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http://www.nationalpost.com/news/canada … id=1206724
The clock on the kitchen wall at the Moraviantown Reserve seniors' centre loudly clicks away the seconds as Velma Noah waits to see if any of the few remaining speakers of a vanishing language can remember the word for "beet."
Five elderly women and a man stare ahead of them, silently searching for a word they may not have heard since they were children, when nearly everyone on this small reserve could speak the language. Ms. Noah frets the cover of an English-Delaware dictionary, which might hold a clue. But if the word for beet isn't in the book and she can't tease it out of the minds of the three women most likely to know, one more piece of the language could be gone forever.
Alma Burgoon is 80; Retta Huff, 86; and her cousin Mattie Huff, 90. Along with one or two other elderly women on the reserve, "they're the last known speakers. They're all over the age of 70," says Ms. Noah, 36-year-old mother of four.
Ms. Burgoon is still looking for the word. "Gosh, I don't know."
Suddenly there's chuckling around the folding table as someone remembers: maxkeetkweek.
The women laugh to hear such a strange-sounding word, but behind the laughter is the serious business of breathing new life into a language, word by word.
Europeans gave this language the name Delaware (or Munsee Delaware), but its advocates today are taking back the name Lunaape (or Lenape). Its once-large territory has been reduced to a rump at Munsee-Delaware Nation -- also known as Moraviantown -- a reserve near London, Ont., with a population of about 200. During the 20th century, teaching Lunaape to children fell out of favour. Today it survives in the gossip of a handful of elders and on stop signs that read "ngihlaal."
Like dozens of First Nations languages across the country, Lunaape is in danger of disappearing within a matter of years. Canada's indigenous languages are in a state of crisis. Those who, like Ms. Noah, would save them can't afford to wait. Unless the knowledge is transferred to a new generation, dozens of traditional tongues will breathe their last.
By Statistics Canada's count there are around 50 indigenous languages spoken in Canada (other organizations reach higher figures by counting certain dialects as separate languages), and 222,210 people reported them as a mother tongue in the 2006 census. Only a handful of these languages -- principally Inuktitut, Ojibway and various dialects of Cree -- can be expected to survive without active intervention, according to linguistics experts. In 1951, 87% of aboriginal Canadians reported an indigenous language as a mother tongue compared with 21% by 2001 and 19% in 2006.
A 2007 Statistics Canada report tracking changes in aboriginal language use noted that although most aboriginal languages "experienced long-term declines in their continuity ... not surprisingly, the endangered ones suffered the most."
There is no specific point at which a language officially becomes endangered. "The way that linguists usually look at it is to take into consideration the normal course of language transmission," says John O'Meara, a linguist at Lakehead University who has studied Lunaape since 1979. "By that I mean languages are passed on from one generation to the next. If at some point that process of transmission is broken, then you can deduce that the language isn't going to be spoken by younger people in the future."
Just finding out exactly how many speakers there are left of a language can present a challenge. If it dips below 100 speakers, Canadian censuses will (with some exceptions) lump it into a category with other tongues rather than publishing an individual number. Another source of data is U.S.-based Christian organization SIL International, which collects information on languages worldwide. It lists 16 indigenous Canadian languages and dialects as "nearly extinct."
Lunaape is on that list as "Munsee." British Columbia figures prominently, as the home of Bella Coola (20 speakers left by last count in 2002), Haida (55), Kutenai (12), Sechelt (40) and seven others. The Yukon tongue of Tagish is a heartbeat away from vanishing; a story in Up Here magazine last spring soberly noted that "its last living speaker, Lucy Wren, is in her 90s and there is sparse interest from the community in reviving the language."
Native languages have declined because of economic and social pressure to speak English and French. Language activists also blame assimilationist education policies; children sent to residential schools were often punished for speaking the languages they had learned at home.
"What happens, then, when you begin to devalue the languages?" asks Keren Rice, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, and director of its Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. "People didn't speak them to their children because they didn't want their children to have the hard time that they had."
Alma Burgoon said her school forced her to learn English around age five simply because the teachers couldn't speak Lunaape -- or as she sometimes calls it, "Indian."
Today, the 80-year-old serves as one of Ms. Noah's teachers of Lunaape. As the community's lone full-time language worker, Ms. Noah is on a quest to become fluent in the language before its few, frail speakers are gone.
"You know when you know what you're supposed to be doing? This is what I'm here to do," says Ms. Noah, whose goal is to learn the language well enough to be able to go into local schools and teach children. "I want to be a fluent speaker. That's my dream ... Because if I become fluent, I can make someone else fluent.
"We're kind of starting at the bottom. Things couldn't get worse. They're going to get better. I know that."
This kind of emergency rescue effort is typical of what's going on across the country with languages on the brink of extinction.
"It's often the case that things have to be on the edge for people to realize what's happened," says Prof. Rice, the University of Toronto linguist. "The communities have clearly defined that this is something they value and are going to put energy and really some of their top minds into."
Revitalization efforts rely on modest funds. Federal support for language preservation programs through the Aboriginal Language Initiative amounts to $5-million a year, or about $5 for every aboriginal man, woman and child. (A separate $4.2-million infrastructure exists for the territories.)
