Folio January 7, 2000
Volume 37 Number 9 Edmonton, Canada January 7, 2000

Project to save dying Chipewyan language

Aboriginal language on federal endangered list
as speakers dwindle in Canada

by Geoff McMaster
Folio Staff
Rice: restoring pride in the Chipewyan (Dene) language and culture with the help of the Daghida Project.
Rice: restoring pride in the Chipewyan
(Dene) language and culture with the
help of the Daghida Project.

An aboriginal language on the verge of extinction in northern Alberta may be brought back to life thanks partly to a U of A-based linguistics project.

With about $570,000 from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and $120,000 from the U of A, researchers will study the Chipewyan (or Dene Suline) language in the Cold Lake First Nations community. One goal of the project, called Daghida, a Chipewyan word meaning "we are alive," will be to help start an immersion program for Cold Lake children.

"We have a chance to start at ground zero and build this up to what it's supposed to be," says project co-director Alex Janvier, a renowned aboriginal artist and native of Cold Lake. Only a handful of people still speak Chipewyan fluently, he says, and those under 45 have only a sketchy knowledge of the language at best. "After 45 it's either been eradicated through the residential schools, or the family speaks only English in the house."

Between 3,000 and 10,000 people in Canada speak Chipewyan, mostly in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, says co-director and linguistics professor Dr. Sally Rice. At Cold Lake, only about 200 in a community of 2,000 know any Chipewyan at all. The language has been put on the endangered list by the federal government.

"At Cold Lake, if nothing is done, it will be gone in 15 or 20 years, when the group of speakers 60 and older die," says Rice. "They're the ones who knew it best. There is just no renewal, and we're trying to remedy that." In addition to the devastating legacy of residential schools, the influence of English-language television has been "disastrous" for Chipewyan. The bulk of the Daghida Project, says Rice, will be devoted to restoring pride in the Dene language and culture.

Janvier says he'd like to see children in grades one to four taught exclusively in Chipewyan, with English introduced as a second language in Grade 5. The Navajos in the southern United States have successfully revived their language with this formula, he says. Teaching it from scratch is a challenge since the language is enormously complex. A verb, for example, can have up to 10 prefixes. There are also no clean breaks between words, says Rice.

  "Aboriginal peoples are very concerned about their langauges disappearing off the face of the earth, and well they should be."

- Dr Heather Blair

The three-year Daghida Project will begin by establishing a language centre at Cold Lake. It will conduct linguistic and psycholinguistic research to see how the language is learned and will produce a Chipewyan/English dictionary, says Rice. The second phase will involve teaching the program to youth through mentoring programs with elders and introducing an immersion program in day care. University-level courses in the language will also be initiated at the U of A.

"Aboriginal peoples are very concerned about their languages disappearing off the face of the earth, and well they should be," says Dr. Heather Blair, who will be responsible for designing curriculum for Cold Lake schools. She hopes the Daghida Project will become a vital pilot for language revival across the country.

"There have been a handful of initiatives across the country in the last few years looking at language revitalization, but nothing with the kind of depth and substantial funding this has.It has a lot of potential in terms of community rejuvenation and not just language [renewal]."

Rice says the U of A is also trying to redress a long-standing neglect in the area of aboriginal teacher-training. The university hopes to deliver a community-based B.Ed. program in the near future, with a Cold Lake pilot. "We're trying to get native students attracted to the U of A."

A third component of the project will focus on the development of a Cold Lake Aboriginal Museum or interpretive centre and production of archival materials to preserve Dene culture. There are also plans for "culture camps" that will teach traditional skills such as trapping, fishing, gardening and crafts.

"A year ago, or six months ago, I think the whole community felt it was at rock bottom," says Rice. "This is perfect timing-it really feels like the tide is turning and all these good things are starting to happen. We're taking the ball and we're running as fast as we can."