teach numbers in the Wendat language to students in the Yawenda Project's classes. The project aims to revive Wendat, which hasn't been spoken for more than a century.
Photograph by: Francis Vachon, The Gazette
WENDAKE, Que. – It's shortly before 7 p.m. on Monday when the participants in a unique experiment in Canadian culture start filing into a classroom on this tiny reserve at the north end of Quebec City.
As they enter, they greet each other with traditional words of welcome in Wendat, their ancestral tongue.
Some say "kwe" (pronounced "kway"), others "ndio." Within minutes, class begins. For the next two hours, the 16 students - an equal number of men and women between the ages of 15 and 76 - talk, laugh, listen and learn a language that has been neither spoken nor heard on Earth for more than a century.
Welcome to the Yawenda Project - a million-dollar, federally funded initiative that aims to revive the use of Wendat as a second language on this reserve of about 1,500 people.
Launched in August 2007, the five-year project entered a crucial stage this month when two groups of students began taking once-weekly classes led by a handful of specially trained teachers who have learned - and continue to learn - how to speak Wendat. A third class is scheduled to begin in April.
In addition to providing adult reserve residents with an opportunity to learn, preserve and converse in their ancestral language, the project aims to create both a pool of trained teachers and a bank of pedagogical material that can be used to help preschool and elementary school students learn to speak Wendat.
It is, by any standard, a formidable task. But everyone The Gazette spoke with about the project seemed confident it will succeed.
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer O'Bomsawin, who is taking the course with her father, Luc, an Abenaki, is excited by the prospect of wowing her friends on the reserve by speaking their ancestral tongue.
"They think it's really cool and a few of them want to sign up," said O'Bomsawin, whose mother is Huron-Wendat. "This is really important to me. I'm proud of my native heritage, and language is such an important part of any culture. I want to learn to speak as much Wendat as I possibly can." "I can't think of anything that has generated so much interest and enthusiasm here as this language revitalization program," said Linda Sioui, one of Yawenda's principal organizers, one of its half-dozen trained teachers and a member of its all-important language committee, which okays everything from the use of teaching materials to the phonetic sounds and pronunciations of long-forgotten words.
Born in Montreal but raised here from the age of 9, when her Huron-Wendat father decided to move his family back home to his reserve, Sioui said she grew up wondering why the Huron-Wendats spoke French instead of their native language like many other First Nations peoples can and still do.
"Language is the essence of any culture (and) we want ours back," said Sioui, 49.
While the idea of trying to revive Wendat had long been talked about and dreamed of on the reserve, Sioui was one of the key instigators in discussions that would eventually lead to the birth of the Yawenda Project.
Both her sister, Manon, and her father, Roland, are enrolled in the Monday class, which began March 8. Roland expressed happiness at the opportunity to learn the language - despite the difficulty.
"It's hard," said the 76-year-old retired plumber and lifelong hunter and trapper. "But I hope to at least learn a few words that I can share with my grandkids, leave them something they can remember me by." Linda Sioui has spent much of her adult life studying her people's culture and language, much of which has been preserved in the field notes and dictionaries written by Jesuit priests who lived among the Huron-Wendat in the early years of New France. Studies and books about the Hurons and other Iroquoian peoples from a variety of sources have added to that base of knowledge.
"I like to say that Wendat isn't dead, it's dormant," said Sioui, who got a $25,000 federal grant in 1992 for a three-year program to locate, index and help repatriate Wendat archival materials to a documentation centre here. "And a lot of work has already been done to bring it back." Louis-Jacques Dorais agrees. An anthropologist at nearby Université Laval who teaches a Native American course that is popular with Wendake residents, he was approached four years ago by some community leaders who were hoping to garner support for an embryonic language revitalization project they would later name Yawenda - a Wendat word meaning voice.
"I was very skeptical about it at first," said Dorais, who nevertheless wrote a 50-page letter of intent - which was accepted - to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the federal grant-giving agency for research in the field through the auspices of a university (in this case Laval) and a lead researcher (Dorais). "Reviving a dead language is a daunting task. Apart from Hebrew in Israel, I don't know of any examples of where it is successful." Since the Yawenda Project began, however, he has discovered several similar projects in aboriginal communities across North America and Australia.
