Language

In this section, you will learn about Indigenous languages in Alberta.

Introduction

Culture and language are intrinsically linked; language is culture. Language encapsulates worldview, teachings, identity, spirituality, history, ancestors, and connection to the land.1  “Indigenous languages contain knowledge about these lands, the earth, and how to live in harmony with it and each other.”2   Language influences relationships. “We understand the world in terms of relationships, so when others came to share our lands we treated them as we would treat our relatives: according to our respect, kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness.”3  

Diverse Languages

Diverse Indigenous languages have been spoken across the land since time immemorial.  There are three language family groups that are original to this land now known as Alberta: Algonquian, Athapaskan, and Siouan.  The Algonquian language family group includes Cree and Blackfoot. Athapaskan includes Beaver, Denesuline, Tsuut’ina and Dene Tha.  The Siouan language family group includes Assiniboine and Nakoda.  Many other Indigenous languages are also spoken by Indigenous Peoples who are from other parts of Turtle Island and have made Alberta their home. 

Métis

Michif, the distinct language of the Métis, is spoken in Alberta and throughout the Métis homeland. According to the Métis Nation of Alberta, “Michif is the language spoken exclusively by Métis, who are the descendants of French fur traders and First Nations women, dating back to days of the Red-River Settlement in Manitoba. The Michif language is a combination of French nouns and Cree verbs and is spoken by Métis in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and in the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories.”4   The Indigenous Peoples Atlast of Canada explains that “Métis spoke their own languages as well as a variety of First Nations and settler languages. Today, the Métis may speak Michif as well as Cree, Saulteaux , Dene and various settler languages. Besides speaking several First Nations and European languages, the Métis also invented Michif, French Michif, Northern Michif and Bungi (a Cree/Scots-Gaelic Creole).”5  

Inuit

Inuit language is called Inuktut, which was the term chosen by the Inuit government to unify all of dialects spoken in Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.6 Inuit Nunangat represents Inuit and Inuvialuit from all four northern regions. Alaskan and Labradorian communities may not be able to easily communicate although communities that are close in proximity can understand each other’s dialects.7 “Vocabulary and pronunciation vary from place to place and between generations. Up until 50 years ago, most Nunavut Inuit lived in isolated camps where distinct speech forms evolved. As they settled into permanent communities, speakers of varying dialects often became neighbours in the same hamlet…Today, fluent speakers in all parts of Nunavut can normally understand each other with only minor difficulties.”8  

Decimating  Languages

“Prior to European contact there were approximately 300 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada; of these 70 are still spoken. Statistics Canada 2016 census data showed that only 15.6 percent of the Indigenous population reported being able to conduct a conversation in an Aboriginal language.”9   

 

Aggressive assimilation policies and attitudes attempted to forcibly decimate Indigenous languages. In residential schools, Indigenous students were taught that their languages were inferior, unsophisticated and, in many cases, ‘evil.’ “Our languages were strictly banned within residential schools, and this was enforced by harsh physical, mental and emotional punishment.”10    Negative perceptions gave rise to justifications for devaluing Indigenous languages to the point where many Indigenous Peoples choose not to pass down their mother tongue for fear of harsh punishment, exclusion, and ostracization. Pam Palmeter explains the long-term effects these policies had: “Indigenous identity is so bound up in culture, language, territory, family, community, and history that the denial of any one of these factors can have traumatic effects on an individual’s identity and sense of self.”11   The demeaning of Indigenous languages has resulted in generations of people who have been severely disconnected from inherent worldviews, connection to land, stories, and terms of endearment embedded in language. 

The president of  Nunavut Tunngavik Inc (NTI), Aluki Kotierk, states“Education in Nunavut has a history of cultural genocide, linguicide, econocide and historicide, and this continues today.”12   According to a report done for NTI, Nunavut’s poor record in Inuit language education is related to many harms, including “econocide” (making people poor); “historicide” (exclusion from history); “ecocide” (killing the environment) and “linguicide” (killing a language.) 13  

Language Resurgence

Indigenous languages are resurging as concerted efforts are made to create accessible resources for language learners. There are books, apps, websites, videos, and posters readily available. Educators can make efforts to seek the original language of the land in which they are on and find opportunities to weave in language learning throughout subject areas. For example, there continue to be many original place names that are common to the average Albertan such as ‘Wetaskiwin’ which is Cree word derived from wītaskīwin-ispatinaw meaning ‘the hills where peace was made’. Seeking and teaching examples like this creates opportunities to learn about language origin, meaning, and story, which is one way of igniting deeper understandings of Indigenous languages and history. There are many ways to access, incorporate and celebrate the resilience of Indigenous languages. One of the most important is to develop relationships with Indigenous language speakers who will help nurture reconciliation and provide entry points for further learning. 

 

Survive and Thrive

Although many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit who attended residential schools and day schools were severely punished through extreme physical and emotional abuse for speaking their language, Indigenous Peoples and languages have survived.

Indigenous languages are sophisticated, beautiful, and rich. “Given the fact that language and culture are inextricably woven, it is important for educators to be aware of the link between language, culture, and identity for many Indigenous students. Language connects people to their families, history ancestors, elders, knowledge keepers, stories and land.”14   Presently, community-based programs are making strides in language revitalization. Within education systems, the movement towards immersion is backed by research showing that immersion is the most effective method for language acquisition.15   On the world stage, the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, stating that Indigenous languages “matter for development, peacebuilding, and reconciliation.”16   The sentiment continues beyond the scope of 2019 and, with renewed focus moving forward, Indigenous languages will thrive and flourish.

