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Finding The Words

Finding The Words

Indigenous languages are in decline. Every single one. But across the North, teachers and learners are dead set on keeping them alive because when a language is lost, we lose more than just a way of speaking.
By Elaine Anselmi
Jun 20
From the June 2018 Issue

Nature contains the creatures, plants, and elements of Nature that have named and defined themselves to my ancestors and are naming and defining themselves to me. My ancestors made my language from Nature. When I speak Yupiaq, I am thrust into the thought world of my ancestors.”
–Oscar Kawagley, Yup’ik anthropologist, teacher and actor

Right now, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation is rewriting the laws of its people to better align with Tlingit values. The new laws will be based on the stories of elders and their ancestors, and advocate for the land, air and water—all things encompassed by Lingít Aaní, which literally translates to ‘the land of the people’ or ‘world.’ But the people working on this project, like K’èdukà Jack, sometimes find themselves getting stuck.

Western legal documents tend to separate everything into neat categories: resources, humans, wildlife. “Lingít Aaní, that’s the whole world to us,” says Jack. “Even when we’re reading English interpretations of Tlingit stories, the translation creates these inconsistencies.” Deeper readings, though, convey a permeating equality. “Oftentimes we’re one in the same as all the living things.”

Much of the law-writing process involves translating stories from Tlingit, or working with English translations that have jumbled their meaning. “What we’re finding is that the only way to really convey those Tlingit laws or the Tlingit mindset surrounding those laws—the ways and laws of the land—is to use Tlingit,” she says. So far, the Taku River Tlingit team have been able to do this, despite the fact there are less than 50 fluent Tlingit speakers today in Yukon and northern B.C communities. It may be too late for others. In the Yukon, the Tagish language has essentially become extinct—Lucy Wren, the last fluent speaker, died in 2008. And there may be as few as two fluent Hän speakers left. What is lost when you don’t have the words?


Across Canada, Indigenous languages are under threat: Inuktitut, Ojibwe and Cree are the only ones not listed as endangered or vulnerable, by UNESCO. The reasons for this are many, from assimilationist policies and the residential school system to the pervasiveness of English through television and the internet. And  it’s not just a Canadian issue—Indigenous languages around the world are in decline. There is one common denominator: colonization. “That’s the one,” says Michele Johnson, a PhD in Indigenous language revitalization.

Johnson is the executive director of Syilx Language House in Penticton, B.C., which teaches Nsyilxcn, a language with less than  50 fluent speakers left. Here, a comprehensive language learning program runs over four years, based on a method developed at the Salish School of Spokane. In hours, the program mirrors a university bachelor degree and graduates a cohort of confident speakers, who are able to begin teaching their own classes while also continuing their own education.

This is one of just a handful of successful programs running in the country right now and Johnson credits the regular testing of students throughout those four years. Assessments are rarely used in Indigenous language training—it’s almost taboo to even suggest them, Johnson says. That means statistics relating to Indigenous language use are based heavily on self-reporting of speakers. If someone has just a basic understanding of a language from a few drop-in classes, they may self-report as a speaker. There’s no accounting for fluency and that tends to paint a rosier picture of the health of languages. It also means government funding isn’t always based on the success of a given program.

 Johnson shared the Salish School method with Jack in 2014 and, together, they translated the first two textbooks into the Tlingit language. Jack passed the method on to another young teacher, Sophia Flather, to instruct Gwich’in, a Dene language of the Yukon and the NWT’s Mackenzie Delta.

Like Jack, Flather had to create a textbook for her course—a daunting task when Gwich’in is not her first language. She referenced dictionaries from different dialects in other Gwich’in communities. “Otherwise,” she says, “I’d just go straight to the people who are fluent.” The role of elders who have shared the language, traditional place names, songs and stories, cannot be understated.

Flather grew up in Whitehorse speaking English, though her grandfather in Old Crow spoke Gwich’in. She took Gwich’in in high school, but it was nothing like the French immersion programming that built fluency. In 2014, she moved to Old Crow—Yukon’s northernmost community and the only one not on the road system. There, she started working on her Gwich’in program.

Every Wednesday for 16 weeks, Flather has taught an adult Gwich’in language course in Old Crow. She had eight students in January, which slimmed down to three by the end of the semester. Still, that’s a success—it’s three more people using a critically endangered language, with less than 400 speakers.

