Aboriginal leaders say it’s important for them to give back the gift of language to their youth.
With time and distance separating them from everyday use, and English and French becoming the norm, the fear is the language will be lost, and with it, a huge chunk of their First Nations heritage.
This week Aboriginal leaders and education experts gathered in Thunder Bay for the two-day Regional Native Language Conference, where they focused on a theme of land, language, culture and community, the goal to work their way toward increased student success in schools.
Hosted by the Lakehead Public School Board and paid for by Ontario’s Ministry of Education, the conference has bold ambitions, said organizer Lynnita Guillet.
“Language is very important to First Nations people. It’s a part of who we are. It’s not separate from anything. It’s the structure of our belief system. And we need to be able to give that gift back to our children so they know they have a place where they belong in our schools, in our communities,” Guillet said.
And it is being lost, she said.
A perfect example was seen during opening day ceremonies, when one of the First Nation drummers stepped up to the microphone to speak a word of thanks.
He told the crowd he and his friends know a little of their language, but more often than not had to turn to elders for words to include in the drum group’s songs.
It’s all too commonplace, Guillet said.
“We’re looking at a phase of revitalization for our languages and we know that it’s going to take work. But it’s something that was taken away from us, from our children, and it’s important that we find ways that we can give it back,” she said.
How that’s accomplished is the big question, Guillet added.
It starts in the schools.
“This is one step,” Guillet said. “When we come together and work together, the collective knowledge and wisdom in the group is what will lead us forward. We know when we come together as people we are strong, so we’re going to move forward and find ways to come together and collaborate to develop as people and as teachers to support student learning.
“And in this particular case, in the area of Native language”
Schools aren’t doing a bad job already, she added, noting an implementation report produced by the ministry.
But there is always room for improvement.
“We know that in Northern Ontario we’re working very hard. And I can speak to Lakehead Public Schools and the work that we’re doing to make sure that we meet the goals that have been established in the area of creating working environments, working with communities and providing space and place for the revitalization of languages,” Guillet said.
Patricia Ningewance Nadeau has studied her own language and also French, Latin and German.
A longtime resident of Sioux Lookout, she’s now teaching Aboriginal language in Winnipeg, and says the best way is to do it conversationally.
It makes it a living language. And that’s important, she said.
“It’s good for the students to know their language because then they can identify as a Native person, a member of their community,” she said.
“They can go back and understand what their people are saying, their relatives. All the values of (their culture) are embedded in their language.”
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