Reflection

  • What Indigenous languages are spoken or taught in the communities in your jurisdiction?

  • How can you engage with Indigenous language speakers to demonstrate the value of and support the delivery of Indigenous languages within your jurisdiction?

  • What funds, policies, and procedures are in place to support language learning within your jurisdiction?

Related Resources

This document provides some background on the systematic taking of Indigenous languages as well as wise practices for language revitalization.

Husband and wife, the Late Narcisse Blood and Alvine Mountain Horse, speak in Blackfoot about how knowledge of land is considered sacred and the connection between land and language.

Data on people in Canada who identified as Indigenous language speakers in the 2016 census.

A visual representation of 2016 census data showing Indigenous languages spoken across Canada.

As co-chair of a Curriculum First Nations, Métis and Inuit Advisory Committee meeting, Wayne Jackson speaks about the importance of preserving the Cree language and culture.

Elder Mary Cardinal-Collins speaks on kinship through the Cree language.

This video provides tips for those who do not speak Indigneous languages to support Indigenous language revitalization.

Learn about our Michif Revitalization Project.

Explore Heritage Michif Lesson plans created by Métis Educators for grades K-9. The interactive activities will help educators build their foundational knowledge about the Michif language while engaging and introducing students to a unique Indigenous Language.

Narcisse Blood speaks to the connection between language and worldview from a Blackfoot perspective.

A young man from the Siksika Nation has started his own clothing line in order to generate revenue to support language revitalization among youth in his community.

This article explores the role of public schools in supporting the revitalization of Indigenous languages.

This article reports on Tsuut’ina language classes aimed at language revitalization. The classes were taught by Tsuut’ina Language Commissioner Elder Bruce Starlight, who shared that, “Our language is holy, it was given by the [C]reator.”

This article delves into some of the complexities around original Indigenous place names, and the erasure that has occured since contact.

This article features an app developed by the Gabriel Dumont Institute aimed at Northern Michif revitalization.

This podcast explores the wide range of initiatives that are in place aimed at Indigenous language revitalization.

The United Nations’ website for the International Year of Indigenous Languages features information about the importance of Indigenous languages as well as links to further resources.

First Voices is a suite of web-based tools and services designed to support Indigenous People engaged in language archiving, language teaching and culture revitalization.

ASBA Indigenous Advisory Circle Elders discuss how identity is tied to language and how important the teaching of Indigenous languages is for young people.

This website features authentic ancestral Ĩyãħé Nakoda language and insights into culture and identity of Ĩyãħé Nakoda.

A web page dedicated “To use technology and community participation to Modernize, Expand, Revitalize and Localize (MERL) Indigenous languages in Canada, and to help our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities produce more language speakers tomorrow than exist today.”

The Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) works with Michif speakers to preserve and promote the three Michif languages spoken in Saskatchewan: Michif, Michif-French, and Northern Michif.

An Inuit Language resource with language maps and explanations.

An app used to assist in learning basic Plains Cree words.

An app to assist in learning the Stoney Nakoda Language.

An app to assist in learning the Denesųłįné Language.

An app to assist in learning the Blackfoot Language.

An app to assist in learning the Michif Language.

Footnotes

1Linguistic Ideologies of Native American Language Revitalization: Doing the Lost Language Ghost Dance. David Leedom Shaul. Springer, 2014. P. 3
2Makokis, L.J., Shirt, M.v., Chisan, S.L., Mageau, A.Y., Steinhauer, D.M., mâmawi-nehiyaw iyinikahiwewin. Retrieved from http://www.bluequills.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/BQ_SSHRC_2010_final_report.pdf
3Leona Makokis, Diana Steinhauer, James Lamouche “Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge, Our Languages Guide Us in our Relationships”, (Blue Quills FN College, St. Paul, Alberta, 2007)
4 Métis Nation of Alberta. “Michif.” Retrieved from http://albertametis.com/culture/michif/.
5anadian Geographic. Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. Retrieved from https://indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/languages/
6Inuktut Tusaalanga. “What is Inuktut?” Website https://tusaalanga.ca/node/2502
7ibid
8ibid
9Statistics Canada. “The Aboriginal Languages of First Nations People, Métis and Inuit.” Statistics Canada. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016022/98-200-x2016022-eng.cfm.
10 ibid
11Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol. 1: Summary. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Ltd., Publishers, 2015), 1–6 and 83–87. Retrieved from www.trc.ca/ websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/ Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf.
12Palmater, Pamela. “Genocide, Indian Policy, and Legislated Elimination of Indians in Canada.” Aboriginal Policy Studies. Vol. 3, no. 3, 2014: 28. Retrieved from https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/aps/index.php/aps/article/view/22225/pdf_22
13Bell, J. April 2019. Nunatsiq News. Nunavut’s education system “constitutes cultural genocide,” says Inuit org https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/nunavuts-education-system-constitutes-cultural-genocide-says-inuit-org/
14Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., Dunbar, R., nd. Is Nunavat Education Criminally Inadequate? An analysis of current policies for Inuktut and English in Education, international and nation law,linguistic and cultural genocide and crimes against humanity. https://www.tunngavik.com/files/2019/04/NuLinguicideReportFINAL.pdf
15Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010. http://www.fpcc.ca/language/status-report/ First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council Language Program. Language and Culture Immersion Programs Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.fpcc.ca/files/PDF/language-immersion-handbook.pdf
16International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019. Website: https://en.iyil2019.org/