Why bother including First Nations languages in curriculum?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 10, 2015

“My language helps me to feel like I belong somewhere, helps me feel proud of my culture and reminds me I am part of an important history and future.” —Terry Fox, Morley, PhD candidate, University of Victoria

Is one’s heritage language really that important for a sense of identity and self-worth? That question was at the heart of last week’s column on an Elder-based approach to Stoney Nakoda language learning in the Morley school system.

In that column, I quoted Stoney Elder Tina Fox, a member of the school’s Stoney Nakoda language curriculum committee, as saying, “If we lose our language, we lose ourselves.”

Duane Mark, committee member and classroom teacher of Stoney at Morley, responded with enthusiastic gratitude for that column. “Positive info regarding Stoney language and culture presented to the media is empowering and inspiring to Stoney readers and some mainstream,” he said. “Wathteno (Good)!”

Not all of our readers agreed, however. Some had a real problem with equating language usage with personal identity.

One of our coffee companions, a healthcare professional in another province, has worked with many socially distressed urban people of First Nations heritage and argues that education should focus on economically beneficial life skills, and not on ancestral languages.

“How would knowing the Stoney language help anyone sitting on a blanket on a downtown street corner?” she asked.

I raised this question with Tina, a healthcare professional herself with a bachelor’s degree and a long track record of community service at Morley.

“This type of colonial attitude still exists today even within our own people,” she said. “I have heard parents ask, ‘What good is the language going to do for my children outside the reserve?’ I find this sad.”

Well, I thought to myself, what about Tina’s own children? I asked two of them.

Tina’s daughter Terry Fox is just now completing a PhD in Public Administration at the University of Victoria.

“As a fluent Stoney Nakoda speaker, my language helps me to feel like I belong somewhere, helps me feel proud of my culture and reminds me I am part of an important history and future,” Terry said.

“I am finding that in Stoney, the further we get away from our language, the further we are getting away from our traditional teachings, cultural values and principles. Many young Stoneys don't speak the language and appear to be unaware of the values and principles that once sustained us and kept our society strong and functional.”

Then on a personal level, she added: “How has the Nakoda language helped me? Well, when I have problems, my mind tends to go back to Stoney teachings, values and principles, which were taught to me in the Nakoda language. It's those teachings, values and principles that have helped me overcome problems and live a good stable life.”

This is not about assimilation into the mainstream, she said. It’s not about having to choose between heritage and modernity. It’s about having one’s feet firmly planted in both cultures.

Tina’s son Trent is just beginning his own PhD program in Stoney Nakoda studies. He responded:

“First Nations scholar Dr. Verna Kirkness states that language is culture, and culture is language. Through language, the culture, songs, prayers, traditions, folklore, and oral history are captured and maintained.

“A history of colonization and racial oppression has affected First Nations people in different ways. For example, the residential school process where FN children were socialized to develop negative self-views has had lasting effects. These include a loss of language, identity and a sense of self-worth as an FN person.

“Identity then, becomes very important for the holistic wellbeing of an individual. There are many who have lost their language, culture and identities as FN people. In the healing process then, many find help in reconnecting with their heritage.”

Respect is the key traditional value in the Stoney Way. Tina and her colleagues believe the Stoney Nakoda language, with its stories, wisdom and humour, is important for passing this value on. That’s why they are committed to including within the larger school curriculum a special component that celebrates the language, including its songs.

Songs? That brings us back to the reader’s question about how knowing the Stoney language could help anyone sitting on a blanket on a downtown street corner.

Trent notes that many First Nations people retain ceremonial songs in their languages, even if they don’t otherwise speak it.

“For an FN person sitting on a downtown street, singing a prayer song, a powwow song, or a round dance song in their language just might help them” – and comfort them.


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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