For 13-year-old Talix Kakakaway, learning his language is all about reclaiming his identity.
“I wanted to learn Nakoda because the Nakoda language is kind of going downhill. So I wanted to learn and tell other people to come and learn Nakoda,” said Kakakaway, who is also teaching his teacher a few words.
He is just one of dozens taking part in Nakoda language classes at Kisbey’s community hall. Nakoda is one of the traditional languages of the surrounding First Nations, White Bear, Pheasant Rump and Ocean Man.
“I have been learning this language for almost a month and a half so I’m getting used it. Some words are hard to say and some words I can’t say right but it’s a lot of fun, I like it,” said Kakakaway.
There are only six fluent Nakoda speakers left in southeastern Saskatchewan. They are all behind the push to help teach the language to the people.
“In our community, we only have one speaker left so for us, we are at the critically endangered end of the scale for the Nakoda language,” said Ira McArthur, Chief of Pheasant Rump First Nation.
Vincent Collette, associate professor of linguistics at First Nations University of Canada says there are only 100 fluent speakers left in North America. He says colonialism along with increased relations with the Cree affected the language.
“It started in the 19th century. When there was a smallpox epidemic in 1838 and so for the Assiniboine, their population was damaged by that. This language attrition was also just enhanced with the residential school trauma,” said Collette.
Work is being done to create a curriculum to revitalize the Nakoda language. One of the last fluent speakers in southern Saskatchewan, 69 year-old Armand McArthur is working with teachers from Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation to develop the lesson plan for the area.
“If you know your language, you know your culture, then you also know your identity so that’s very important,” said Armand, who also teaches Nakoda in the homes of many who want to learn the language.
Roger White Jr. is a teacher from Fort Peck Indian Reservation. White Jr. has been travelling to Saskatchewan for the last five years, working with elders and leadership to tie language with education in public settings.
“It’s really difficult as Native Americans when we don’t have that built curriculum and standardization for the public schools or universities so we are looking for grants in sustainable projects in our communities,” said White Jr. who helped create an eight-week Nakoda immersion summer camp in Fort Peck.
Pheasant Rump, White Bear and Ocean Man First Nation will continue coming together to teach the language. The next step is developing summer language camps for the youth so that the next generation can keep the Nakoda language alive and well.