Ktunaxa language nears extinction

UBC grad Martina Escutin has been raising awareness about the critically endangered Ktunaxa language

With a handful of living Ktunaxa speakers in the Akisqnuk First Nation, Martina Escutin has been making an effort to learn the critically endangered language of her ancestors and share her knowledge with the community through a social media platform on Instagram.

Escutin, formerly known as Martina Shovar, has been studying aspects of the Ktunaxa language with her family since childhood.

Now, as an adult, Escutin is focused on gaining proficiency in Ktunaxa to pass along her culture and language with others — including her immediate family.

“It’s really difficult for our elders to pass on traditional languages because they were punished for speaking it in residential schools,” Escutin explained, emphasizing that language learning has been put on hold in the community for a long time, while families cope with intergenerational trauma.

The 26-year-old is a member of the Ktunaxa Nation and she has mixed settler ancestry.

The Ktunaxa’s traditional territory, which includes some overlapping areas with other First Nations’ traditional territories, covers approximately 70,000 square kilometres within the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., such as the Akisqnuk First Nation in the Columbia Valley, Aq’am near Cranbrook and Tobacco Plains near Creston.

In the United States of America, there are Ktunaxa communities in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, including the Yas Kanoski.

Since 2014, she has lived in Kelowna with her new husband and their daughter after completing a Bachelor of Social Work degree at the University of B.C. (UBC) in Vancouver.

Escutin currently works for the Okanagan Nation Alliance in Kelowna’s child welfare program to combat social injustices with families.

During her studies at UBC, Escutin completed a course with Hawaiian professor Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla through the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies (ICIS).

Galla taught Escutin a weeklong long course with an emphasis on cultural, historical, social and political language loss, language retention and revitalization projects for First Nations and Indigenous languages.

Course content from ICIS included information about how best to access heritage resources in endangered First Nation language revitalization efforts, while exploring how to acquire, develop, curate, preserve and honour First Nation languages and cultures.

“If you think of endangered languages, or just languages in general when you’re learning, sometimes it’s very frustrating, so when is it okay to teach a language,” asked Galla hypothetically.

“But when you look at endangered languages, the resources decrease significantly, whether it’s textbooks, language speakers or (historical) archives. I shared in the class, we don’t have to have all the knowledge right now. It’s part of the learning journey.

“In many situations, language learners are the teachers at the same time. Sometimes the teachers are just one step ahead of their students, but it’s a way of staying on top of their learning and ensuring there’s always more for students, and I think it’s also to showcase that whatever resources you have available, whether it’s one word, a greeting or a phrase — it’s the right place to start. You don’t have to wait until you have 200 words to start teaching. You can start wherever you are.”

Galla’s course helped Escutin foster the idea that fluency is not required to share language learnings with others, especially when a language is critically endangered like her community’s Ktunaxa language.

Escutin’s created the @Ktunaxa.learning.lady profile on Instagram about a year ago after attending Galla’s course, which ran in parallel with The United Nations Year of Idigenous Languages conference in 2019.

“We were exposed to language revitalization through different forms of arts (such as) puppetry and social media,” Escutin explained. “There was a girl from California who talked about using her social media platform to revitalize her language, and that’s where I got the inspiration to start my Instagram page.”

But the complexity of language learning and how different generations associate language to their own cultures can vary dramatically, which results in many differing ideologies and opinions about how best to pursue language reclamation when a community has substantially different experiences from a generational perspective.

“So maybe someone’s great-grandparents have gone through residential schooling and it impacted their kids,” Galla explained, “and maybe their grandparents also went to residential school, and maybe those parents are intergenerational survivors of a parent who hasn’t gone to residential school, so maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to learn the language. And now you have someone like Martina, four generations in, who wants to revitalize the language.

“They haven’t gone through the same experiences, and so they have different ideologies, and you can’t discredit how anyone feels. It becomes a complex situation within a community to determine how to move forward with language.”

Galla recommended the best approach for language reclamation and revitalization, in her opinion, is for community members from different generations to voice their opinions openly and have conversations about what language means to them as individuals. She explained that it’s important for participants to express opinions on a personal level to the community, or perhaps in smaller groups to their immediate families where there’s a safe environment for discourse.

“Not everyone will agree, but if this is something (Martina) is passionate about for her child or possibly for her grandchild in the future, these are the conversations that need to take place in the community,” Galla explained.

But the challenges of working for a community in the Okanagan, outside of her home nation, has limited the amount of time Escutin devotes to learning the traditional Ktunaxa language.

“Because I’m working for another nation, not my own, I’m not putting my time into learning my own language and culture, so I’m constantly feeling anxiety about this,” said Escutin, voicing concerns about work-life balance in 2020.

“On top of the 40 hour work week, I have a three year old daughter… but it’s really hard to study the language and teach her without the time. I’m hoping that will change when things settle down for me.

“I just want to create a little bit of easy content to be sure other language learners could benefit with it.”

EducationFirst NationsFirst Nations women

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