Stepping into the Saskatoon Inn during the First Nations Language Keepers Conference is like walking into the Tower of Babel. Each step brings a new language.
Greetings are said in Saulteaux, while stories are shared in Cree and ideas are explored in Dene. There are even a couple of the few remaining Tsuut’ina speakers exchanging pleasantries at a table.
Hundreds of people gathered at the conference to promote indigenous languages in hopes of keeping the words and, by extension, the cultures alive.
Groups in Saskatchewan and across the country shared success stories of how they are maintaining ancient traditions or slowly reviving them.
“If your language is dying, you need to revive it, but the way you live your life every day, that’s the way your people lived their lives,” Tsuut’ina elder Bruce Starlight said.
Starlight, 66, is one of a handful of aging members who are fluent Tsuut’ina speakers. The small band lives on the outskirts of Calgary and have slowly watched as a changing cultural landscape stripped them of their dialect.
In 2008, Starlight knew the band had to act and helped kick-start their first on-reserve Tsuut’ina language classes. Starting with children in kindergarten, the program has since expanded all the way to graduation.
“We either stop here and lament what’s wrong or say what’s right and go with what’s right,” Starlight said.
Students learn from each other under the guidance of two mentors. Starlight said the students who have taken the language classes have fared much better than their counterparts. Graduates aren’t completely fluent yet, but can hold simple conversations, and Starlight feels that he has started the base upon which to rebuild the language.
While he said many were hoping for full results within a few years, Starlight expects the program to outlive him by many years.
The program is internally funded through funds from the band’s casino, but Starlight said their greatest challenges have been their inability to make the program full immersion and generating enough community engagement.
In Saskatoon, University of Saskatchewan Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) director Chris Scribe said attracting kids when they are young is the best way to keep them engaged.
The university program has existed since 1972 and has produced around 2,000 indigenous teachers. The program fosters an indigenous approach to education while following the College of Education curriculum. The program has a 90 per cent graduation rate.
“Down the road, that number is maybe 70 per cent fail in other colleges,” Scribe said. “Our people need to feel that they’re welcome, that it’s a family atmosphere, and that they’re supported.”
In the past year and a half, they introduced oral language classes which were recognized by the Ministry of Education as an additional certification for the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation.
As many cultural stories, folklore and traditions are passed down by word of mouth, Scribe said an oral comprehension of the languages is crucial.
“If we don’t know the traditional names of our territories or rivers, we no longer have that connection to those lands because we don’t know their original name,” he said.
The conference runs through Thursday at the Saskatoon Inn.