State of Health

The state and health of the Denes¶øiné languages vary across the seven Dene bands in Saskatchewan. There are three Athabascan Dene speaking communities that lie in the northern tip of the province. These communities are Fond Du Lac, Stony Rapids, and Black Lake. Fond Du Lac is located 60 km from the Northwest Territories (NWT) border, while Stony Rapids is located 80 km from this border. It should be noted that Stony Rapids is not a reserve, but a government town, which accomodates at least 400 souls. Black Lake is a reserve located 15 miles south of Stony Rapids, and is home to 1200 souls. The fourth Dene speaking community and reserve is Hatchet Lake, which is located southeast of Black Lake Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border.

The Churchill River and the northwest region of the province accommodate the remaining three Dene reserves. These bands are Buffalo River, Birch Narrows and Clearwater River. The Denes¶øiné people who reside in Clearwater River are part of the La Loche Municipal Community. While La Loche is not a reserve, it is however one of the strongest Dene speaking communities in Saskatchewan.

Black Lake Saskatchewan

Black Lake Saskatchewan has a population of 1200 people. The children in Black Lake speak their first language fluently. Many of them are learning how to read and write in Denes¶øiné as it is part of the curriculum. But much of the old language is gone from the tongue of the younger generation and can only be retrieved through the elders who are still alive. It has been along time since the old language was spoken by the Athabascan people. It is a complex language and much of the ancient words have disappeared. English language usage in the north is gradual as opposed to southern Saskatchewan and this is due to the fact that many parents prefer to use the Dene language as a daily tool for communication. It is essential that first language be used daily so that the children continue to hear it. It is so pleasant to hear the Denes¶øiné language used in communication between toddlers, youth, parents and elders. After careful observation, it is safe to speculate that the Dene first language is healthy and thriving in the community of Black Lake. The Dene Language Retention Committee is helping to make sure we do not lose the Dene language in the future. The Dene Language Retention Committee consist of educators who are fluent in their first language and some are also parents. Therefore the committee is sensitive to the importance of first language acquisition. To many First Nations people across North America, it has been a rude awakening. Language loss came up like a stranger in the night and many First Nations people were not fully aware of its consequences. It is just recently that we became fully aware of the priceless gift of language from the Creator that kept our ancestors alive for thousands and thousands of years.

Stony Rapids Saskatchewan

Stony Rapids Saskatchewan is a municipal community located in northern Saskatchewan. Many of Black Lake’s members reside in Stony Rapids. The language is not as strong in the community as it once was. The Dene Language was once as healthy in Stony Rapids as it is in Black Lake, but since the mid 1970’s the language has begun to deteriorate. At present, only the Elders and people over the age of 40 are able to speak the language fluently.

Fond Du Lac Saskatchewan

Fond Du Lac Saskatchewan, situated 60 kilometres south of the Northwest Territories border, has Dene language speakers. The old language of our ancestors has deteriorated in this community. The community speaks the ‘k’ dialect and is the only Dene community that uses this dialect. The other 7 Dene speaking communities speak the ‘t’ dialect. Although the community has children who are of school age that have picked up the Dene language, the English language has nevertheless become very popular in Fond Du Lac. Elders and people over age 40 speak the language and use the Dene language on daily basis. The school, which is operated by Denes¶øiné First Nations, has a Dene language curriculum and the language was being taught in school. The Dene Language Retention Committee has been informed that the language program was removed from the curriculum for reasons not known. It is hoped that this is temporary.

Hatchet Lake Saskatchewan

Hatchet Lake Saskatchewan has a full-time language teacher and a language coordinator/consultant. The director of education from this school is a member of the Dene Language Committee. The Dene language seems to be in good health in this community, as young children were observed speaking the language. There is also evidence that the language is being used in this community. The more speakers, the better, in every First Nations community.

Buffalo River

Buffalo River is located on the northwest side of the province of Saskatchewan, but more to the south of the four Dene communities mentioned earlier. This community, with approximately 1200 Dene people, has almost lost the Dene language. It is considered a language in crisis. Buffalo River has a modern school, which is K– 12. The Denes¶øiné language is being taught throughout these grades, however many resources that are consistent and relevant to that community are still needed. Language loss, in terms of the Denes¶øiné language, can be partly attributed to the geographic location of this community. Also, while its Denes¶øiné language is similar to that of the four aforementioned northern communities, it is nevertheless spoken slightly differently. The pronunciations and different ways in which the four communities speak are slightly different. Students understand what is being said in the Denes¶øiné language, but are often hesitant to speak it, because most of them are not encouraged or are fearful that they will be mocked. Through considerate observation, it was suggested that the community spoke by using some slang words and what linguists call informative language use. This is when words are either cut in half and made easier on the tongue to pronounce. Buffalo River is not the only Dene community that displays this type of language use throughout the north. This is exactly why it is critical to sit down with the Elders and begin recording the full word (s) and to begin teaching the children the correct pronunciation and usage.

Birch Narrows

Birch Narrows is another Dene community that will need a lot of encouragement and assistance in order to regain their Dene language. The Dene language committee was also informed about the crisis this school and community are facing in regard to their first language. We need qualified immersion program developers to start a language program that can be successful.


Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre