“With every Elder gone, that’s one library gone.” That urgency translates to passion in Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Elder Alice Rigney’s work in revitalizing the Dene language in Fort Chipewyan.
She estimates there are only 25 or so Dene speakers left in her home community, including herself, so now she’s urging other Dene people to start openly speaking their language.
“My dream is that everyone who speaks Dene speaks it openly,” Elder Alice said. “I want more Dene speakers to come out and speak Dene openly and have fun at it because now we just have a few Elders left who speak the language.”
The residential school system is a major factor in the loss of Indigenous languages, such as Dene and Cree. As with all practices of Indigenous culture, speaking traditional language was harshly—violently—forbidden. Elder Alice recalls speaking only Dene at home with her parents until having to go to residential school at five years old, where she was told her language was that of the devil, and she was banned from speaking it.
“It was when I got into the Mission that I had to learn English, or not get a drink of water because I had to ask for it in English,” Elder Alice explains. “They really took our identity away, our language and culture, and now I’m bringing it back in full force.”
It was healing for Alice to reconnect with her culture, including her language, when she returned from the mission at the age of 19. She could understand the language, but being forbidden from speaking it meant she could no longer do so—at first.
“It was my granny who told me that if I spoke my language, my elders would know who I was, as I had lost my identity in the mission,” she said. “I understood the language; it was just a matter of putting the words together and it became my obsession.”
Elder Alice was able to swiftly reclaim her Cree language. She studied to be a social worker. Then her obsession with her Dene language took her back to the classroom—this time as a teacher. For years, she worked in Fort Chipewyan’s school, teaching Dene to kids from kindergarten to Grade Six. After retiring from the school in 2011, Alice wasn’t ready to quit teaching. She needed another avenue to ensure her language didn’t disappear from her community, so she approached her nation. For the past two years, she’s been teaching Dene online four days a week over the lunch hour.
“My students are mostly adults and we’re doing really good,” explained Elder Alice, who also teaches Dene to her grandchildren—and her dogs. “I speak to my dogs in Dene so they know the commands.”
As for her students, Elder Alice has seen the progress.
“Now my students, when we start the classes, we greet each other in our language,” she described. “I ask them how they’re feeling, (and) most times they say they’re fine, but now we go further. We have conversations in Dene.”
And it’s not just her students learning either. While Elder Alice learned how to speak—and even teach—Dene, she says she’s never been good at reading it and can’t quite do syllabics yet. Now, she can see a paragraph in Dene and is able to read it, and so can her students.
“It makes me richer, by far, to get to learn alongside my students,” Elder Alice said. “That makes me feel good—that I’m keeping my language alive.”
Elders keeping traditional languages alive
Mikisew Cree First Nation Elder Rita Marten is also doing her part in strengthening and revitalizing her language—Woodland Cree—in Fort Chipewyan, and beyond.
Elder Rita’s language is essential to her pride in her culture and heritage. Her parents were Philomene and Sal Marten—“traditional, authentic Cree people—genuine bush people,” she proudly calls them.
“We grew up on the land so, for us, the land was very much a part of us,” she recalled. “It was a beautiful, beautiful life.”
But then like many in her generation, Elder Rita was sent to residential school, where speaking Cree was forbidden. Just as with the Dene language, the consequences were devastating to the culture.
“Many people in my age group do not speak Cree,” Elder Rita explained. “They do understand, but some haven’t spoken it.”
Still, in 1970, when she began teaching Cree at the Bishop Piche School in Fort Chipewyan, there were many Cree speakers.
“When I first started teaching, most of the kids spoke really fluent Cree back in the day, because their parents were living in the bush,” Elder Rita recalled. “It made my language programs so, so beautiful.”
Elder Rita went from teaching in the classroom in Fort Chipewyan to a student in the classroom at the University of Alberta, getting a degree. Her lengthy and storied career also included working for the Athabasca Tribal Council in Fort McMurray as director of education. Wherever Elder Rita’s journey in life took her, all roads led to language revitalization.
“One of the Elders called me and asked me if I wanted to read this letter for him that his grandma wrote (in syllabics) years ago,” Elder Rita remembered. “He wanted me to say what it was. I read it and told him, ‘This is what it’s saying.’”
As she recalled the story fondly, she also was teaching a lesson and sharing traditional knowledge – passions of hers that are inescapable.