In 2005, Amos Key Jr. co-authored a report, Towards a New Beginning, that urged the Department of Canadian Heritage to act quickly to reverse the death march of indigenous languages. The report, he says, is "gathering dust in Ottawa." In 2007, the Assembly of First Nations called on the federal government to spend $2.6-billion over 11 years to help revitalize native languages.
One of the most dramatic options is school immersion programs like the one in place near Brantford, Ont., on the Six Nations reserve.
With a resident population of 11,297 and an 18,000-hectare territory, Six Nations of the Grand River is the largest Indian reserve in the country. The north-south roads are named after the nationalities that make up the Six Nations: Oneida, Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk and Cayuga.
Yet English is the language of everyday interactions here. The 100 or so remaining fluent speakers of Cayuga represent a minority who speak a language surviving in critical but stable condition.
It certainly doesn't sound that way in the halls of I.L. Thomas Elementary School, a modern-looking school in the shape of a tortoise shell.
More than a third of the school's 308 kindergarten to Grade 8 students are enrolled in half- or full-day Cayuga immersion.
Tom Deer's classroom is identified by the brass plate on the door that lists his Cayuga name, Haíhokta. Inside, in careful elementary teacher's cursive, Mr. Deer writes the date on the board: "Ahsé¸h hado¸t, Joto'go:wah 3, 2008" -- Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008.
He calmly scolds a fidgety pupil in Cayuga -- wittily, judging by the giggles of the 16 students in his class, who range from Grades 4 to 6. Most of these students have been learning Cayuga, and nothing but Cayuga, since kindergarten.
"They can pretty much understand everything that's said to them and they can pretty much say whatever they want to say," says Mr. Deer. "It may not always be grammatically correct, but they can do it."
As for English, he says, "It doesn't really have a role in my classroom."
In addition to class work, the language is worked into a broader curriculum about traditional culture. Partway through the day, pupils rearrange the chairs to set up for social dances. They take turns reciting the opening declarations in rehearsed, but fluid, Cayuga.
"We're an island here," Mr. Deer says. "Cayuga exists only here in this community anymore. When you see a student learn about the culture ... and be able to apply the language that they've learned to cultural settings, it makes me feel really good."
Principal Kathryn Hill concedes that some parents are wary of putting children in a system that won't expose them to instruction in English until Grade 7. And she recognizes the challenge of having them continue on with the language after the immersion is over, and they are again surrounded by English.
Ms. Hill winces when asked whether the immersion students tend to keep the Cayuga language in their lives after completing the program in Grade 8. "My experience is that they don't," she says.
The Shuswap immersion program run by the Adams Lake Indian Band in British Columbia has likewise "successfully been producing new fluent Shuswap speakers," but, says University of British Columbia linguist William Poser, "How many of them, if any, will have kids together and pass on the language is an open question."
Tesha Emarthle, 35, acknowledges it's a "huge commitment" to have her daughter Makelitv enrolled in Mr. Deer's Six Nations' class (where, like the rest of the children, she goes by her Cayuga name, Gayadadage), but she sees it as a duty to pass her traditions on to her three children.
Should a full language revival prove unworkable in some communities, experts like Prof. Poser suggest there are other ways of bringing about a linguistic comeback.
"We can certainly imagine a situation in which children learn native languages in school as written languages, together with much cultural information, just as European children not very long ago learned Latin, or as many Jews still learn Hebrew."
In the absence of formal programs, however, much language revitalization depends on grassroots efforts by advocates like Ms. Noah in Moraviantown, or Mr. Key at Six Nations.
At 55, Amos Key Jr., director of the First Nations languages program at Six Nations' Woodland Cultural Centre, is one of the youngest native speakers of Cayuga.
During his quarter-century career, he has helped set up a radio station with programming in traditional languages; created Mohawk and Cayuga immersion programs at I.L. Thomas and Kawenniio/Gaweni:yo; banked recordings of ceremonial language for longhouse keepers; and spearheaded a language nest program that helps endangered languages cling to life by joining elders and small children in preschool settings (an idea imported from New Zealand.)
Right now Mr. Key is working with York University to establish an M.A. and PhD program in indigenous thought, which will allow students to submit work in native languages.
"I don't want to take the ‘woe is me' approach," Mr. Key says. "My question has always been, How can we stand up?"
For Ms. Noah, who spends a couple days each week rounding up most of what's left of her community's Lunaape speakers so she can practise the language, reviving Lunaape isn't simply a matter of remembering vocabulary and syntax; it is a mission to restore traditional culture, and thus identity. Without it, she says, Moraviantown will continue to struggle with problems like drug addiction and high secondary school dropout rates.
"It's not the social workers that'll help, it's the language. If you know your language, you know who you are," she says.
Convincing the elders to take part took some doing at first because their generation was discouraged from speaking Lunaape.
Now attitudes are changing. Says Ms. Burgoon, "I'm proud to be able to speak it. I think it's kind of an honour to me that I can speak the language.
"The only thing is, if it's such an honour, [why do] my sons just walk away? They don't want to talk about it. They don't think anything of the language at all."
Ms. Noah will only be satisfied if her grandchildren speak the language every day, just as her grandparents did. Her vision for the future of the Delaware Nation is not so different from Alma Burgoon's childhood memories -- the same memories that must be plumbed for information if Lunaape is to survive.
"One day," Ms. Noah says, "we'll have an immersion program so the kids will grow up in the language, with Lunaape as their first language and English as their second language. That's the way it's supposed to be."
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