“I’ve never met an Indigenous person, essentially, who doesn’t want to learn their language.” -K’èdukà Jack

The program is open to anyone, but Flather says the ideal participant is a parent who will bring Gwich’in home to speak with their children. That’s critical to mastering it, says Marion Schafer, who spoke Gwich’in from childhood and now teaches it to children in Old Crow starting in Grade 2. While her younger classes are enthusiastic about the language, by Grade 7 or 8 that excitement tends to fade away. “It’s in the school curriculum,” she says. “But the parents phone in and say, ‘my child doesn’t have to come to Gwich’in.’” Often, the parents don’t speak Gwich’in themselves.

But Jack points out that parents shouldn’t be blamed—for many people, learning or relearning their language isn’t a luxury they can afford. “Oftentimes the ability to prioritize language is not an option when you’re just trying to get food on the table,” she says—not to mention if you’re already busy with post-secondary courses or just had a baby. And even when someone has the time to learn, Indigenous languages were so effectively taken away from people through the residential school system, there are a limited number of speakers remaining in some communities to teach them. Still, says Jack, “I’ve never met an Indigenous person, essentially, who doesn’t want to learn their language.”


It’s an April morning in Behchokǫ̀, a community of 2,000 an hour’s drive north of Yellowknife. Eleven students between the ages of six and seven are seated on the floor in front of Josie Sangris-Bishop. Pictures—a rainbow, a pig, a pair of moccasins, dryfish—ring the room with the Tłįchǫ name written underneath. A sign on the door asks that Tłįchǫ Yati be spoken beyond that point.

Grade 1-2 Tłi˛cho˛  immersion class in Behchokò˛, NWT. Photo by Stephanie Hansen/Up Here

The Grade 1-2 class sings along with Sangris-Bishop; Tłįchǫ lyrics on a chart in front of them. The song is Tłįchǫ ts’ǫ dǫ aht’e—I am a Tłįchǫ person. Sangris-Bishop hands out notebooks and reads as the students follow along. The first is ch. Then a word—chǫ (rain). And a similar sound—ch’—but with more of a click in it than the last. And then a word—ch’oh (a quill). They’ve coloured in pictures of the noun to paste at the top of the page. 

Some students can count up to 20 in Tłįchǫ Yati without help and they understand basic terms. These are the students whose parents or grandparents speak the language at home, says Sangris-Bishop. Having been in the class since September, most of them can ask permission to use the washroom, or for a glass of water or they can say ‘my name is…’ And they can sing along with songs and recite the prayers they hear daily.

The immersion program started six years ago at Elizabeth Mackenzie Elementary School, picking up on the mandate that flourished under Chief Jimmy Bruneau in the 1970s at his namesake school. Chief Jimmy Bruneau School is one of the first in Canada to be run by an Indigenous community. It was the Tłįchǫ who decided which teachers to hire and they replaced gym class and social studies with on-the-land hunting, trapping and fishing programs. “I have asked for a school to be built … on my land … and that school will be run by my people, and my people will work at that school and our children will learn both ways, our way and the white man’s way,” Bruneau said at the school opening in 1972. In 1990, a Tłįchǫ-English bilingual program started for students from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Grade 3 was the transition year into English classes. But this program gradually died out as instructors retired or took on other classes. All this aside, the language is still widely used in the four Tłįchǫ communities: in conversation, in business and in government.

Sangris-Bishop comes from a large family of leaders in the Yellowknife area, many of whom speak their language. “These people that finished school and, if they kept their language and culture, you put these together and they become a very strong person, as a Dene Aboriginal person,” she says. “And then they teach the community. They become a leader.” 


Jackson Lafferty, speaker of the Northwest Territories counts himself lucky to have grown up speaking Tłįchǫ and to have maintained it. “It came directly from home. When I first entered Kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English,” he says. “It was all Tłįchǫ language.” His teacher spoke both English and Tłįchǫ, helping him through that first year with a new language. When he attended high school in Yellowknife and lived at Akaitcho Hall, only English was spoken in class. He and his Tłįchǫ peers would speak their language after the bell rang, when they went shopping or to the arcade.