“Long ago, whenever you sent letters, people wrote in syllabics. They always said, ‘I shake hands with all of you’ – kitatamiskatinawaw – almost like, ‘I greet you all, I send greetings to you.’ Then they would write, ‘I kiss the baby’ – kahkiyo kiyawaw – that’s what they would say. Just about everybody who wrote syllabics would say that because kinship was so very important.”
It has been kinship that’s helped Rita along her own personal journey, keeping her rooted in her Cree culture.
“Of course, my parents were my mentors – anything I wanted to learn about the language, the history, I would run it by them, and they would validate it for me,” said Elder Rita. “I’ve been blessed to have two important teachers in my life. Now my brother – the oldest, he’s 85 – he’s also my mentor. We go to him for information and of course, all my sisters have the same sort of teachings. They’re all passionate about the Cree language and the history.”
While the number of Cree speakers is not what it once was in the aftermath of the residential school system, Elder Rita is hopeful for the future.
“Today now, I find it’s picking up – I hear that all the time,” she said. “Whenever I watch the news, it’s everywhere. Everyone wants to kind of revitalize or promote their language. I think that’s so important for the youth. It gives them a sense of identity, you know? It makes them proud to know who they are they are…it’s a beautiful thing to share.”
It’s the younger and future generations that keep Elder Rita motivated. She still works tirelessly, even from the confines of the Elders Home in Fort Chipewyan, where she’s lived since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, as its strict policies on visitors have helped keep her in good health.
In November 2019, Elder Rita was approached by Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief and Council to work on language revitalization, alongside two other Elders who were fluent in Cree, Elder Terry Marten and Elder Julia Gibot.
“One of the first things we decided to do was interview the Elders in town, all the way from Doghead Reserve to Allison Bay,” described Elder Rita. “We interviewed 68 Elders and most of them have told both Terry and Julia that it was so very important to retain our Cree language. They were very happy we were starting this project.”
“That gave us a lot of hope – to work with the Elders,” Elder Rita continued. “They’re a very, very good source of information. They are the traditional speakers. They know the language and, not only that, they grew up on the land so they know all about our way of life.”
The Elders used the information gleaned from those interviews to develop curriculum and resources to ensure Cree – specifically Northern Cree – and the region’s history are accessible and protected for the younger generations, today, and tomorrow. “Forever and ever and ever,” she added with a smile. Elder Rita said her team has compiled the information into a book that is about 95 per cent complete. Once it’s complete, the book will be published and available to the Mikisew community. Elder Rita hopes her community, including current teachers, will use the book as a resource.
“The reason why it will be a good curriculum resource is because the Mikisew Cree people – our ancestors – had given us sacred traditional values and sacred teachings,” she said. “They can use our book as a resource because each one of the Elders has a valuable message to their children. For me, the Elders speak volumes about our rich culture. That’s what we want to promote.”
In addition to the language revitalization project, Elder Rita continues teaching. She will generously help anyone who asks – whether it be her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or even the mayor. Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman is counted among her many students – and an attentive one, according to Elder Rita.
“We’re going to continue inviting people online and hope we have more people joining (the Cree classes) to participate,” she said.
Want to learn your language?
Both Elder Alice and Elder Rita are fierce advocates for their respective languages – and for the younger generations to keep it going.
“I just wish more and more young ones would start, not only in schools but to have a centre where you start bringing your children, to start speaking Dene with little children,” Elder Alice said, describing her dream for her community.
If you are someone who wants to learn their traditional language, whether be Cree or Dene or otherwise, both Elders say: start now.
“First of all, I’d thank them for their interest because that’s the only way it will carry on, is if a person is truly interested in learning the language,” said Elder Rita. “If we don’t teach it now, 10 years down the road, we may not be around. Learn Cree while you have the opportunity.”
“Don’t be afraid, challenge yourself to become a speaker. It’s fun!” Elder Alice added. “Try it. It’s rewarding to master a language.”
Elder Alice says, for the Dene people, their language just needs to be brought out.
“A few of my students were around their grandparents when they were little so they’re like me when I came out of the Mission…I understood the language, but I didn’t speak it,” she explained. “When I’m teaching them, I’ll say something and they’ll say, ‘I remember that!’ It’s there in the back of their mind – it just needs to be brought out.”
Elder Rita points beginners to the Cree syllabics as a “very easy way” for beginners to learn. She would love to see a keyboard for Northern Cree syllabics. One exists for the Plains Cree, but it differs from the local dialect.
Look for language lessons from your community or through agencies like the Athabasca Tribal Council.