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Indian Languages Are A National Treasure That Must Be Preserved

Freda Greyeyes

We Believe:

That our Indian languages were given to us by the Great Spirit, the Keeper of Languages:

That we as Indian people are morally responsible to the Creator for the guardianship of languages:

That our languages embody and reflect our relationship, as distinct people, with the Creator; the universe, the land, the animal world and all humanity:

That our language and our culture are inseparable:

That our Indian language should be the basis of the education of our children: for if education is truly the transmission of culture, we must educate our children in our culture and in our language.

The following statement was prepared by the Saskatchewan Indian Languages institute in support of a national policy on Indian languages. The statement also stresses the right of our people to maintain and nurture our languages.

Our Indian languages are the only languages that have grown out of this land, and they should be regarded by Canadians as national treasures. We are acutely aware that our languages have no status in our land. Our children learn that there are two official languages in Canada (English and French) which have special status. By constitutional guarantee, children who use these European languages have the right to use them in official proceedings and, in certain circumstances, in primary and secondary education. Indian children have no such guarantee of the use of their language or provision for an education in their own language. Indian children learn there are Heritage Languages which also are special. It is hard for them to understand why their languages have not been treated with at least the same respect.

The International Convenant on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples drafted on April 28, 1981, asserted:

"Their languages (those of the Indigenous Peoples) are to be respected by states in all dealings between the Indigenous People and the state on the basis of equality and non-discrimination."

In even stronger language, the Declaration of Principles of the 100 Native Nations in Geneva declared:

"It is illegal for a State to adopt or permit measures or a line of conduct with respect to a Native group or nation that may bring about, directly or indirectly, the destruction or disintegration of that Native group or nation or that threatens its national or cultural integrity."

We contend that the current status of Indian languages in Canada dooms them to extinction. We maintain that the present condition "threatens the cultural integrity" of many Indian groups in Canada today. What other Conclusion can be drawn from the evidence that only three, languages have strong chance for survival over the next decade? The Indian languages are the languages of our history, our culture, and our prayers. We fear with the loss of our languages will come the disintegration of Indian life-our cultural integrity. We will have lost our link to the past but without anything new to replace it. We categorically state that we have the inalienable right to preserve our languages and the support of world bodies in demanding that the Canadian government intervene to assure our linguistic survival.

A national policy is needed.

We, those of Indian ancestry, have the knowledge, wisdom, human resources, and will, to maintain our languages, but the context in which we live places financial, political, administrative and organizational constraints on us which necessitate the formulation of coordinated policies. No policy on Indian languages exists at the federal, provincial, or Indian organizational level.

A recent needs assessment Provincial Survey on Indian Languages in Saskatchewan showed a lack of support services at both the philosophical and practical level to teach and include Indian languages as part of the education program. No guidelines exist on the implementation and maintenance of programs nor regarding the working conditions of Indian language teachers. The same survey indicated that during the 1986-87 school year at least 6,317 students in Saskatchewan schools were studying an Indian language. Sixty-one schools have Indian usage in their school programs. The need for a national policy is emphasized when it is seen that of these schools 17 were under provincial jurisdiction, 29 were band-controlled, and 15 were federally administered.

There are approximately 56,000 Treaty and Status Indians in Saskatchewan and another 100,000 people who are non-status Indian or Metis.

Indian Languages Are A National Treasure That Must Be Preserved

Freda Greyeyes

Together, the people of Indian ancestry in Saskatchewan make up about 16% of the provincial population. The demand for Indian language classes is being felt at all levels, from the parental concern for urban Indian language immersion daycare facilities, to university classes.

The Needs Assessment Study showed that sixty-five principals of schools not offering Indian language classes strongly supported the idea of teaching Indian languages in their schools. The Department of Education currently does not have a policy on Indian languages, and mechanisms are not in place to aid these individuals in finding the programs, personnel, and resources to implement a program in their schools.

The results of the Needs Assessment Study and experience in attempting to meet the needs expressed has pointed to the necessity for a public debate of issues surrounding Indian languages. There is a high degree of interest in the Indian languages but the debate with regard to their use, preservation and nurturing has been waged on a local level. We have recommended that a support system for Indian language usage in Saskatchewan schools be established.'

We have further recommended to the provincial Department of Education that implementation plans be formalized for Indian language programs in schools. Such plans should include guidelines for: what action is taken when parents request programs; what constitutes a suitable group for second language programs; different programs for students with an Indian language as a first language or as a second language; delivery of language component as it relates to the child's language learning in the whole school program; and provision for pilot programs in various experimental approaches. As well, we have demonstrated the need for administrative policies and regulations regarding the working conditions of Indian language teachers and equipping of schools with appropriate teacher aids for Indian language teaching.

In Saskatchewan, there are five major languages spoken from three linguistic groups. These three linguistic families are as different from one another in their structure as English or French are from Arabic or Chinese.

However, despite the strong support for Indian languages by many school principals and the apparent desire of the Saskatchewan Department of Education to fulfil its commitment to the development of Indian languages for Saskatchewan Schools as outlined in The Five Year Action Plan for Native Curriculum Development which was accepted by the Minister of Education as a blueprint in 1983, we are aware that the Saskatchewan provincial schools present only part of the solution. The Saskatchewan Department of Education has responsibility to serve only those people of Indian ancestry in Provincial schools. Those students in federal or band-controlled schools do not fall under the Provincial mandate. Adults desiring community learning situations and parents desiring preschool experiences are also outside this jurisdiction.

In Saskatchewan, there are five major languages spoken. They are not even of the same linguistic family: Cree and Saulteaux are Algonquian languages; Dakota and Assiniboine (Nakota) are Siowan languages; and Dene (Chipweyan) is an Athapaskan language. These three linguistic families are as different from one another in their structures as English or French are from Arabic or Chinese.

Indian language teaching and development do not neatly fit under any one agency or government's jurisdiction. Linguistic boundaries do not conveniently follow provincial or territorial divisions. None of these languages exist solely within the province. We have linguistic brothers and sisters throughout the rest of the country. Our languages are a source of unity. It is time there was rationalization at the national level. A national policy and working regulations would be a beginning.