As a child, Alice Rigney often listened to her grandmother speak Dene but could not always understand her grandmother’s stories and teachings. Rigney spent 10 years at the Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, where she would be punished for speaking Dene.
She remembered some words and phrases after leaving the school, but was no longer a fluent Dene speaker. That changed one day at a campfire when her grandmother said, “If you speak your language, your elders will know who you are.”
Rigney began relearning her language in her early 20s. Now, as an elder with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), she teaches a Dene curriculum at the Athabasca Delta Community School in Fort Chipewyan. Rigney is part of a network of local elders teaching Dene and Cree languages, and will begin teaching adults with an online course.
“There’s a real push to start teaching now. I’ll always speak my language and I know that’s something that no one can take away from me,” said Rigney. “But it’s something that’s not mine to keep and I need to share it.”
March 31 is National Indigenous Languages Day, and the Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC) is hosting its first events for the day online. There will be workshops in Dene and Cree, and a sharing circle hosted by Willis Janvier of the Dene Yati Podcast.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says three-quarters of Indigenous languages in Canada are “definitely,” “severely” or “critically” endangered.
The most recent data on languages in Canada comes from the 2016 census, which found 20 per cent of First Nations people can converse in an Indigenous language. This is a six per cent drop from 2006.
Karla Buffalo, CEO of ATC, hopes the event will encourage people to relearn Dene and Cree. Offering people a chance to questions about the language and hear dialects is rare, she said.
“Language and our connection to land is at the heart of the ability to live and celebrate our culture,” said Buffalo. “For Indigenous Peoples, having a connection to our traditional territory is one piece of it but being able to speak your language and pass that language on to future generations is securing the revitalization of our people.”
Elena Gould, ATC’s director of education, culture and language, hopes the event sparks a larger language movement in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area. Gould said relearning Cree has let her reconnect with her identity. Her father went to a residential school and did not teach his children Cree because he was taught not to speak the language.
“My father thought he was protecting me from speaking Cree,” said Gould. “For us to continue to grow and be resilient nations, individuals and communities, we need to reconnect with who we truly are.”
Elder Rita Marten of the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) knows of 50 MCFN elders who are fluent Cree speakers. With young people, she sees excitement and an eagerness to reconnect with their language and culture.
“Language and culture are entwined and you cannot separate them,” said Marten. “You need to know where you came from, you need to know your history and your family roots in order to be proud of who are.”
Marten is involved in ATC’s virtual celebrations and is a leader with MCFN’s language revitalization program. This program began in 2019 and is working on many language projects. These include developing Cree calendars, educational videos, lesson plans for teachers and an elders’ legacy book. The book will include teachings from 68 elders interviewed for the project.
Other Indigenous communities are teaching language through regular gatherings with elders. Before COVID-19 restrictions, McMurray Métis hosted Cree Chat, a weekly coffee night where elders and community members came together to speak Cree. Many people attending Cree Chat found card games to be a good way to practice numbers and conversations.
“If we gather and try to speak our language again, it will come back,” said Lorraine Corrigan, a McMurray Métis elder. “If you don’t speak it, you forget it.”
Gail Gallupe, president of the Local and a regular Cree Chat attendee, said learning Cree is one of the best ways to take pride in her heritage.
“It’s a language that we’re afraid we’re going to lose,” said Gallupe. “Taking time to learn show that you’re willing to carry it forward for future generations.”
McMurray Métis spokesperson Melanie Walsh regularly practices Cree so she can converse with elders. She plans to join Corrigan at every Cree Chat once in-person gatherings are allowed.
“Does it ever make me smile when I can greet elders in Cree and you see a twinkle in their eye,” said Walsh. “It’s part of bridging the knowledge gap between youth elders and we can do that through language.”