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Arts

‘It’s in my DNA.’ A personal language journey in Łútsël K’é

This spring, a Dëne Sųłiné Yati revitalization project is starting – headed by a researcher with deep roots in Łútsël K’é.

Shawna Yamkovy is conducting her Masters of Arts Global Leadership capstone project on the language spoken in the 314-resident settlement on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. While pandemic-related delays had her in research mode for over a year, Yamkovy will now – with the guidance of ethics committees – begin connecting with the community.

Yamkovy will use an online questionnaire and video calls before eventually visiting Łútsël K’é when the Covid-19 pandemic allows. She envisions her work culminating in a new curriculum, the recording of fluent speakers, and an app through which people can learn the dialect of Dëne Sųłiné.

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The exact result of her work, she said, depends on the community.

Yamkovy thinks this is an exciting time for Indigenous people working on language revitalization. This generation, she said, is the “bridge” to ancestral teachings and the older generation who were unable to or did not pass on their language due to experiences with colonization. 

Yamkovy’s family has a deep history in Łútsël K’é. Her grandparents, Maurice and Judith Lockhart, were some of the first residents of the community, then named Snowdrift. In 1992, it was renamed Łútsël K’é – “place of the cisco fish” in Dëne Sųłiné. 

Shawna Yamkovy’s mother, Emerence Yamkovy (born Lockhart), in Edmonton, where she went from her home in Łútsël K'é to attend college
Shawna Yamkovy’s mother, Emerence Yamkovy (born Lockhart), in Edmonton, where she went from her home in Łútsël K’é to attend college. Photo courtesy of Shawna Yamkovy

Her mother, Emerence (Emmy) Yamkovy, was born there before attending St Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution from the age of six to 18. Each year, Maurice and Judith made the journey in a small, uncovered boat to bring their children back from residential school for the summer. 

As a result of the immense efforts of her grandparents, Yamkovy’s mother and all of her uncles remained fluent in Dëne Sųłiné. Yet they did not pass it on to their children — a common experience for residential school survivors.

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“Sadly, it worked in some ways, the language genocide of residential schools,” Yamkovy said. “Fortunately, culture and other things were not lost – relationships with the land, spiritual gatherings, etcetera. Language was the one that really was affected.” 

Decline of Dëne Sųłiné mirrors trend

Fewer than 10 percent of the 800 or so Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation members are fluent speakers. The percentage is even smaller for those who live in the community, Yamkovy said, with speakers of the language usually being in their late forties or older. 

What is happening in Łútsël K’é is also happening across the NWT.

Census data from 2011 to 2016 reported declining numbers of people who speak an Indigenous language at home. In 2020, the Office of the Auditor General found the GNWT’s education department had been slow to introduce support for Indigenous languages in schools, despite being responsible for this “for decades.” 

Since 2016, several language revitalization efforts have begun. An Indigenous language curriculum was rolled out in 2020 and local initiatives are under way, such as a Gwich’in immersion daycare program at Inuvik’s Children First Centre. The 2021 territorial budget includes $600,000 earmarked for the development of an Indigenous language immersion program for adults.

Being community-led, Yamkovy’s project will involve “deep listening to Elders,” seeing what is needed and what has worked in the past. 

From her research, Yamkovy said, she knows land-based education and environmental learning are effective. She also wants to create spaces where people can gather, drink coffee and tea, and laugh and share in the way they were taught, “around the kitchen table.”

“We may have to do some formalities with curriculum in schools but, really, it’s listening to these Elders and how they were taught,” Yamkovy told Cabin Radio, adding the goal is to have the language heard on a daily basis. 

Yamkovy said she is honoured by the interest she has had from fluent speakers so far. As working with language is trauma-related, she said, her first consideration is to do no harm and to have supports in place.

“As an Indigenous researcher … I have to have the best practices and ethical standards, because I’m coming in as the grandchild,” she said. 

Personal reconnection for Dene researcher

Language regeneration is personal for Yamkovy. A Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation member, she was born and raised in Alberta and is the daughter and granddaughter of fluent speakers. 

“I can speak for where my mom couldn’t, she passed away in 2001 before the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission],” Yamkovy said. “It’s a reconnection for myself … that language was important and my mom, for whatever reasons, didn’t have the opportunity – based on primarily residential school teachings – to feel that it was something that was important to pass on.” 

Shawna Yamkovy’s mother, Emerence, and uncle Felix Lockhart on the front steps of St Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution
Shawna Yamkovy’s mother, Emerence, and uncle Felix Lockhart on the front steps of St Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution. Photo courtesy of Shawna Yamkovy
Shawna Yamkovy’s grandparents and their children in Łútsël K'é during summer residential school holidays
Shawna Yamkovy’s grandparents and their children in Łútsël K’é during summer residential school holidays. Photo courtesy of Shawna Yamkovy

Other family members are involved. Yamkovy’s aunt – the late Sandra Lockhart, a vocal advocate for Indigenous women in the NWT – was a student in the Royal Roads University program in which Yamkovy is now enrolled. 

Lockhart began the program in 2018, but had to withdraw and passed away in June 2019. Before she died, she told her niece she should take the program.

“She was my mentor and also … a mom to me,” Yamkovy said. “That’s really what the motivation was, to pick up where she couldn’t finish the program.”

Learning Dëne Sųłiné is a slow process, involving many calls with her uncles and aunties, much repetition and a lot of laughter. Yamkovy also uses the First Voices app to learn phrases and sentences. 

Even with summer visits to Łútsël K’é, Yamkovy always felt a disconnect growing up as many LKDFN members have – away from the community. “When I started to go back into the language, it’s almost like it’s a part of who I am, it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA, bone memory. It’s there,” she said. 

Shawna Yamkovy’s grandfather and one of the first residents of the community of Łútsël K'é, Maurice Lockhart, on the land hunting. Yamkovy says much of the culture of hunting and harvesting is stored and shared through Dëne Sųłiné Yati
Shawna Yamkovy’s grandfather and one of the first residents of the community of Łútsël K’é, Maurice Lockhart, on the land hunting. Yamkovy says much of the culture of hunting and harvesting is stored and shared through Dëne Sųłiné Yati. Photo courtesy of Shawna Yamkovy
Maurice Lockhart playing fiddle at his 99th birthday party
Maurice Lockhart playing fiddle at his 99th birthday party. Photo courtesy of Shawna Yamkovy

Through this process, Yamkovy better understands the importance to Dene people of relationships with the land, the animals, and their protection.

“Chipewyan Dene are land people. We’re born and raised on the land and … had to be really resourceful to survive in these harsh climates,” Yamkovy said. “The language was essential in my grandparents teaching their children the ways of the land and how to connect with the land.” 

Her grandparents’ generation had a sacred connection to the animals, involving visions and spiritual practices in the harvest. And the community still comes together, trapping, harvesting caribou and muskox, and using every part of the animal.

“I’ve seen that growing up but really, seeing it still continuing … the culture is very strong and very proud, it’s not going anywhere,” Yamkovy said. “These are the places where Elders can really teach.” 

Yamkovy aims to carry on the language revitalization project through a PhD at Royal Roads. It’s imperative to do this work now, she believes. 

“Language identifies who you are as a Chipewyan,” she said.

“Ten years, 20 years down the road, to not have any fluent speakers in the community would really affect who the Chipewyan Dene really are. The time is really now.”

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