STONEY NAKODA – A rise in the number of Îethka (Stoney language speakers) disparate to Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation population growth marks a First Nation taking great strides to defy the odds.
According to the latest available census data in 2016, there were more Stoney speakers in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation than there had been in at least 20 years, but proportionate to the First Nation’s population growth – Stoney, like so many other Indigenous languages, has been on the decline.
Hundreds of years of colonization and displacement, the influence of pop culture and now, social media, have all played a role in language decline, according to experts.
“Everything else in our culture has been reproduced, stolen, borrowed, but the one thing that really still remains that is traditional to us, is our language,” said Duane Mark, language and cultural coordinator at Morley Community School in Mînî Thnî. “That’s why we push it so hard.
“Our elders continually press for the value of retaining and sustaining the language because it also sustains the culture, it enables and empowers a legacy.”
Mark is one of two Stoney language teachers at the school, which is across from Nakoda Elementary School, where a number of young Stoney-speaking teachers are beginning to cut their teeth passing the language to the next generation.
Stoney lessons are mandated in all Stoney Education Authority (SEA) schools, but Mark stresses that about an hour or more of accumulative language lessons every week is not enough for most to become fluent enough in Stoney to continue passing it down. It must also be used at home.
“We do our best as language teachers, but elders and as educators, we know and find that language should be taught at home if it is to be carried on,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the parents to teach the child.
“Just like any language, it has to be heard consistently, in the home – everywhere. It has to be heard.”
Sister languages of Stoney include Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda/Nakota dialects, the latter of which the language is derived. The three dialects make up the Siouan language family to which Stoney belongs.
In 2016, there was a population of about 4,546 people living in the Îyârhe Nakoda communities of Eden Valley, Big Horn, and Mînî Thnî (Morley), where more than 80 per cent of the population is concentrated. According to the 2016 census, about 56 per cent of all residents identified Stoney as their mother tongue, which is the language that is learned at home in childhood and still understood by the person at the time the data was collected.
Of those, 4,525 people identified English as their first official language spoken. Another 15 people said neither English nor French was their first spoken language; the census does not specify which language they spoke.
There were 3,050 people in Canada who identified Stoney as their mother tongue in 2016 and 2,550 of them lived in an Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation community, 250 more than recorded in the 1996 census. However, the population also increased by about 1,800 people over that time. In comparison, 85 per cent of the total population identified Stoney as their mother tongue in 1996.
Data from the latest 2021 census could not be compared as Stoney Nakoda First Nation chiefs and council did not give Statistics Canada surveying permission, thus no information is available. On its website, the Stoney Nakoda Nation estimates there was a population of 5,397 in 2021.
In 2010, the Stoney language was categorized as ‘vulnerable,’ according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The report included 86 Indigenous languages in Canada and reported 62 of them to be endangered, with the other 24 listed as vulnerable to being endangered.
Mark’s niece, Cherith Mark, is a language and culture coordinator at SEA. She was involved in a joint language initiative between SEA and The Language Conservancy – a U.S.-based non-profit organization that works with Indigenous peoples to protect and revitalize their languages – that began in 2019.
With that project, about 50 Îyârhe Nakoda elders from Chiniki, Goodstoney and Bearspaw First Nations, helped to build a comprehensive Stoney dictionary app, three picture books, a level one language textbook, an alphabet colouring book and a vocabulary app, along with other digital learning resources.
They achieved this through a two-week Rapid Word Collection event at Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino in the fall of 2019, where linguists and scribes captured 14,002 Stoney words from 1,700 categories.
The group refined the dictionary list over two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, whittling down repetitions and alternate spellings to inform the teaching resources to be used in SEA classrooms, and in the community.
Over time, the education authority hopes to develop level two and three language textbooks to advance learning in schools.
“We are definitely looking at providing more language resources to cater more toward being able to speak Stoney conversationally and using sentences,” said Cherith. “Right now, what we have is mostly catered toward words and small phrases, but eventually it will come to that.”
Stoney, long considered to be an oral language by its speakers, started being transferred into text and to the page in the 1970s through the Stoney Cultural Education Program (SCEP).
“We’re still discussing and trying to figure out the proper way to spell or pronounce some words because there are these variances between different family clans,” said Cherith. “The best way we can work our way through that is by going back to look at the oldest resources we have, which is SCEP.
