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Stoney Nakoda word collection helps preserve language for future generations

Stoney Nakoda elders are recordings words and spellings from their native language, which will be used by future generations of the First Nation, keeping the language alive.

Elders take turns saying Stoney Nakoda words into a microphone so future generations can use the recordings to learn correct pronunciations and inflections. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Stoney Nakoda elder Terry Rider leans forward and carefully pronounces a Stoney word into a microphone.

It’s a big responsibility for him and the four others gathered in one of several booths in a back room at the Stoney Nakoda Resort & Casino west of Calgary.

The recordings and spellings they provide will be used by future generations on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, keeping the language alive in that community.

The rapid word collection event, a partnership between the nation and the U.S.-based Language Conservancy, ran for 10 days, collecting over 10,000 words from elders across all three Stoney bands.

“The main focus is to collect enough words to produce resources for our students, especially at the Grade 1 level,” said Bill Shade, superintendent of the Stoney Education Authority.

“It’s very difficult to find resources that are in Stoney Nakoda for this region, and we’ll now own the property rights for these resources for our schools,” said Shade.

Wall charts keep count of the numbers of words collected each day. The total was over 10,000. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Shade says that while most knowledge tends to be passed on verbally in First Nations culture, it’s important to have languages written down.

He says knowledge and use of the Stoney language varies from family to family across the Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley bands.

The resources and learning materials the collection event builds will be vital for the language’s future health.

As well as benefiting students, the project has also given the community a huge sense of pride in securing their language for future generations, he says.

“They are very excited. They’re also very worried about quality, they are very meticulous about spellings, pronunciations and meanings. They want it done right,” said Shade.

The event was so popular, some who wanted to share words were turned away. Around 30 elders per day have been turning up to contribute.

“We have eight or nine groups coming every day for 10 days, and we have scribes in each group working with fluent speakers using an automated online collection tool. So they’re all going into a database,” said Katie Norman with the Language Conservancy, which works with communities across North America and one tribe in Australia.

Elder Diane Ridsdale says taking part in the word collection event over the past two weeks was a great honour. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“It’s rapid fire, trying to get as many words as possible,” said Norman. “It’s going to be revolutionary for young people on the nation. They’re going to have materials they’ve never had before and this sense of cultural identity.”

“They’re having fun, there’s a lot of laughter, but elders are sad now that it’s over,” Norman said.

“What I’ve learned is I’ve reused the language I’ve had for a long time,” said elder Diane Ridsdale.

“Being in a group was a great experience. I started loving those people I was with. It was very joyful. But I was thinking about it this morning when I was up alone and I felt a sadness coming in that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the group again,” said Ridsdale, talking about the event coming to an end on Friday.

Ridsdale says taking part has been “a great honour.”

The database could start being used in schools before the end of the year.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, only using an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca or tweet him @DanMcGarvey

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