A Fort Smith teacher has spent the past year working with Chipewyan Elders to revitalize the use of Indigenous terms for objects in our solar system.
Paul Boucher, originally from Rocher River, teaches the Chipewyan language at PW Kaeser High School. A residential school survivor, he is working to preserve words that aren’t used as often as they once were.
“When I was going to residential school, I felt that my language fell asleep. Now, only in the last 10 years, I’ve been starting to reawaken the language in me,” he said.
“It’s there, like a little folder in the back of my heart. And it’s time to open it up to teach the younger people.”
Working with Elders, Boucher has slowly recovered words used to describe the solar system and the planets within it. He presented the work at this year’s Dark Sky Festival, which runs this weekend outside Fort Smith.
“The knowledge and the history that our Elders have is quite remarkable, and to share it is important,” he told Cabin Radio.
“I want to make sure that my children are fluent in my language, and that’s where it starts.
“Space is one area that the kids are really interested in. Because of Star Wars and other movies, they watch a lot of space. So I thought this would be a good thing to research and to find the words they can start to use.”
Boucher says the project has been fun, too, with lots of tea drinking, bannock eating, and laughs shared with Elders.
“Some of these words have not been used for 70 years, and to hear them again, it really lights up some of the Elders,” he said.
“We have to create a new community of speakers. Doing research like this on solar systems helps build a language.”
Boucher is also learning, he said. When he learned Chipewyan, his first language, there were no words for concepts like the cellphone, about which he now talks every day with students at school.
“The evolution of language is important,” he said. “And with that evolution, more people will be able to learn it and will want to learn it.”
He says projects like this one contribute resilience to Indigenous languages and act as a form of reconciliation.
“We all have to coexist. For people who aren’t from the North to bring even two or three words back to their communities or to their homes, that’s a plus,” he said.
“As a teacher, it’s the resilience that I have that is important. I think that’s the key, to keep speaking, to keep teaching people. That’s the step in the right direction.”
Boucher presented to attendees of the Dark Sky Festival on Thursday night, teaching people how to say the names of planets in Chipewyan.
“They’re all words that describe something. You don’t say ‘Jupiter,’ you say ‘the planet with rings.’ Just like you don’t say ‘Hay River,’ you say, ‘Hay on the River,’” he said.
“This was important for me to contribute to this festival, and it’s now a project that I’m going to continue to work on and continue to learn, to bring back the language.”