A major collaborative project is underway to develop resources for teaching Aboriginal languages in northern Saskatchewan.
The Gift of Language and Culture Project started in 2003 as a means of addressing the problems of language loss in Cree communities, which is complicated by the shortage of materials to help teach the language. The partners in the project, which include the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC), the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB), Onion Lake First Nation and the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, applied for-and received-a five-year federal grant. This funding allows them to work on materials development for a full-scale nursery/pre-kindergarten to Grade 9 Cree language curriculum.
This August, the Northern Lights School Division-which operates all but two of the provincial schools in the northern half of the province - joined the project, adding several more staff (including Cree and Dene curriculum developers) and all of its existing Aboriginal language teaching resources to the materials created by the partners.
"The three largest groups that have been working on (Cree language) curriculum development were working in isolation before, and now have formally come together and are sharing the resources," explained Minnie McKenzie, the LLRIB site co-ordinator for instructional development.
Under the terms of the proposal, the LLRIB is in charge of developing resources for instructional or core Cree language classes, while Onion Lake's group-headed by Brian McDonald-is working on an immersion program. Thanks to a Web site (www.giftoflanguageandculture.ca) and the assistance of Saskatchewan Learning, all of the materials are available to the public and are being added to the provincial curriculum.
This will be a major boost for language teachers elsewhere in Saskatchewan, and will help alleviate a problem that all of the partners have faced-how to acquire the materials needed to make learning fun and exciting for students when there are no publishers producing those materials
"It's a very unselfish approach to language materials development," said Ralph Pilz, the NLSD's director of education. "It's in the northern psyche. You have to co-operate and help one another... and this is just another example of that."
Use of the materials won't be limited just to Cree classes. Through various partnerships, the materials are being adapted into the Woodland, Plains and Swampy Cree dialects, plus into Dene, Michif, Dakota, Lakota, Nakota and Nagawe (Saulteaux).
"What impresses me is that they're bringing together something that should have been done a long time ago," said Larry Ahenakew, Saskatchewan Learning's Aboriginal education superintendent.
"What's happening here is that now they have the money and the people-the human resources-to be able to really have a concerted effort in putting together the materials and writing the curriculum."
For a long time, teachers in LLRIB schools have been requesting resources, but the band's Cree curriculum development team couldn't keep up with the demand, McKenzie said. Some teachers were hesitant to even try to teach Cree because there weren't enough supplementary teaching materials.
Onion Lake, meanwhile, had been experimenting with a kindergarten-level immersion program for close to seven years when the project started, but they didn't have the funds to develop the program the way they wanted to.
Now, the LLRIB and Onion Lake teams both have large staffs, all of whom are fluent Cree speakers. There are curriculum developers, resource developers, Web developers, computer technicians, illustrators, graphic artists and audio-visual technicians, all working on various components of the project-storybooks, word lists, CDs and more.
Elders are consulted regularly. As Minnie McKenzie said, "They are the carriers of our language. A lot of vocabulary we've lost already. We're trying to get as much vocabulary as possible from the Elders."
This year, the La Ronge tem hopes to complete work on language classes up to the Grade 4 level, while Onion Lake-which is developing a full immersion curriculum-is working on Grade 2 materials. The LLRIB's Bell's Point elementary school has its nursery to Grade 1 students receiving Cree language instruction, using the new materials, for 45 minutes a day, and Onion Lake is piloting its newly-completed Grade 1 curriculum. Sixty-five kids at Onion Lake are currently enrolled in full immersion classes, at the discretion of their parents.
While it draws on the Saskatchewan Learning curriculum, the immersion program at Onion Lake is uniquely suited to its location and its people, said Brian McDonald. "We laid it out on how we see the world and how we live on a daily basis, according to seasons ... We wanted to focus on what was relevant to the kids in our community."
"We want to make sure we do not leave out our values and beliefs," he said. "We try and put everything in, what the kids need to know to get that sense of pride in who they are, because that's not included in the provincial curriculum."
In developing and promoting Cree language instruction, both teams have encountered some resistance. In Onion Lake, McDonald copes with opposition to the immersion concept and, despite expressions of interest, low turnout for his adult Cree classes. McKenzie, meanwhile, is frustrated with attitudes among the young and middle-aged adults toward Cree.
"We're trying to decolonize them again. Their way of thinking is that English is more important than any other language," she said. "So, we have to get them thinking that Cree is still important, and the only way we're going to keep the language alive is by using it."
Both McKenzie and McDonald have big dreams for their projects. McKenzie wants to see the LLRIB graduate students fluent enough to fully understand, speak, read and write in Cree, using both.
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