‘There’s a real urgency’: Stoney Nakoda First Nation using new resources to preserve language

The Stoney Nakoda First Nation in southwestern Alberta is using the written word as a way to preserve its traditional oral language.

Stoney remains the first language for a majority of members on the three reserves making up the First Nation, which is about 70 kilometres west of Calgary.

The Stoney Education Authority introduced an advanced textbook and dictionary Monday to help teach the language in schools, along with a podcast where elders tell stories.

“This is needed because we are at a crucial time for language revitalization, especially for Indigenous languages here in Canada,” Cherith Mark, language and culture co-ordinator for the Stoney Education Authority, said Monday.

“Our language is in that realm of endangered so the need to document … our language is very important at this time.”

The Stoney language has traditionally been passed along orally, and there is a concern its use could fade once some of the senior members are gone.

About 1,500 students on the First Nation started using a basic Stoney textbook a few years ago.

Mark said students are eager to learn and having it written down will ensure the language remains for future generations.

“A lot of our speakers have learned the language at home, and this is how the language has always been passed down,” she said.

“Nowadays, we have young parents not speaking the language at home to their child because some don’t know the language.”

Two books are placed on a table
An advanced textbook and dictionary were introduced Monday to be used for teaching the Stoney language in school, along with a podcast where elders tell stories. (Tom Ross/CBC)

Virgle Stephens, 66, was one of a number of elders from the First Nation who helped develop the new books. Like with many of the elders involved, the Stoney language was spoken at home when he was growing up.

“I’m very proud to be part of this because we’re losing our language,” he said.

Stephens wants his knowledge passed along before he and the other Stoney speakers are gone.

“Maybe this is a new way to bring our language back by writing it down. We are working on it, and I hope the children of the next generation would use it because it’s for them.”

More advanced Stoney textbooks will be introduced in the future.

The Language Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to preserving Indigenous languages, has been putting the material together.

A man with long hair wearing glasses looks into the distance
Stoney Nakoda elder Virgle Stephens speaks about a new textbook of the Stoney language at a ceremony in Kananaskis. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“Many of the Indigenous languages were not written,” said Wilhelm Meya, the CEO of the Language Conservancy.

“Most of them learned orally, but writing is so important for learning, especially for a young, modern student who has access to all the other kinds of materials and resources for other languages.”

Bill Shade, superintendent for the Stoney Education Authority, said it’s important to teach the language before it’s too late.

“There’s a real urgency for First Nations people to keep their language and anything we can do to support that,” he said.

“We’ve heard from the elders, and they want their language to be kept alive, to be taught to all the children in the schools.”

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