Jackson Lafferty, Speaker, Government of the Northwest Territories. Photo by Stephanie Hansen/Up Here

The NWT has 11 official languages and nine of them are indigenous to the territory. “Language is our identity,” says Lafferty. “It’s who we are and we need to promote more of our languages.” As a minister in previous governments, he led the development of an Indigenous language secretariat that allows people to access government services in their own languages. He regularly gave speeches in Tłįchǫ during session, with translators sitting in glassed-in booths that circle the chambers giving on-the-spot translation in English. Today, he often gives opening and closing remarks in Tłįchǫ. 

He wants to see government departments put more of an emphasis on Indigenous languages, specifically when meetings are held in communities. There are, after all, a number of fluent speakers in government who could at the very least be a part of community visits where their language is spoken, he says.

But the burden of revitalizing Indigenous languages should not rest solely with its speakers. As the Tlingit laws are rewritten, people who don’t understand the language are not exempt from abiding by the law. “If there’s something we cannot convey in
English, the expectation would be that you will learn what that Tlingit word conveys,” says Jack. “You would learn that in order to be a part of our negotiations, our policies, to work in our departments in our governments.”

Indigenous or non-Indigenous, residents have an obligation to understand and further the languages and the ways of the people of that territory, she says. An entire section of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action is devoted to Indigenous languages—the need for their preservation and the rights of Indigenous people to see their languages recognized in this country.

“A lot of people have said, ‘I’m here to stay,’” says Jack. “So what are our responsibilities to the traditions of this land and how can we work together to see that that’s honoured?”


There are three groups that encompass the dozen or so languages spoken across the North: Inuktut, Athabaskan and Algonquian. Differences within each language group come from the separation and movement of peoples and the development of new terms and ways of speaking most suited to their environment and belief system. Historical ties between peoples remain in their languages.

Early into his term as education minister, Lafferty spoke in front of a crowd of 500 in Navajo Territory, in the American southwest. The Navajo are distant relatives of the Tłįchǫ and their languages have many similarities. “I knew they understood some of our language, like the numbers, fire, house,” he says. “So I made a point of speaking my language.” Sure enough, at the end of his speech, some 30 elders came up to shake his hand and tell him they understood those words in Tłįchǫ. In small ways, the languages have not changed.

Every year, a group of youth, community members and guides paddle from Behchokǫ̀ , where the Tłįchǫ Government is based, to the Tłįchǫ Grand Assembly’s host community. Tammy Steinwand-Deschambeault recalls a trip in the late 1990s, led by then-octogenarian Jimmy Martin to his home community of Wekweètì. She found herself translating Tłįchǫ Yati for a group member who didn’t speak the language. “In the mornings when elders did prayer or when we stopped for a snack or whatever, any time the elders spoke, I translated for her,” says Steinwand-Deschambeault. She soon realized her translation couldn’t capture everything the elders were saying.

“When [Jimmy] talked about different things, like describing the land, describing our connection with those that have passed on when we’re at the gravesite and how we need to remember them and go about our duties in the bush,” she says. “Not only that, but how he explained the spirit of the land, those kind of things, it’s hard to explain in English.”

Steinwand-Deschambeault is the culture and language coordinator for the Tłįchǫ Community Services Agency. She recently defended her Master’s thesis in Indigenous language revitalization at the University of Victoria. Suffice it to say, she spends a lot of time thinking about languages. At home, she tries to speak Tłįchǫ Yati with her 10-year-old daughter as much as possible. And her department is launching a radio station to broadcast out of Behchokǫ̀  in English and Tłįchǫ, with the idea to have an elder tell stories in Tłįchǫ on-air and a youth work the switchboards and read the news in English. They’re just waiting for the studio equipment to arrive. 

I first met Steinwand-Deschambeault at a celebration for a mine remediation project on Tłįchǫ land. We were sitting around a fire and she was telling me a story about ‘the big animal.’ She used those words instead of bear, because in that moment, she didn’t want to call a bear to us. That’s the belief, she says—if you use its name, it will come.

She remembers one night sitting around the fire on the paddle to Wekweètì as the elders told stories about the songs in their language. Some of the students asked Jimmy Martin to sing. “He said, ‘I can’t sing. If I sing, everything is going to freeze up.’ Jimmy, in the language, has a song that is a gift to him to bring the cold weather. So, there’s these kind of things too that are part of the language. The language is used to carry these gifts.”