B.C. teen creating app, summer camp to revive First Nations language

Tessa Erickson says camps will provide pre-teens and teens with an immersive language experience

A 15-year-old high school student in British Columbia is turning to technology to help address a decades-old problem — how to revive an Indigenous language nearly lost to the residential school system.

Tessa Erickson of the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation is creating an app and organizing a summer camp to help get younger people in her central B.C. community speaking the Nak’azdli dialect of the Dakelh language.

“To me, it’s a bit of a symbol,” she said. “The language is really important to me, personally, because it’s a way to connect with my community and really bridge the gap between the generations.”

Members of her nation were fluent in the dialect about three generations ago, before they were sent to residential schools, Erickson said.

The Grade 10 student said she’s been told generations since then were afraid to teach the language to their children.

“They didn’t want the same experiences they went through to happen to their children if they passed on this language that was kind of looked down upon,” Erickson said.

Languages don’t die naturally but are actively snuffed out, usually by colonial forces, said Mark Turin, chairman of the First Nations and endangered languages program at the University of British Columbia.

Bringing them back is an explicitly activist and political act, and one that is key to reconciliation, he said.

“Languages are about a lot more than words and grammar,” Turin said. ”A huge amount of local understanding, of culture, ecology, relationships with ancestors, with the past and with the land is all encoded in language.”

Right now there’s an “exciting energy” across Canada among people doing the work, he added.

There’s some support from government, too.

Ottawa has committed $89.9 million over three years to preserving, protecting and revitalizing Indigenous languages and cultures, and it was announced in June that the federal government would collaborate with Metis, Inuit and First Nations leaders on developing legislation to save and revive their languages.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in 2016 that restoring Indigenous languages is the key to preventing suicides in First Nations communities.

He said Indigenous communities that do a better job of teaching their own language and culture see “massive decreases in suicide rates,” and those languages are an indicator of pride, identity, belonging and culture.

People already working to refresh and preserve mother tongues are using a variety of methods, Turin said. But everyday usage is key to revitalization.

“Tools and technology don’t save languages — speakers do,” he said. ”No app, no online dictionary, no website is going to help bring a language back. That’s about the commitment that people have.”

There are only a few people still alive who fluently speak the Nak’azdli dialect of the Dakelh language, Erickson said, and she’s working with them as she develops her app and plans for summer camps.

The app will be simple, she said, with lessons that teach greetings and give answers for simple questions.

Erickson hopes it will be ready for spring, so kids can use it before heading off to sleep-over language summer camps.

She said the camps will provide pre-teens and teens with an immersive language experience.

Erickson is also looking to improve her Dakelh. She already knows some words and can hold a simple conversation, but said she wants to work on communicating more complex thoughts.

Canada is in a unique position to lead other countries in the process of breathing new life into Indigenous languages, Turin said, adding he can see a future where Indigenous languages are included in this country’s official languages.

“These languages should be encouraged and nurtured and given the resources to thrive in this multicultural and diverse society.”

Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that there were more than 60 Indigenous languages reported, grouped into 12 distinct language families.

In November, Six Nations Polytechnic in southwestern Ontario launched its own app to help people learn the endangered Mohawk language.

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Shelter Point Distillery won several Canadian Whisky Awards this year, including a gold for best single malt. Facebook photo
Vancouver Island’s Shelter Point Distillery wins gold for single malt

Business won nine medals at recent Canadian Whisky Awards virtual ceremony

Nootka Sound RCMP responded to a workplace fatality report south of Gold River on Monday morning. (Campbell River Mirror photo)
One dead in accident at Western Forest Product’s TFL 19 logging site in Gold River

The RCMP and Work Safe BC are investigating the incident

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

Sean Smyth is expected to be announced the winner of the municipal by-election for city council today. Photo provided
Sean Smyth to replace Babchuk on council

Sean Smyth is expected to be named the winner of the 2021… Continue reading

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Riverside Calvary Church in Walnut Grove. (Langley Advance Times file)
B.C. is ‘stereotyping’ churches as riskier for COVID than other spaces, lawyer argues

Judge said that freedom of expression, religion are not at issue in the case

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell gets acquainted with Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Kim Baird’s 10-month-old daughter Sophia, husband Steve and four-year-old Amy at the B.C. legislature before a ceremony to endorse the Tsawwassen Treaty, Oct. 15, 2007. (Sharon Tiffin/Black Press)
Indigenous consent comes first and last for B.C. industrial projects

Environment minister can still approve permits without consent

B.C.’s court of appeal in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Kootenay man appeals 7-year conviction for New Year’s Eve kidnapping, beating

Brandon Coons, 27, was convicted on five charges, including assault with a weapon

Ladysmith’s famous Festival of Lights decorations are still up as of March 1, 2021. (Cole Schisler photo)
PHOTOS: It’s still looking a lot like Christmas in Ladysmith

Festival of Lights volunteers cannot remove the holiday roof top displays due to COVID-19

An investigation is underway after two VPD officers were recorded posing for pictures near a dead body at Third Beach on Feb. 24. (Screen grab/Zachary Ratcliff)
Vancouver officers placed on desk duty after filmed posing next to dead body

Pair put in ‘non-deployable, admin positions’ as the investigation into their conduct continues

(Black Press file photo)
Homicide team to look into death of 11-year-old Agassiz boy

Agassiz RCMP were called out Friday to assist with a child in medical distress

Most Read