Dorothy Buckley has a passion for teaching the language that was passed down to her from her ancestors, but she is concerned about its usage today.
“We’re losing our language,” she said. “As a small community, we need to encourage our own people to use the language as much as possible.”
Buckley has been teaching South Slavey in various ways and forms for over 24 years, and she won’t hesitate to confirm the language is used less and less these days.
According to the latest Canadian Census statistics, there are just over 2,000 South Slavey speakers.
March is Aboriginal Languages Month, which has been celebrated since the Assembly of First Nations created it in 1993.
Buckley teaches South Slavey by day as part of the Aboriginal Language and Culture Instructors Program at the Chief Daniel Sonfrere Community Learning Centre on the Hay River Reserve. By night, she teaches the language to anyone who is interested in learning.
Buckley started with 12 in the day class, but that is down to three.
“As a staff and as a class, we try to promote the language as much as we can by bringing in elders and organizing activities,” she said. “When they (elders) are here among us, they speak their language. You hardly hear them speak any English. But in the community, you’ll only hear it spoken here and there, only the basics.”
Some elders, she explained, are torn between a cultural divide that encourages English on one side and South Slavey on the other.
Doug Lamalice, a tour operator who takes Buckley’s day class, said it’s important for him to preserve his culture.
“I have children, some who are in their 20s and some who are becoming teens, and, if I don’t put the tools that I’ve learned for the continuation of my culture in their hands, I’m not living up to who I am as a Dene person,” he said. “When we pass away, all we have is our medicine bag and a blanket. Everything else is passed onto our families so they can make better use of it. We’re supposed to have the same mindset and do the same with our language.”
Lamalice said he uses the language at home with his family and tries to use it as much as possible in the community.
Buckley and Lamalice explained South Slavey is a very descriptive language, one that is verb-driven and connected to the land.
“When I get together with people and use my language, it has to be the most exciting and overwhelming feeling for me,” Buckley said.
Lamalice said there is a need for more community leaders to embrace the language, and use it in public situations.
“When certain members of the community do that, people gravitate towards them,” he said, explaining that it’s important to promote the language even if people don’t understand everything that is said. “We need to find ways to get people excited about using our language.”
K’atlodeeche First Nation Chief Roy Fabian said the language is an important part of the heritage for members of his First Nation, and gives them a sense of identity.
“The language was established with a relationship on the land,” he said. “It’s a very spiritual language and we need to try and maintain that sense of spirituality. I think, as a people, it’s our language that makes us unique.”
Frederic Beaulieu delivers the news in his native Chipewyan once a week on CBC Radio. As one of very few Chipewyan speakers in Hay River – he said there are only five or six – Beaulieu uses the language every chance he gets.
“I speak it with my older sisters because the younger ones don’t speak it,” he said. “I also use it often because I mingle with people from the other side of the river (Hay River Reserve). We can understand each other.”
Beaulieu said the same decline in usage of his language is taking place among the Chipewyan youth.
“I am sorry that I didn’t speak it to my own children,” he said.
Beaulieu said he and others are trying to promote the language in Hay River by bringing youth and elders together for monthly lunches organized by the Hay River Metis Council.
The second Aboriginal Languages Symposium, which brings together Aboriginal language speakers from across the NWT, will take place in Yellowknife on March 20 & 21 and will focus on language preservation and revitalization.
– Myles Dolphin