“That was the era when they actually started writing words in Stoney.”
The oral history program began in 1970. To gather information about Stoney history, philosophy, and moral teachings, program workers used tape recorders to interview Stoney elders, and in 1972 the program was reorganized as SCEP.
Under the direction of Stoney Tribal chiefs and council, the program focused on people development, primarily encouraging Stoney youth to enhance their individual abilities. Materials created from the program were used to assist in passing on the traditions of Stoney culture to the next generation by replacing harmful curricula that did not recognize Indigenous heritage.
Elder Jimmy Kaquitts was the director of a team of over 50 elders, including the late Buddy Wesley and Sykes Powderface, and many others that helped to develop a writing system for the Stoney language still used today.
One challenging feature of the project, in addition to obtaining continued funding, was the nature of the language itself In the Stoney community. Different bands, and even families, vary in their syllabic emphasizes and expressions. In light of this, translators sometimes had to talk out an apparent difference in order to decide which option to use for a certain word or expression to be translated.
As Cherith noted, that is something that remains a continuous point of discussion in the community with various words, including the Stoney word that refers to those that speak the language – Îethka.
“We still discuss the proper way of pronouncing Îethka, versus Iyethka or Îyethka,” said Cherith. “One basically refers to the speakers of the language and the other to basically the Stoney people, and the last one is sort of a variation of the second one.”
Prior to SCEP, in 1965, Stoney Tribal council entered into an agreement with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to develop a writing system for the Stoney language. After several experiments, a standard alphabet was devised following the Roman orthography tradition.
Warren Harbeck, a consultant in linguistics, Bible translation and intercultural communication, was brought in from the institute to help develop the writing system.
Extensive testing of this writing system during its development was conducted under the auspices of elder J.R. Twoyoungmen at all grade levels in the Morley school, as well as with families throughout the community.
According to Harbeck, testing included the workability of a Cree-syllabic style of writing, as well as more English-looking styles.
Consistent with ways of representing the characteristic five oral and three nasalized vowels of the Nakoda, Dakota and Lakota languages, the symbols a, e, i, o, u, â, î, û were agreed on in the Stoney words chaba, meaning beaver in English; pezi, meaning hay; node, meaning throat; mu, meaning thunder; châ, meaning wood; Mînî Thnî, meaning cold water/Morley; and sûga, meaning dog.
Other than the circumflex, it was agreed not to use any other technical linguistic symbols, but only those letters available on a standard typewriter, and later on keyboards.
The structure of a Stoney sentence is much different than English. Instead of a fixed subject; verb; object order, the verb tends to come at the end in Stoney – but it’s not obligated to, according to Harbeck. The subject also usually, but not always, precedes the object.
There are other structural elements to the Stoney language that differ greatly from English. Mark said sometimes Stoney speakers, especially the younger generations, may revert to speaking English in some cases because of the amount of “cerebral energy” it can take to formulate some phrases and sentences, which sometimes can become quite long in pronunciation and in writing.
The act of language preservation has always been an intrinsic part of the Stoney way, according to Mark. It is believed the language itself has a spirit, and the spirits of Îyârhe Nakoda ancestors can only understand Stoney, and therefore will only hear their prayers in Stoney.
“In our society, sometimes that’s all we talk about, is the Creator,” said Mark. “Our everyday life is motivated by spiritual prayer, smudging, singing – chants in the morning to enable us and empower us. But if it’s done in our language, it’s heard by our ancestors.”
Mark said he has noticed a decline in the number of speakers over time, especially as some of the Nation’s well-respected and renowned elder speakers have died, including Sykes Powderface in March of this year and Buddy Wesley in June 2021.
Wesley, who was also a bridge of knowledge to surrounding non-Indigenous communities, established the Stoney Nakoda 101.1 language program and taught students in Mînî Thnî. He and Mark worked together closely prior to his passing.
“He was our mentor and he was also teaching sometimes in Cochrane, at U of C and the Whyte Museum,” said Mark. “We traded notes and supported each other.”
Mark hopes to be part of carrying on Wesley’s legacy, with the goal of teaching the next generations of Stoney language teachers and inspiring as many of them as possible to follow a similar path. One which not only sustains the language, but where it can flourish.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.