The Ktunaxa Nation hosted two summits this week, one focusing on the youth and another focused on the Ktunaxa language — the first language-based summit they’ve held since 2011.
“Language, for the Ktunaxa, our language was removed through the residential schools, through the federal Indian policies,” said Don Sam, director of Traditional Knowledge and Language (TKL) sector for the Ktunaxa Nation.
Sam referred to a quote from elder Mary Paul, which is written next to a painting of her in the St. Eugene resort lobby, that says “since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within the building that it is returned.”
“And so here we are at a language summit, with our relatives from Montana, with our relatives from Idaho, representatives from the Canadian Ktunaxa bands, so our language, the idea of nation rebuilding, us as a Ktunaxa Nation, not as individual Indian Bands, or using those institutions that have separated us, but using our language to pull us back together.”
Leanna Gravelle, education and outreach coordinator was primarily responsible for putting things together, but Gravelle and Sam both agreed that the idea of language revitalization and national rebuilding, can only be accomplished by working with the elders, the youth, and everyone in between from across all the communities of the nation.
“There’s a healing part, healing as a nation, and then the connections with our past, our future, our stories, our culture, all is in the language and having our language pulling us all together, when there’s so much going on in our lives, that’s how we’re going to save our language, our language isolate, it’s critically endangered, the only way to save it is by thinking strategically and collaboratively, and then communicating with each other.”
Sam added that the reason many individuals are passionate about the Ktunaxa language is that it’s a way to connect to their ancestors, with each other and with generations yet to come.
The Ktunaxa language is a language isolate — it is not related to any other language and is spoken only here in the east and west Kootenays, and down into Alberta, Montana and Idaho. As it is critically endangered, part of the strategy of revitalizing it relies on the previous work of archivists who have compiled recordings that were done years ago.
Another component, however, is to motivate the youth of the nation to take it upon themselves to do their part in it’s revitalization.
“There’s 150 years of genocide, 150 years of federal Indian policy and there’s even remnants of that that exist that we have to identify, name it to tame it. If we’re able to look at those and see those subconscious pieces that alienate who we are then we’d be able to work through those and hopefully have our young people aspiring to be linguists or teachers or curriculum developers or digitization technicians.”
Sam said that the fact that the language summit ended up taking place as the youth summit is a “really beautiful thing.” On Tuesday night, elders and youth alike attended a performance of the play Children of God at Key City Theatre, the themes of which dealt with residential schools.
“The youth are able to see some of the things that our elders have gone through and our elders are able to share some stories and heal along with the youth,” said Sam. “So it’s a real beautiful thing that they’re both happening at the same time and it’s happening here, this place that was meant to take it all away.”
“Everything’s working together,” he added, “and I can’t help but feel there’s some higher powers that are helping us, guiding us, bringing us together.”
Jared Teneese, business and product development coordinator with the TKL, spoke at the youth summit, letting the youth know about some opportunities in language and cultural revitalization, so that as they’re looking at career paths, can look into integrating and celebrating Ktunaxa language and culture.
The language summit feature numerous speakers, including Michelle Barroca, archivist with the Ktunaxa Nation Council, who talked about copyright and intellectual property.
“Our language is tied with our culture and so we want to make sure that the language and the culture and the teachings, the writings and stuff aren’t appropriated for other uses,” Sam explained. “And that when we do develop materials, that we’re able to ensure that they’re protected from being misused.”
The schedule of the summit was fluid, and adjustments were made as they went along, for example to acknowledge and debrief from some of the feelings people had following watching Children of God.
“So emotional intelligence, working on that, so that we’re able to identify that when we’re having those uncomfortable moments and then getting through them. Sometimes when we have uncomfortable moments we get stuck on them, and we’re not able to learn the language.”