…In celebration of Indigenous Languages Month. Let’s begin with daht’e? How are you? Would you love to speak more than one language? I would love to speak several languages! I remember Father Pochat, our late priest in Behchoko, spoke seven languages. As a child I was amazed with his talent, even more that he learned to speak Tłı̨chǫ and read it. Speaking more than one language can have benefits for everyone. Language is powerful; it provides a path of communication, builds relationships and creates connections to communities. Father Pochat proved that as he lived among the Tłı̨chǫ people. There are many reasons why language is important for everyone. Today I will give you an insight in to why I love language, why it’s important to my family and how it's embedded in me.
Norma Gauthier siyeh. I was born and raised in the Northwest Territories. I am a wife, a mother of three, and a teacher in the NWT. I am a third-generation survivor of Residential School. This is probably why I am passionate about keeping my Tłı̨chǫ language and culture intact. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to grow up listening and speaking two languages as a child. Having a strong identity is important to my family and me. It should be for you too! At least I hope it is. My grandmother once said, “There are many beautiful things that parents have passed onto their children and we become a very big person by it--we become a valuable person.” She was referring to language and culture. Now, as an adult my dream is to inspire my children to learn and speak as many languages as they can and to embrace other cultures in our world. Especially Gonaowoo meaning “Our Way of Life” in Tłı̨chǫ I want my children to have a strong sense of their identity, know their ancestors’ roots and Our Way of Life on the land. “Our language ties with the land, everything we do relates to the land”, are wise words once said by my grandmother. I can recall my mother telling me that her grandmother Marie once said, “In order to know who I am and where I come from? You must learn our language.” Therefore, learning my language and culture became important for me and hopefully someday for my children too. Eventually I hope my children and others will pass on their language, knowledge and values they are still learning today.
Balancing Indigenous and Western worldviews has always been a guiding principle for me. As an educator I enjoy learning from others and having the opportunity to teach my language and culture. Learning from my own family has grounded my identity, giving me a strong sense of who I am and my role in this world. One of the Dene laws is to pass on your teachings, which I try my best at, every day. My grandmother Elizabeth Mackenzie stated, “If we worked according to his (Chief Jimmy Bruneau) words…one person would be like two persons; one, knowing everything of the white culture and two, knowing of our ancestors’ culture. That person would become very strong, if we know everything like two persons, though we are only one person, there may be no one greater than us” (Dene Kede, 2003, p.3). My late grandmother and my own mother are both educators. I guess the apple didn't fall far from the tree, as I too became a teacher. I too wanted to be strong in both worlds. I want to be that parent/teacher that encourages and supports children on their learning journey so they may enjoy learning and speaking their language. “If the children are taught in both cultures equally, they will be Strong Like Two People.” That is Elizabeth Mackenzie’s mission statement for the Tłı̨chǫ, which I live by today.
Indigenous children were removed against their will from their families and sent to Residential Schools, which were in operation for over 150 years in Canada. They were established in every province and territory. Children were forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions and cultures. The plan was assimilation and the colonization of Indigenous people in Canada. As a result of this colonization, loss of language, culture and traditions are challenges to resiliency. However, today’s generation has a brighter future. We have Indigenous people wanting to learn and regain their language and culture. If we look at our history as Indigenous people in Canada, we understand why encouraging the resiliency of our children is important. The most important key to resiliency is ensuring our children develop a strong identity. I strongly believe creating new ways to encourage language as a society is vital for language revitalization. “The revitalization of Indigenous languages is a vital step in Reconciliation. It is the responsibility of every educator in the NWT to support efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages” (NWT Education, Culture and Employment, 2021). Learning a new language is not easy. It requires commitment and time. It can be fun; at the same time, it will help you to see the world differently. It teaches you to appreciate where others come from, improves cultural sensitivity and builds community relationships. Reconciliation is everyone’s job! We can all contribute to our communities just by participating and being present. If we all work together, we can be powerful in a shift change. It is about nurturing identity, facilitating well-being, honouring stories and songs, reconnecting with the land, and recognizing who we are as Indigenous people of Canada. All you have to do is say, “I am in! I am willing to learn more about another language and culture.” My grandfather used to say, “You’re never too old to learn and we all can learn a new word daily.” I encourage you all to learn a new word in an Indigenous language. To say, “Yes, I am going to learn something new today!” Utilize the resources that are available in our communities. Visit the elders and listen to their stories, participate in community events, attend cultural activities and go out on the land as much as you can. There are so many ways to get involved. I hope many of you will be willing to learn an Indigenous language. We have to remember one great gift the Creator gave us is Language, which must be used every day.
Masi Cho for reading my blog.
- Guest blog by Norma Gauthier, Tłı̨chǫ educator.