Dene Languages Conference

 June 10, 2016
Posted by ryoung

On the Land Programs Consultant Jess Dunkin reports on her experience at the Dene Languages Conference in Yellowknife.

If you follow the NWTRPA on Twitter, you may have noticed a flurry of tweets about language earlier this week. This was because I was attending the Dene Languages Conference in Yellowknife. Organized by the Goyatıkǫ̀ Language Society and the Alaska Native Language Center and hosted by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the conference brought together linguists, educators, language learners, and language activists from across Denendeh and beyond.

Twitter @nwtrpa (Photo NWTRPA)

Twitter @nwtrpa (Photo NWTRPA)

The theme of the conference was “Language and History.” Different speakers explored how language changes over time, but also the ways in which language can tell us something about where we have come from. A second informal theme was language revitalization. Indigenous languages across the continent have long been under threat, most prominently at the hands of the residential school system and more recently through benign neglect on the part of governments and the education system. Where there were once more than 200 Indigenous languages spoken in the area covered by present-day Canada, around 60 survive today and many of these have only a few hundred speakers.

As the conference presentations made clear, teachers and activists across Denendeh are finding creative ways to reverse language loss and support learners. In Manitoba, Agnes Carlson, a Dene Language Facilitator with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, is using language camps and language festivals to encourage a new generation of Dënesųłiné speakers. Language camps combine an immersive environment (participants are only allowed to speak Dënesųłiné) with land-based cultural activities such as trapping, tanning, and berry picking. They are one of the best ways to achieve fluency because participants are surrounded by the language and by the cultural activities to which Dene languages are tied. Language festivals are another way to promote the use of Indigenous languages. Honouring Our Youth: Love Your Language, Speak with Pride, a language festival for Indigenous school children in grades 1-5 in Saskatoon, is now in its fourth year. The goal is to “to help students build stronger ties and identities with their Cree, Dakota, Michif and Nakaw languages and culture” through workshops and activities.

Dene Languages Slide (Photo: NWTRPA)

Dene Languages Slide (Photo: NWTRPA)

Cheryl Herman, the Dënesųłiné Language & Culture Consultant with the Prince Albert Grand Council, is using technology to support Dene language learners. For example, with the assistance of Audacity, open-source software for recording and editing sounds, Cheryl created an audio dictionary of Dënesųłiné words and phrases. (A similar talking dictionary is in the works for Kaska speakers in the eastern Yukon and northern BC). She has also used SayMore to produce captioned videos of Dënesųłiné speakers. At present, these are not publicly available, though Cheryl hopes they will be soon! Cheryl is also using more traditional mediums to capture and transmit Dene languages. She is the author of Pocket Dene, a “phrasebook for nearly all occasions.”

In Alberta, Blue Quills University, a First Nations-owned and -operated institution, is introducing a new BA Program in Dënesųłiné, under the guidance of coordinator Jessie Sylvestre and five local elders, including artist Alex Janvier. The three-year program is intended to improve oral mastery, while also grounding students in knowledge of grammar and written Dënesųłiné. The program has four priorities beyond language instruction: culture, genealogy, the history of the Dene, and decolonization.

Youth delegates speaking to obstacles to learning language (Photo Amanda Mallon)

Youth delegates speaking to obstacles to learning language (Photo Amanda Mallon)

Two of the most interesting panels at the Dene Languages Conference invited elders and youth to reflect on their role in language revitalization, but also to identify the barriers that face people, particularly youth, wishing to learn their language. There were a number of common themes between these two sessions, not the least of which was the importance of being on the land to pass on Dene Yatié. Dene languages, like Dene identity, are rooted in the land. It makes sense then that the best way to learn Tłı̨chǫ or Sahtúgot’ı̨nę or Gwich’in is to spend time on the land with fluent speakers. Both elder and youth panelists expressed a desire for immersive land-based experiences that would allow elders and knowledge holders to share information about the local language, as well as about local culture, spirituality, genealogy, and history.

The observations made at the Dene Languages Conference about the importance of land-based programming to language education echo the comments of participants in February’s On the Land Round Table. It is no surprise that participants in the round table identified language revitalization as a key priority for the group. The NWTRPA with the guidance of round table participants is looking for ways to support land-based language experiences for people of all ages across the territory. One of the sessions at this fall’s NWTRPA Conference is devoted to linking land and language. Let us know if you have other ideas for contributing to language revitalization in the NWT by reaching out to us on social media.

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