In an effort to mitigate the risk of the critically endangered language being lost forever, the Ktunaxa Nation has been working toward increasing the number of learning resources available to those interested in pursuing the Ktunaxa language and culture.
Ktunaxa Nation’s Traditional Knowledge and Language director Donald Sam encourages communities from the Akisqnuk First Nation, Aq’am, Lower Kootenay Indian Band, Tobacco Plains and Yas Kanoski to be pragmatic about learning their ancestor’s language.
“People say that our language is almost lost, but I say we didn’t lose our language,” Sam explained. “Our language has been targeted for over 150 years of genocide and it’s been perpetued by the government, and by the church, so to bring our language back from the brink of extinction, it’s going to take work from people like Martina (Escutin who recently developed a social media platform to share basic words and phrases in Ktunaxa on Instagram) and from our school.”
The Ktunaxa Nation has been creating learning resources for the Ktunaxa language in children’s books, cultural awareness workshops, iOS / Android apps and websites that have been developed to make learning fun and easily accessible to people from all walks of life.
Sam voiced concerns about the way black and white historical photographs from residential schools in museums make it difficult for some members of the nation to be proud of the Ktunaxa language and culture today, but he remains optimistic about finding new ways to inspire others to feel passionate about language revitalization.
“Our language is connected with our culture and our identity, so when you’re learning your language, you’re also learning about who you are and where you come from,” Sam said. “We have place names throughout our Aboriginal histories, and they tell us about what activities might be done in various places. Our language no longer describes that.”
The biggest challenge, Sam says, is trying to learn how to use Ktunaxa words and phrases in the way it was originally intended to describe the community.
“We need to speak the language and use Kootenay words, not just translate the words into English,” he explained. “A lot of times people come here and ask for Ktunaxa words in English, so it’s really important to empower the Indigenous people to share their own voices.”
Sam is working with the Ktunaxa Nation to develop a roadmap for language development, so there are clearly defined milestones that are age appropriate. He hopes to build up the Ktunaxa Nation’s learning resources through a strategic vision.
“Did you know that the Ktunaxa have a word that refers to the salmon spawning in the river between Athalmere and Invermere,” he asked. “Not many people know there were Salmon that came all the way up from the ocean, and swam all the way up to Dutch Creek and Fairmont. It’s just amazing. I remember when my grandma used to tell me about that as a kid, I used to think, there’s no Salmon here, there’s just suckerfish.”
Sam laughed and emphasized that there are several adjectives from the Ktunaxa language that could help to raise awareness about the history of the Columbia Valley.
“I think it’s important to know that Ktunaxa is our word for who we are,” Sam said, “and a lot of people have heard of Kootenays, but they haven’t heard of Ktunaxa, but they don’t understand those are the same. It’s about relationships. I don’t want to be here to satisfy somebody’s curiosity. I’d rather be teaching somebody our history and I think education is how we cure racism.”