Some of the graduate students from the Duncan MA cohort in linguistics of a First Nations language. The cohort may be first in North American to focus solely on one Indigenous language, Hul’q’umi’num’. Back row, l-r: Regena Seward-Wilson, Sonya Charlie, Roberta Charlie, Bernadete Sam, Thomas Jones. Front row, l-r: Colleen Manson, Verna Jones, Laura Antoine, Claudia Sylvester, George Seymour

MA grads determined to develop First Nations language legacy

June 10, 2019

SFU’s new master’s program in linguistics of a First Nations language, which offers professional development for language specialists, will see its first 24 students receive their degrees during the June convocation.

The unique program featured two cohorts—one at the Burnaby campus with 12 students who spoke five different languages—Haida, Halkomelem, Kaska, Secwepemctsin and Tahltan— and a community-based cohort in Duncan, B.C. with 12 students who all spoke Hul’q’umi’num’.

A first in North America

Linguistics professor Donna Gerdts says the Duncan cohort may be the first in North America to focus solely on one Indigenous language. What’s more, the cohort was inter-generational, with fathers and daughters, and brothers, sisters and cousins, all studying together.

Recognizing the urgent need for Indigenous language programs and materials, many of the graduands in both cohorts focused their MA projects on language education and revitalization.

Lisa Lang and Benjamin Young researched language acquisition and Haida community responses to a new language-nest pre-school program. Jessica Arnouse, Roberta Charlie, Cheyenne Cunningham and Emily Edenshaw-Chafin developed resources for early childhood programs. Verna Jones described her culturally based secondary program. Diana Kay developed language guides for classroom teachers. Linda McDonald studied conversations for adult learners, and Mary Stewart studied motions and gestures in teaching.

Marianne Ignace, director of SFU’s First Nations Languages Centre, says, “Indigenous languages embody and express ancient knowledge of environment and social relations, and thus deeply connect students to the way of thinking and being of their ancestors.”

Language is key to authentically representing indigenous knowledge

The importance of language to authentically represent Indigenous knowledge was highlighted in research on kinship terms by Sonya Charlie, narratives of pregnancy and birth by Charlene Fortier, verb classifiers by Louise Framst, personal names by Theodore Gottfriedson, and tribal journeys by Colleen Manson. Leah Meunier recreated the language for working with stinging nettles, Bernadette Sam documented language used in marriage ceremonies, Margaret Seymour wrote stories of her career as a competitive war canoe paddler and Claudia Sylvester compiled a study guide to birds.

Gerdts points out the challenge of designing a program that teaches linguistic analysis as a path to language fluency, noting that “the Duncan program was unique in offering an entire MA program on and in a single First Nations language.

As well, she says, “We used a project-based approached, centered on traditional stories, with much assistance from First Nations elders and linguistics graduate students.”

This method motivated many, including Laura Antoine, Harvey George, Carol Louie and George Seymour, to write new stories for their MA projects.

Says Seymour, “Our deepest hope is to create a literature for the younger generation to study and learn from.”

Many of the graduands, such as George, the oldest of the graduands at age 75, and his sister Antoine, come from esteemed families of language experts and are keenly aware that the responsibility to transmit the language now lies with them.

Thomas Jones, who authored a dozen stories in Hul’q’umi’num’ for his MA project, thanks elders Ruby Peter and Delores Louie for mentoring the Duncan cohort.

“It’s a true inspiration to learn from elders who have spent many decades researching and teaching our language,” he says. “They embody the resilience of our people and our language, and we as young people aspire to be like them.”

Elder Peter will be recognized with an honorary doctorate during the SFU convocation ceremony on June 13. Her daughter and niece will also receive MA degrees and three grandchildren will receive certificates in First Nations Language Proficiency.