Significance of saving endangered language isn’t lost on Kaska’s last speakers

Emeral Poppe’s life mission is to live her language. Pope is one of five students enrolled in a new full-time Kaska language program, Gūzā́gī ts’į̄́ʼ Netsédzedī́yaʼ, We are Waking up to Our Language.

Its goal is ambitious: teach young learners the language so they can eventually pass it down themselves.

“There’s so much need in the community for language, not only for it to be visible, but for people to be able to teach it,” Poppe told APTN News.

“I guess my goal in life would be to become fluent and to be able to teach it and to be able to share that with all of my relatives and my community.”

The one-year paid program is administered by Liard First Nation’s (LFN) language department and is run in a community hall in Upper Liard, a small settlement 10 km west of the community of Watson Lake.

It’s funded by the federal department of Canadian Heritage and B.C.’s First People’s Cultural Council. Once completed, students will earn a university certificate in First Nation language proficiency from Simon Fraser University.

Martina Volfova, language director for LFN, said the program was born from a 10-year community language strategy to help improve fluency.

Volfova said community members are eager to access programming like traditional parenting and on-the-land activities in Kaska.

The problem, however, is that not many people are able to speak the language.

“We just knew that we need to really invest in the citizens here to basically give them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with speakers and getting the training that they need to be able to get fluent,” she said. “So, increasing the fluency in the community, which is really the only way that the language will be moving forward.”

Elders key to success

Kaska Elder Jocelyn Wolftail gives her time to the program. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN

In addition to classroom work, Elders work one-on-one with students for roughly 12 hours each week to help them develop language skills in topics of their choice, such as hide tanning, harvesting, or berry picking.

The significance of saving an endangered language hasn’t been lost on the community’s last speakers.

Elder Jocelyn Wolftail, who was once herself forbidden to speak Kaska at the Lower Post residential school, wants to see the language thrive.

It’s why she lends her time to the program.

“A lot of young people now are wanting to learn their language because they say they kind of feel lost without, they’re missing out on something,” she said.

“Without your language, you lose the culture. So, while they’re doing language, they’re learning culture too at the same time, like making moose hide. It’s all coming back. It’s just the best part.”

Student Paul Caesar said the program wouldn’t be possible without their guidance.

“Just knowing the contributions that our Elders make and just that they’re willing to come here to help us, can’t really ignore that because of how important (it is),” he said.

Students and Elders discuss hide tanning. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN

Living the language

While the aim of the program is to build fluency, it also has the effect of drawing young speakers closer to their culture.

The feeling is especially true for Pop*pe, who grew up outside of the Yukon.

“I feel like I’m more grounded,” she said. “I’m more motivated. I feel like there’s meaning to whatever the heck is going on in life and the world.”

With three years of language training already under their belts through LFN’s language department, Pope and Caesar are eager to speak – and live – their language.

“Like when you stub your toe, (I want to say)…something in Kaska immediately instead of saying something in English,” Poppe said.

For Caesar, his dedication to learning his native tongue has crept into his dreams. He said he now often dreams in Kaska.

“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “(Dreaming about) things that we learned and the whole culture around it, and how we got to pay attention to our language and culture, learning about that and knowing how powerful that is.”

Visibility of the language – or lack thereof – is also important to the young speakers.

“I want to see it all over town,” Poppe said.

“I want see our stop signs in Kaska. I want to see our building signs in Kaska. Just everything, because you don’t really see that very much when you come here. And I think that’s very important.”

Read more:

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                        Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in Yukon fighting to keep language alive one student at a time

                        New Indigenous language podcast hopes to help revitalize, preserve languages

Program difficulties  

However, the program hasn’t been without infrastructure challenges.

Volfova said a lack of housing in the community caused one student to drop out, and a fuel leak in the program’s main building forced it relocate, resulting in a late start.

She noted the program likewise depends on grant funding which requires tedious proposal applications.

That funding, she said, is never guaranteed.

“Language revitalization takes years to do. We will be working on this for years,” she said.  “Having to basically secure funding a year at a time, it’s pretty tiring.”

Volfova said compounding the issue is the uncertain future of the program’s funding from the department of Heritage, which she believes may be cut next year.

“If that happens, I mean, that’s going to be detrimental to our program,” she said. “We cannot continue based on, I don’t know, 40% of the funding that we have right now as it (because) is we don’t have enough for what we want to do.”

Volfova said many in the community would like to see the same level of investment in language revitalization that’s being put into residential school reconciliation work.

“The speakers are getting older and we’re trying to work as much as we can with them, but we don’t have a lot of time,” she said.

Lifetime of learning

While the program is expected to wrap up next fall, Poppe said learning her language will be a life-long process.

“One thing I’d notice is that when I do I guess try to speak…I notice how many blanks I need to fill in Kaska,” she said. “A year isn’t enough to learn the language or to become fluent. It’s sort of like the first stepping-stone.”

With her community’s support her, Poppe is excited to one day pass down what she’s learned to her people.

“I would like to share that with everybody else because I know that they will benefit from it as well.”

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