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New Blackfoot language signs coming to southern Alberta

An old article from the 1950s has inspired a new initiative that aims to help local communities and businesses across southern Alberta find their Blackfoot names to set up signs across the region.

Launched as a collaboration between an economic development group made up of 30 local communities called the SouthGrow Regional Initiative and Kainaiwa, Community Futures Lethbridge Region, Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance, and Tourism Lethbridge, this project hopes to spread awareness about the importance of preserving the Blackfoot language in communities across the province.

“I was looking through old documents and I found an article from the 1950s which basically said, ‘hey, did you know there’s Blackfoot language names for all the towns that we know across southern Alberta?'” said Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative.

“And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we had these Blackfoot names on our town sites and on different locations across southern Alberta?”

It didn’t take too long for Casurella and his team members to collaborate with like-minded groups and come up with a plan — the Blood Tribe officially sanctioned the program and the team worked to raise funds, collecting around $40,000 for the pilot project.

“It’s an 80 per cent matching grant to have signage created,” Casurella said, adding that they’ve seen a good response from local municipalities and are expecting to receive many more applications.

Spotlight on inclusivity

Casurella believes that such initiatives can help make things a lot more inclusive.

“From an economic standpoint, it just makes sense if we can do more work that allows more of our friends from Indigenous communities to be included in society and have the same opportunities that you and I have,” Casurella said.

“The more people that we can provide the same opportunities and same chances as everybody else by working on things like diversity and inclusion initiatives and breaking down systemic barriers that … have been ingrained into us since before our time, then we will have better economic outcomes across the board.”

A man in a grey suit smiles posing next to a blue banner with the company name SouthGrow written on it.
SouthGrow Regional Initiative Executive Director Peter Casurella believes that initiatives like the Blackfoot signage project can make things a lot more inclusive and open up opportunities for the Indigenous community. (Ose Irete/CBC)

He added that including Blackfoot signage across various communities in southern Alberta is also exciting from a tourism perspective and can inspire visitors to do a deep dive into local history.

“It just adds vibrancy and colour and interest to our landscape,” he said before adding, “There’s so much deep history to our land that we often forget just being stuck in our cities built of brick and mortar and … having our European histories behind us. There’s a lot more to learn and experience and see here.”

Crucial to preserve the language

Arnold Fox, director of Blood Tribe Social Development, thinks that it’s crucial to make conscious efforts “to preserve” and “revive” the Blackfoot language.

“At this point, I would say, and I’m taking a very optimistic assessment, maybe 15 to 20 per cent of our population still speak the language,” he said.

“A lot more people understand the language, like children and grandchildren, but they’re not at the point where they speak the language fluently.”

According to Fox, technology can play an important role in preserving the Blackfoot language — he spoke about coming across a couple of Blackfoot apps that are open to those who want to polish their language skills.

He added that the Blackfoot Confederacy organizes two symposiums every year and participants do their best to use the Blackfoot language in their presentations. They also attempt to come up with Blackfoot interpretations for newer words like texting.

Fox thinks that the Blackfoot signage project has the potential to make a lasting impression on locals and visitors alike.

“When I see the county of Fort Macleod say, well, welcome to the County of A kaa pio yiss, Fort Macleod … I’ll feel that much closer to that community,” he said.

“We [must] hang on to our language. It’s going to make our culture that much stronger. It’s going to make our identity that much stronger.”

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