A coffee-cup blessing for the Stoney Nakoda language

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 6, 2008

This year, 2008, has been proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Year of Languages. In a fortuitously related action, the U.N. General Assembly has also proclaimed Aug. 9 as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. To celebrate both proclamations, I’m making this week’s column a salute to one of North America’s truly vibrant and important indigenous languages spoken right here in our part of the Bow Valley: the Stoney Nakoda language spoken at Morley.

Stoney, as most of our coffee companions are aware by now, is part of the Nakoda branch of the great Sioux family of languages in use from time immemorial across the Prairies and Great Plains. Stoney Nakoda is a sister dialect to Assiniboine, spoken in Saskatchewan and Montana. The Nakoda branch is one of three major divisions of Dakota Sioux, each division distinguished by the use of a characteristic consonant – /d/, /n/ and /l/ – in cognate words, such as the name speakers use for themselves: Dakota, Nakoda, and Lakota.

Like so many indigenous languages around the world today, Stoney, with only a couple of thousand speakers, is considered an endangered language. When I first began studying Stoney in 1965, virtually every person at Morley spoke Stoney. In fact, it was pretty much the only language spoken by preschoolers and old-timers. Among all age groups, all conversation at home, work and play was in Stoney. Band Council business was conducted in Stoney, and all kinds of delightful storytelling and jokes were in Stoney. Except for the school classroom – indeed, one Indian Affairs school teacher at the time even said to me, in front of his students, that the students’ parents should be locked up for not speaking English at home – it would be fair to say that all the rest of life happened in the Stoney language.

That is not the case any longer. Elders as well as Stoney language instructors at Morley are observing more and more students entering school with no speaking ability in the language of their heritage. Sports and playground conversations are in English. Grandparents are running up against a language barrier between themselves and their grandchildren. The old-time storytelling in Stoney is becoming a thing of the past.

I first began noticing this major change in language usage in the mid-1970s. In spite of Morley education policies increasingly sympathetic to Stoney language usage and retention, the pressures from other areas to use English became overwhelming – from radio, television, CDs, videos, newspapers, magazines, and inter-community rodeos, powwows, church services and marriages.

True, Stoney is nowhere near extinction, unlike over half the indigenous languages of North America that were around at the arrival of the first Europeans. But the danger signs are there. And what would be lost if Stoney became extinct? Not only the beauty of the language itself, but also the collective memory of a people who have come to understand this land and each other in ways that the Stoney language alone can respectfully represent.

And more than that, the loss of one’s mother tongue is the loss of personal identity. For as so many elders at Morley have taught me over the years, “You are what you speak.”

Which brings me back to the U.N. Secretary General’s proclamation of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People in connection with the riches of linguistic heritage. The proclamation reads:

“As 2008 is the International Year of Languages, this International Day is also an opportunity to recognize the silent crisis confronting many of the world’s languages, the overwhelming majority of which are indigenous peoples’ languages. The loss of these languages would not only weaken the world’s cultural diversity, but also our collective knowledge as a human race. I call on States, indigenous peoples, the UN system and all relevant actors to take immediate steps to protect and promote endangered languages, and to ensure the safe passage of this shared heritage to future generations.”

For further reading on indigenous languages of the world, I recommend Ethnologue: Languages of the World (www.ethnologue.com). Edited by longtime coffee companion and fellow linguist Raymond G. Gordon, Jr., this “encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world’s 6,912 known living languages” provides valuable information about each language, such as language family, where spoken, and extent to which it is spoken. Ethnologue is also available in book form.

I’ll close with a coffee-cup toast to the Stoney Nakoda language in the words of another endangered language, Vulcan, as spoken by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock: “Dup dor a'az Mubster,” “Live long and prosper!”

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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