STONEY NAKODA – Two weeks, 30 Stoney Nakoda Nation members and a goal of 15,000 words.
Working with the Stoney Education Authority and the non-profit U.S.-based Language Conservancy program, elders are calling the Rapid Word Collection event at the Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino an important first step to preserving their language.
"This is only the beginning of what had to be done collectively," Stoney Nakoda elder Sykes Powderface explained during the word collection.
"Working with 30 people a day, they come from different levels of generations and this is why we are discovering each generation uses the language differently – we have a couple people that never went to residential school and are very fluent in their traditional language where [for other people] one part of their parents may have lost their language or it is repressed through their school."
Not able to speak the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language during his time in residential school, Powderface can relate to having his traditional language repressed during times in his own life.
Introduced after Canada officially became a country, residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Well documented as places where students faced physical and mental abuse, Indigenous students were to adopt Euro-Canadian customs and learn English while being forbidden to speak their traditional languages. The last school closed in 1996.
Powderface said he remembers returning from the residential schools for the summers where his parents encouraged him to spend time with his grandparents to retain his culture and the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language.
"It is very, very important because not too many of us are going to be around [and] if this hadn't been started, the recovery of the work ... it might have never been recovered because a lot of us, at that age, are going to pass on very quickly and we are losing our elders very fast," Powderface said.
Inviting all Nation members, from Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley bands – all Ĩyãħé Nakoda speakers – to attend the event for two weeks, organizers explained there is a 30-person a day maximum with a lineup out the door since they started collecting words Sept. 23.
"The language is getting chopped and we wanted to make sure each generation and their words are being utilized," said Cherith Mark, cultural and language coordinator with Stoney Education Authority.
"This is the year of Indigenous language ... and if we lose it, we lose it. We keep it active by speaking it all the time. Language is connected to culture and identity and if language is missing, it is hard to connect to your culture and identity."
Paid through Alberta Education government grants and in partnership with the Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS), the goal is to gather 10,000 to 15,000 words to create learning materials to be utilized with Stoney Education Authority and CRPS, such as language apps, level one textbooks and alphabet books.
"There is a need and we are glad this is being done – it is really exciting," Mark said.
Elders were excited at the chance to compare the dialect of words they already knew, finding a common way to say things for the learning materials, while also deciding how to incorporate news words.
"Some call cellphones the 'gossiping machine that you carry around,' or 'the little talking machine that you carry around,' " Powderface said with a laugh.
"So there are different way of expressing what it is, but at least you understand what they are referring too."
This is the first time the Language Conservancy organization hosted an event in Canada to create these type of learning materials and in the first week, more than 5,560 words were collected.
"The Rapid Word Collection lets us create an accurate and up-to-date version and a description of the language that will allow us to create materials that are also highly accurate and reflect the actual language that is spoken in the community," wrote Wilhem Meya, Executive Director of the Language Conservancy.
"Sometimes, without a rapid word collection, the materials could end up using words that may no longer be used, or that may have been misspelled. We want to ensure the high quality of materials moving forward, and a Rapid Word Collection provides the cornerstone of which to build the other materials for language learning. Plus, given most of the speakers are elders, it’s important to document the language thoroughly and as early as possible because there is a chance that trying to do something like this later on would result in fewer words."
Over the past couple years, Nation members have been actively trying to preserve the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language for the next generation, including building a Rocky Mountain Nakoda website with a language section, creating a language app with approximately 500 words in 2017 and reintroducing Ĩyãħé Nakoda spelling bees in the Nakoda Elementary School earlier this year.
As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, released in 2015 with 94 Calls to Action, there is an entire section dedicated to Language and Culture, with language revitalization projects noted under the church apologies and reconciliation.
"Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them," states one of the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Powderface said he considers this a good start.
"When we think about reconciliation, we are in the process of what may have been dormant because of the residential school when we couldn't use our language," he said.
"Since then our language has been in a dormant space and with our traditional language it is very important that we restore it, we restore it the way it was meant to be."
The Rapid Word Collection event ends this Friday (Oct. 4).
EDIT: An earlier version of this story had attributed quotes from Language Conservancy spokesperson Nicole DeCriscio Bowe. The quotes are actually from Executive Director Wilhem Meya. The error has been fixed.