Virtual elder rekindles hope for language revival
Virtual elder rekindles hope for revival of Canadian aboriginal language
www.chinaview.cn 2009-07-23 08:04:37
by Xinhua writers Zhao Qing, Yang Shilong
OTTAWA, July 22 (Xinhua) -- It has long been a heart-broken yet helpless
reality for Canada's aboriginal people that their native languages, which
are at the very core of their identity, are disappearing.
The 2001 national survey by Statistics Canada suggests that just 24 percent
of North American Indians, Inuit and Metis can still converse in their
The situation becomes increasingly worse with the passing of the elders in
aboriginal communities. They actually are the only fluent speakers left as a
result of more than a century of abuse and mistreatment under the infamous
Canadian Indian residential school system.
The church-run, government funded system, founded in the 19th century, was
intended to force the assimilation of the country's indigenous people into
the European-Canadian society.
Fortunately, now the cutting-edge high techs are enabling the aboriginals to
make digital recordings of their elders and upload them on-line for training
the young generation, reigniting hopes to preserve the past and reshape the
One group of such people is the Ktunaxa Nation, who had a thriving culture
going back 10,000 years in southeastern British Columbia, about four hours
drive west of Canada's oil-rich city of Calgary.
With a population of about 1,500, the Ktunaxa has four bands in the East
Kootenay region, which are separated by hundreds of kilometers of
"When the elders are gone, we don't want to be in a position where we're
saying 'I wish we had'," said Don Maki, the Ktunaxa Nation's director of
traditional knowledge and language, in a recent interview with Xinhua.
Maki said they lost 24 of their 48 fluent speaking elders since 2002. Now
the oldest speaker is 90, and the youngest 72.
One of 11 language families in Canada, Ktunaxa is a cultural isolate,
meaning that no other language in the world is closely related to it.
Consequently, when it is gone, it is gone forever.
"We try to be as forward-thinking as possible ... we can create a virtual
elder who can sit around with the kids in the classroom," he said.
The Ktunaxa have been digitally archiving their language since 1999 and they
built their own broadband network in 2007 in order to make a better use of
these language training resources.
The 7.7-million-Canadian-dollars (about 7 million U.S. dollars) Ktunaxa
Nation Network is currently the only native-owned open-fiber-to-the-home net
work in North America, providing speeds of 100 megabits per second to each
"We're now wired like no other community in North America," Maki said. "Not
many people get a chance to change the course of predicted history, but with
hard work and fiber, we will."
Four community learning centers has been set up in each of the Ktunaxa
communities, all of them are equipped with high speed internet and
video-conferencing devices. Specially trained staff there offer online
educational classes or technical assistance to band members.
Young Ktunaxas can use First Voices, a free database that hosts interactive
community-built dictionaries, story and song libraries, etc., to look up
words or phrases to hear how they are pronounced. So far a total of 2,487
words and 849 phrases of the Ktunaxa language have been inducted into the
database. Online language courses for credit are also available with the
cooperation of a local college.
One of the learning centers was housed at the basement of the main building
of St. Eugene Mission Resort, about 10 kilometers from Cranbrook, British
The casino and golf resort, now owned and operated by three nations
including Ktunaxa, is a former residential school where Ktunaxa children
were sent to learn "civilized ways" between 1910 and 1970. They were
forbidden to speak their own language and were punished if they did.
For the Ktunaxa people, turning the school into a resort represents an
effort to turn the pain of the past into a positive symbol of strength and
However, Dorothy Alpine, Ktunaxa language translator at the St. Eugene
center, said that it is more important to keep their language alive.
"Without our language, we're nobody," Alpine, 63, said. "If we continue as a
nation, we have to speak our language."
She said she got very excited when she heard younger people speak Ktunaxa,
and she hoped that a young translator could take her place when she retires
in a few years.
Jesse Thomas, who goes to college this fall, is volunteering to be a new
interpreter at the language center.
"I know it's tough to learn the language," he said. "My grandma teaches me
every day, and I'll try my best."