The state and health of the Denesuline 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 accommodates at least 400 people. Black Lake is a reserve located 15 miles south of Stony Rapids, and is home to 1,200 people. 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 Denesuline people who reside in Clearwater River are part of the La Loche Municipal Community. While La Loche is not a reserve, it is one of the strongest Dene speaking communities in Saskatchewan.
Black Lake, Saskatchewan
Black Lake has a population of 1,200 people. The children in Black Lake speak their first language fluently. Many of them are learning how to read and write in Denesunline 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 a long 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. 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 pleasant to hear the Denesuline 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 consists of educators who are fluent in their first language and some 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 is a municipal community located in northern Saskatchewan. Many Black Lake 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 is situated 60 kms south of the Northwest Territories border and 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 seven 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 become popular in Fond Du Lac. Elders and people over age 40 speak the language and use the Dene language on a daily basis. The school, which is operated by Denesuline 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 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 there are in every First Nations community, the better.
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. With approximately 1,200 Dene people, the Dene language is almost lost. It is considered a language in crisis. Buffalo River has a modern school, which is K-12. The Denesuline language is being taught throughout these grades, however many resources, consistent and relevant to that community, are still needed. Loss of the Denesuline language can be partly attributed to the geographic location of this community. Also, while the Denesuline language is similar to that of the four aforementioned northern communities, it is spoken slightly different. The pronunciation and different ways in which the four communities speak are slightly different. Students understand what is being said in the Denesunline language, but are often hesitant to speak it, because most are not encouraged or are fearful that they will be mocked. Through considerate observation, it was suggested that the community speaks using some slang words and what linguists call informative language use. Words are 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 in the north. 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 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 informed about the crisis this school and community are facing in regard to their first language. Qualified immersion program developers are needed to start a successful language program.