I recently had a phone conversation with a Native gentleman from Saskatchewan when he asked me about buying cheap books written in Cree. He had seen me speak a few months earlier and liked the idea of populating the Band Schools with Native Language books written in phonetics and their Forefathers' language and English, a technique developed by a Maliseet linguist named Veronica Atwin from New Brunswick.
I asked this man why he was interested in books and he matter-of-factly said, "So our children can learn their own language."
"Why the interest?" I questioned.
He replied, "The Band Councils got together and voted to save our language. They delegated me as the person to make sure everyone is learning our language." Thoughts filled my head and I’d like to explore them here.
First, I was struck with the immensity of the task. Imagine, Elders telling Chief and Council they must do something about saving the language. Then, Councillors responding to Elders agreeing that the language is important. Every Chief and Council and Elder I have come in contact with over the past five years shares this concern, as I do, without exception! So I ask myself, why, if this cause is so important, nobody in Canada has yet been successful on a broad scale. The Ombudsman report came out a few years ago in New Brunswick claiming that of the Native parents surveyed, 78% thought it was very important or somewhat important for their children to learn the Native Language. I met with a group of First Nation parents and asked them about this statistic; they confirmed the sentiment.
I asked what they were doing about it and the response was predictable, "What can we do, we never learned the language ourselves?"
I don't feel like exploring the reasons why the Native Languages are not resilient. One can even argue, regionally, that speaking them is no longer useful. A Native friend of mine in the Federal Government tells me that only two of the 663 First Nations have actually passed Band Council Resolutions committed to actively working on keeping the language vibrant. So, really, how serious can anybody be when saying it is important? They are certainly not voting with their time, energy or money?
What one cannot argue is that the languages are travelling well along the road to extinction. They are having a near death experience and will cease to exist if not acted upon by an external force. This defeat is a given, like it or not.
The thinker in me likes to defend the Native communities and recognize that huge efforts are being carried out throughout First Nations by individuals, teachers, academics, families and communities. Since the Language and Culture have not died, despite numerous attempts at assimilation over the centuries, I have to continue with the belief that these languages will become vibrant and useful once again. I keep hearing about the Native Language providing a worldview, a connection to the land, ties to the past, etc. With all that said, deep concern exists that the Native population is running out of time and this will be the last place in time to attempt a recovery before these natural resources are gone forever.
Whenever I hear people talk about the importance of the language, I ask myself, Why do so many Native people (approximately 2.8 million Indigenous people in Canada according to Thomas King) keep saying 'Someone should do something,' but then don’t get collectively involved to create the current of change themselves? Why are so many people, who provide examples of the emotional damage residential schools have done to them or their families, in their community and to their culture, so willing to let the residential school system's assimilation tactics win over their future generations? How can these observers keep sitting by, letting somebody else own the solution, tick tock, tick tock, as time passes by?
According to Statistics Canada, by the law of averages, over half of the Native Language speakers in Canada will be dead in just over six years. The remaining Elders and speakers will be six years older and increasingly unable to work the hours required to save the Native Languages along with all of the Cultural and Spiritual gifts that come with their vibrancy. Combine this thought with the observation that the majority of language work has been in documentation, videotaping and other archival attempts, and not so much in language transfer through generations.
I'm getting carried away. Getting back to the conversation this thought opens with - the person on the other end of the phone stating, "They delegated me as the person to make sure everyone is learning our language."
Up until this moment, I would wonder why people weren't successful carrying out this task. I was pissed off at the Government for not supporting the revitalisation of the Native Languages with funding. With the exception of a handful of individuals, I viewed the First Nation people as somewhat accepting of the terrible hand they were dealt, reluctant in thought, yet, accepting in their inaction.
When I asked this motivated individual how he was going to save the language, he simply replied matter of factly, "I have no idea. I do not even know where to start. Think about it. How is this going to get done?" In an instant, all of my preconceived notions faded away. All of the defeatist thoughts I had vanished. I realized the majority of the First Nations people I talk with do not really know what to do, or what can be done, how it can be done and how to define success. This problem is why they say 'Somebody should do something’, not in deference but rather in frustration of not knowing how.
My resolve became very clear. If we are going to actually make the language vibrant and useful again, we would need a vision to pursue, a mantra. Activity, if not feeding a strategy, would merely be random thought, spiraling into the abyss of more failed attempts. I am reminded of a California study I read in a magazine in the lobby of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa while waiting for the Education Director.
The article showed a California study claiming all we need to do to save a language is commit to twenty hours per week for three years. Let's explore this thought in the next edition.
“What one cannot argue is that the (Native) languages are travelling well along the road to extinction. They are having a near death experience…”
"What can we do, we never learned the language ourselves?"
“Since the Language and Culture have not died, despite numerous attempts at assimilation over the centuries, I have to continue with the belief that these languages will become vibrant and useful once again.”
Mike Parkhill Founder,