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Revival of endangered aboriginal language empowers speakers in Yukon

Royally recognized efforts to restore the Kwanlin Dun's Southern Tutchone language reverses trauma caused by residential schools

Riley Vance is perched on a wooden horse in his Whitehorse-area daycare when he starts singing about tidying up in Southern Tutchone, an aboriginal language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers left.

The three-year-old's ditty is the fruit of an effort in Yukon's Kwanlin Dun First Nation to teach dozens of children words and phrases in the endangered language daily at a local head-start program. They now have the first ever children's book in the language.

"We're at a critical stage with our language with only a few fluent speakers left, so it's been exciting to have them singing nursery rhymes," said Erin Pauls, who runs the Dusk'a Head Start program.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge laugh as stories are read to children by Lorraine Allen, a Kwanlin Dun elder, at McBride Museum during the Royal Tour of Canada on September 28, 2016 in Whitehorse, Canada.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge laugh as stories are read to children by Lorraine Allen, a Kwanlin Dun elder, at McBride Museum during the Royal Tour of Canada on September 28, 2016 in Whitehorse, Canada.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Kwanlin Dun's work has received royal attention. Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sat down in Whitehorse in late September with 25 children, an elder and the Southern Tutchone children's book, which tells the story of William the moose searching for his son George. (The characters were named in honour of the royal visit.)

It is all part of an unprecedented effort by First Nations across Canada to save their struggling languages as fluent elders die off, the legacy of the residential school system's attempt to suppress indigenous culture. First Nations leaders say that with forecasts that half of their elders will be gone within six years, the added sense of urgency has been channelled into children's books, grade-school programs, smartphone apps and other initiatives.

Local leaders in Kwanlin Dün, a self-governing First Nation of 1,200 people who live in and around Yukon's territorial capital, say they had to act quickly or Southern Tutchone would face extinction.

While the instruction has helped slow the decline in speakers and has increased the quality of Southern Tutchone spoken on the streets of the Kwanlin Dun, councillor Sean Smith said the language is still at risk.

"We're losing three or four strong speakers a year. We only have about 50 left. It was critical we develop these language programs quickly," said Mr. Smith, who is teaching his 1-year-old daughter the language.

Ms. Pauls, the manager of Dusk'a Head Start, said the visit by the royals was surreal, as Prince William sat for nearly a half hour and spoke from the book in her community's endangered language. "They asked me if there were enough resources for language revitalization and the state of efforts. They were asking the right questions and they were funny and down to earth," she said after the visit.

Book cover for

A copy of the children's book, Hide and Peek, is now being given to each kindergarten and grade one student in Whitehorse. Funded in part by the Prince's Charities Canada, the Southern Tutchone book comes with an app that lets children see and hear it read by elder Lorraine Allen, who did the translation.

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The elder was moose hunting when the royal couple arrived and nearly missed the ceremony. She headed back to the hunt soon after. While the Kwanlin Dün's current teaching system revolves around elders, the children's book is an attempt to make the language instruction more sustainable over time.

"Statistics Canada forecasts that in the next six years, half the elders will be dead. There isn't a significant written history, a lot of languages are in a near-death experience," said Mike Parkhill, who wrote and illustrated the children's book.

Mr. Parkhill has helped create more than a dozen books in a number of aboriginal languages. He told The Globe he quit his job as an academic director at Microsoft when he learned about the state of many of those languages.

"It's not like Russian, where if you forget the language, you can go back to Russia and learn it," he said. "These words have been passed down over thousands of years, and people have to train for 20 years to get the stories right."

One of the projects he is helping with now is a computer program for Ojibwe communities in Northern Ontario that will give its users hundreds of possible conjugations in Ojibwe for more than 13,000 verbs.

While Ojibwe is a relatively healthy language with thousands of speakers, Brent Tookenay said he hopes the tool will help increase the vitality of spoken Ojibwe in small First Nations communities where English is often used.

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"The point was to have it in our schools so someone could look up, 'How do I go to the store,' and they'd know quickly," said Mr. Tookenay, who is the CEO of Seven Generations Education Institute, an educational program in Northern Ontario. Based in Fort Frances, Ont., the institute is helping create the tool.

"I don't know if it's in danger, but we're racing against time as knowledge keepers in our communities, our elders, pass on. Hopefully, this translator tool will help," he said.

Much of the First Nations language loss in Canada was caused by the residential school system, where a policy of assimilation led the federal government to fund schools that attempted to stamp out aboriginal languages. Traditional practices were banned, and survivors have reported that they were beaten if they were caught speaking the languages they learned at home.

"Many of the elders had such a bad experience in residential school that they … speak English to shield [the children]," Mr. Parkhill said.

The damage of the residential school system is still clear today. Many Kwanlin Dün elders who are still fluent in Southern Tutchone or Tlingit grew up in extremely isolated areas and were not sent to the schools.

Mr. Smith learned Southern Tutchone from his grandmother, who avoided the schools by living on the land. However, his mother and father were sent there. Teaching the once-banned language to the youngest generation is a way to make them feel empowered, he said.

"This is reversing residential schools, it's reversing what happened. It's so powerful for the elders to see that light," Mr. Smith said.

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan is leading an effort in B.C. to revive Chinook, a trade language invented more than 200 years ago to ease communications between coastal First Nations and settlers in the Pacific Northwest.

Chinook is not an aboriginal language but a highly simplified amalgam of aboriginal, English and French sounds. With only about 1,000 words, it is like a language "stripped to its underwear," according to Mr. Sullivan, who is currently a Liberal MLA.

"This is a time when aboriginal and non-aboriginal people came together and created something that we can be proud of. It was based on trade, not war. The whole history of British Columbia is in that language," he said.

Jay Powell, the last remaining speaker on the planet of Chinook, is pictured at the MOA at UBC in Vancouver October 14, 2016.

Jay Powell, the last remaining speaker on the planet of Chinook, is pictured at the MOA at UBC in Vancouver October 14, 2016.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The language once had more than 100,000 speakers, and has left place names and words that are still commonly used in B.C. today. However, only one fluent speaker is left, Mr. Sullivan said: Jay Powell, a 78-year-old former anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia.

"A lot of loggers knew it well and spoke it, especially after they had a few drinks. Up until 1975, it was easy to find people on the coast who spoke it. As far as I know, I may be the last person who is quite fluent. I might be a museum piece," Mr. Powell said.

As an anthropologist, his area of focus was First Nations languages of the north-west coast. He is also the last speaker of a language used by the Hoh Tribe in Washington State. He said he is concerned by what he is seeing as First Nations lose their elders.

"I've spent 60 years creating and teaching language programs and none has been a success," said Mr. Powell. "Every First Nations language in British Columbia is in trouble. We've been trying for a lot of years, and so far there aren't many people, if any, who have learned to speak a First Nations language to fluency from schooling."

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