Last speakers of Canadian native languages pass on their oral traditions

By Leah Germain

Credit: Angie Joseph-Rear, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in

When Percy Henry was a young boy, there was no TV or radio for his childhood entertainment. Instead, the resident of Dawson City, Yukon, remembers working at the community sawmill, where he was rewarded for his hard work with stories told by elders.

This is also how Henry learned to speak Hän (pronounced “Hahn”), the language of the First Nation groups located in Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska.

Now 85 years old, Henry is one of the last speakers of Hän and works with a language revitalization program through the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation to preserve both his culture and memories.

“I was taught [as] a kid,” Henry explained to Beyond Words. “I usually worked with old people and I learned to talk Hän.”

With only two fluent Hän speakers remaining in Dawson City, the Yukon Native Language Centre located in the province’s capital, Whitehorse, estimates there are fewer than 15 fluent speakers living in Alaska.

In 1991, a special program to revitalize the Hän language was launched in Dawson City and Henry was one of the first elders to volunteer with the program, helping to translate words from Hän to English.

Angie Joseph-Rear, the language coordinator for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation (and a former chief), has worked with Henry from the very start of the program. With more than 20 years’ experience working with fluent speakers, Joseph-Rear understands Hän, but can only speak some of the language.

“[Percy] said, ‘[you’ve worked] with us for so long, how come you don’t speak Hän?’” she joked.

“Sometimes I think, ‘too little, too late,’ but I have accomplished a lot. I can actually break down [the] language and a word and give the true meaning for it.”

Proficient at transcribing the language, Joseph-Rear explained that Hän is very different from English because it uses descriptions to identify places, people and things, while English generally has a word for almost everything.

The Hän language is just one of a number of native anguages throughout Canada that are threatened because fluent speakers are dying of old age.

Dr. Keren Rice, a University of Toronto professor, explained to Beyond Words why many of these First Nations languages are endangered.

“If you look at the conclusions that are drawn from census figures, what they point to is that only three key languages have the current vitality to survive [Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut],” said Rice. “What you find in a lot of [these] communities, as well as lots of other language communities, is that the languages are not being transmitted to the younger generation. Transmission is what the big deal is.”

According to a 2006 censusFootnote 1report published by Statistics Canada, in the First Nations population, 50% of seniors, 30% of adults aged 25 to 44 and 21% of children 14 years and younger can carry on a conversation in their ancestral language.

Rice listed several explanations for the declining proportion of First Nations people who can speak their native language, but one of the main reasons was the impact of residential schools.

Established in the early 20th century to assimilate the country’s First Nations population, residential schools used corporal punishment to enforce English, and banned students from speaking in their mother tongue.

“I think that some of [the elders’ unwillingness to speak their language] is the residential schools and what happened in the residential schools and the punishing of people for speaking their language,” explained Rice.

For the three remaining speakers of another endangered language, Lunaapeew, in Moraviantown Reserve located in southern Ontario, the violent residential school memories associated with speaking their first language are still very vivid.

“There is a lot of hurt and pain there,” said Velma Noah, the community’s language coordinator. “You have something that you think people can’t take away—your language—but they did.”

With encouragement from Noah, the three women have once again become comfortable speaking their native tongue after almost half a century of using English.

“It took me a good two years [for the women] to be free [and speak openly],” said Noah. “They’d spoken English for 40 years and they had no one to speak to in the language. It was an awakening and reminding them of the language.”

Noah has worked with the group of three women for the past six years, meeting for weekly sessions and working together on different projects, including translating over 40 children’s books from English to Lunaapeew for the local daycare and preschool.

Alma Burgoon is one of five remaining elders who understand the language and one of the three women who works with Noah. After learning Lunaapeew from her grandparents as a child, Burgoon, now 85 years old, is the only one of the group who can speak fluently.

“I’m very proud of [speaking Lunaapeew]. It makes me feel good,” she said. “It’s time to do something—we have to keep it going.”

When asked what her favourite word is, Burgoon laughed: “There’s a lot of words I like. I guess it would be ‘wulahtanamuw.’ That means being happy.”


Footnote 1

Specific information on Aboriginal people and the ability to speak an Aboriginal language from the 2011 National Household Survey will be released in 2013.

Return to footnote 1 referrer

Published on Monday, November 19, 2012

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