By Julia Magsombol 

Local Journalism Initiative

Every 24th of October, The Ktunaxa celebrate their language. The Ktunaxa language is one of the most unique languages in the world — it is isolated, meaning it’s a language that has no genetic relationship with another language. 

Last week, the Pioneer had the chance to speak with ?Akisq’nuk First Nation’s Chief Donald Sam. He explained his relationship with the language and how this connects with his family and ancestors. 

The Ktunaxa language is also known as the “Kootenay.” 

Chief Sam

Language is vital to our undertanding of who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Q’apsin Kin qatwi·  The phrase means, what do you think? What do you want? In the Kootenay language, qatwi· means the heart. “What is in your heart?” -Implies we think with our heart.

?Akisq’nuk is the Indian Reserve between Fairmont and Windermere, but in our language, it translates to the land of the two lakes- Our language is descriptive.

I remember, as a child, hearing the elders speaking in Kootenay — Granny Alice, Aunt Phyllis, Uncle Frank, Papa Jack, Pea-Soup, and Aunt Jenny Alpine, to name a few. The sounds seemed to come naturally, yet I never understood what they said. But today, the language gives me an emotional response, bringing back to those formative years. Oh, I long to hear them again I would tell them “hun ?upxini” I understand. 

What I didn’t know then but know now is why the Ktunaxa language was in critical danger of extinction. 

To the Ktunaxa, our ancient language tells us who we are as a people — where we come from and how we relate to each other; it teaches us culture. I didn’t know then the pains my Elders endured to retain the knowledge of our language. I didn’t know why our language had been decreasing.

Since the 1950s, the number of people speaking the Ktunaxa language has been decreasing. This is a direct result of the genocide exacted by colonial laws and policies over the past 150 years. The most notable one is the residential school system. These were strategically made to break-up the family and interrupt the teachings of our children, including the language. The people running the residential schools would physically harm children from the ages of 5 to 16 just for speaking their native language. My mom was beaten for speaking Kootenay.

Today, we have fewer than a dozen fluent Elders.

To reverse the trends, to give life back to our language, and to speak and understand each other in our language is what we call language revitalization. 

In some instances, revitalization can and does occur at home with parents and grandparents teaching children. Some of our Elders remember the language but cannot speak it; we call them silent speakers.  Some have been trying to learn with various success, using various materials developed with the guidance of Ktunaxa knowledge holders. 

The Kootenay language is a linguistic isolate, meaning it is not spoken anywhere in the world and is not related to any other language family. Dedicated revitalization efforts are needed if our language is to survive. 

In the 1970s, a linguist worked with Kootenay people and developed a writing system for our oral language. This has been an excellent resource for us to learn using the subsequent materials developed over the past 40 years or more.

I have been skeptical about teaching the language to the public or in public schools. It always seemed like a charade, like it was not the enough.  But when I witnessed an event with local government leaders in Cranbrook attempting to say Ki?su?k kyu?kyit, a greeting in our language. It was a simple act demonstrating thoughtfulness and a sincere desire to connect. It was respectful and opened the door to ongoing dialogue. 

Now, I believe our schools today can help reverse what the Residential Schools started. It would need to be a thoughtful respectful  approach, not doing for but doing with. Starting with teaching simple phrases or hosting a Knowledge Holder, most of all making a welcoming environment for our language to exist. 

What is ironic is that on Ktunaxa Literacy Day, our school district reprimanded an employee for sharing Ktunaxa resources with Indigenous Education Support workers. The same Resources that were developed by Ktunaxa people, used and shared in other schools.

 That is the opposite of creating a safe environment or welcoming place for our language or people in schools. Instead, it demonstrates the challenge in creating a safe place for the Ktunaxa language to flow. It demonstrates the need for relationship building in our education system from the top down.

For those that wish to learn more, keep trying. I encourage everyone to learn a little bit of or speak a little Kootenay every day, even a simple greeting “Key- Sue-k Que- kyit.”

Ki?su?k kyu?kyit. 

Taxa (done)