"It seems to be a big trend," said Dorais. "And they use the same methods as we are using here: archival materials like dictionaries made by missionaries, cross-references with similar dialects and languages, and the efforts of university researchers and linguistic experts to help create and build the materials needed to learn and teach languages." "I'm really surprised and impressed by the seriousness and the preparation of this course," said Yawenda student André Gros-Louis, a retired financial planner who spent much of his adult life working for the federal Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs. "It's interesting and very professional." That makes him optimistic, he added, about the program's chances of success.
"Our people have gone through many trials and tribulations, but we've survived. We're made of tough stuff," Gros-Louis said. "All my life I dreamed about learning to speak our language - and now I'm doing it. That fills me with pride and gives me hope for our future." Dorais said Yawenda is far more ambitious than other aboriginal-language projects in North America, in that it aims to revive a dead language rather than buttress living - albeit endangered - indigenous tongues.
He added that the project he finds most similar to Yawenda is one involving Kaurna, an aboriginal language from the Adelaide region of southern Australia that hasn't been spoken since the 1920s.
"They have achieved some good results," said Dorais. "People are using the language in official circumstances like funerals and civic ceremonies. However, it has not grown to the point where people use it in their everyday lives and their homes." Though everyday use of Wendat among Wendake residents is a long-term goal for Yawenda's proponents, Dorais said it will prove difficult because of the unique history and circumstances of the Huron-Wendat people.
Weakened by war, disease and the zeal of proselytizing Jesuits, the Huron-Wendats were defeated by their Iroquoian cousins in 1649 and driven from their traditional homeland in central Ontario - a region roughly bordered by the modern-day cities of Barrie and Orillia and the southern coastline of Georgian Bay.
Several hundred survivors fled west, eventually ending up in Oklahoma, where they are now known as the Huron-Wyandot. A roughly equal number who had converted to Christianity followed their French allies back to Quebec City, which they have since called home.
According to Dorais, the Hurons were highly sociable and integrated readily into the surrounding community over the past four centuries.
"They were in daily contact with French people and there was a lot of intermarriage," he said. "Over time their features have become much whiter and they eventually lost their language." He added that the last speakers of the Wendat language likely died in the 1870s.
"I don't think it was a conscious effort at assimilation," he said, "but rather a result of their openness to other people and the outside world." Despite their biological, linguistic and cultural blending with the surrounding French community, Dorais said they have managed to keep their identity as Wendat.
"It's fascinating," he said. "They're like the Scots - they still see themselves as allies of the French and English, and they expect respect and aid as a sovereign people." Those feelings, added Dorais, are driving the desire to resurrect their language. He said that same desire has made him a believer in the long-term chances of the Yawenda Project, which will have to either become self-financed or find alternative monies once federal funding ends in 2012.
"The Wendat people are survivors," he said. "I won't bet against them."
Linguist gives voice to ancestral Huron language
By Mark Cardwell, Special to The Gazette
WENDAKE – As a girl growing up in Norwalk, Conn., an hour’s drive north of New York City, Megan Lukaniec wasn’t all that interested in her aboriginal heritage or the postage stamp-size reserve near far-off Quebec City, where her father’s Huron-Wendat mother was from.
But as the main linguist and chief trainer at the heart of the Yawenda Project, the 25-year-old is now literally giving voice to the rebirth of her ancestral language.
“It’s a real honour for me to be involved like this – but it’s a lot of hard work, too,” Lukaniec said.
Soon after coming here in 2006 to study the Wendat language on a one-year fellowship from Dartmouth University in New Hampshire – where she did an undergraduate degree in a Native American program that “got me interested in my roots” – Lukaniec met Linda Sioui and other residents in Wendake who were busily planning the Yawenda language-revitalization project.
After enrolling in the master’s program in linguistics and anthropology at Laval University – from which she will graduate in June – Lukaniec was named linguist of the project.
Her job consists of reconstructing vocabulary and grammar using archival sources like the Jesuit Relations – a compilation of field notes written by priests who lived among the Huron-Wendat – and dictionaries of other Iroquoian languages that are similar to Wendat.
Notably, she studies the structure and phonetics of each word and advises the 10-member language council on their pronunciation. Once the council accepts them, she teaches them to the project’s instructors, who in turn teach them to students.
“It’s a huge job,” said Lukaniec, whose strategy is to build groups of words according to themes like numbers, colours, kinships, animals and everyday life. “I’ve done hundreds of words over the past 21⁄2 years.”
She added she is encouraged by the enthusiasm and goodwill of the people involved in Yawenda.
“People here are wild, crazy about this,” Lukaniec said. “The teachers in particular are so dedicated. They always want more and more. I have to push myself to stay ahead of them.”
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