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Virtual elder rekindles hope for language revival

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  • Rob Schmidt
    http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-07/23/content_11756381.htm Virtual elder rekindles hope for revival of Canadian aboriginal language www.chinaview.cn
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 22, 2009

      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
      ancestral tongue.

      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
      mountainous terrain.

      "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."
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