Language is taken for granted by most, a form of communication many learn at a young age and develop through their years of living. Canadians are known for their use of English and French, but there are far more languages native to this land that are kept alive by the people who were here first.
“The Nakota language is very sacred. The Nakota culture is very sacred. When you don’t know your language and your culture, you don’t know who you are,” said Armand McArthur in the National Film Board of Canada documentary, To Wake Up the Nakota Language.
McArthur was one of the last fluent speakers of the Nakota language in Saskatchewan. He lived on Pheasant Rump First Nation with his wife Bev. He was at his home surrounded by family on January 25, when he passed away at the age of 73.
Keeping the language and the rich Nakota culture alive was McArthur’s goal as a Nakota language instructor at First Nations University of Canada and he also led Nakota language classes in Pheasant Rump.
The 2017 documentary To Wake up the Nakota Language—written and directed by Louise BigEagle—focused on McArthur’s efforts to save the Indigenous language from disappearing by spreading it to the current generation to preserve it for future generations.
“The National Film Board put out this project where they wanted people to put in ideas for a film and they chose three people and I was chosen,” said BigEagle. “The reason I came up with this film was because when my grandmother died she was fluent in Cree and when she was alive she really didn’t have anybody to talk to without any Cree speakers around. As well as, the University of Regina wasn’t teaching Nakota anymore because they couldn’t find a language teacher who was fluent.
“One day I made this post on Facebook and my uncle Armand made the push forward and contacted someone and he ended up teaching it that following year. He was already out teaching in the community because he was the only fluent speaker on Pheasant Rump and I came to realize there weren’t very many Nakota speakers in Saskatchewan—at that time I think there was 25 and there’s less now. That’s how I came up with the idea, hoping people would see the importance of revitalizing languages like Nakota, which is on the endangered list. We wanted people to walk away from the film thinking, ‘what can I do? What needs to be done?’”
The preservation of Indigenous languages is something that needs more attention or they’ll be lost forever, BigEagle explains, and that’s why McArthur was so passionate about teaching Nakota to anybody who would listen.
“It’s important,” she said. “It’s part of Canadian heritage and Saskatchewan heritage. There’s so many languages, Indigenous languages that were forgotten and are no longer around and it’s a big part of who we are as Canadians, as Saskatchewan people. Nakota is a language that could be lost because we’re not taught the importance of the language and that’s what I wanted to show in this film. Like my uncle says in the film, it’s important for anyone to learn the language—it doesn’t matter who you are—so it can be kept alive.”
The impact of losing a resource like McArthur on the Nakota language and culture can’t be put into words and BigEagle says he was focused on his work until the end.
“It’s a big loss,” she said. “In our culture we say it’s like losing an Indigenous library because he had so much knowledge in traditions, culture, ceremonies, the Nakota way of life, and songs that he was taught by his father and grandfather. He was about to start teaching language classes the week he passed away, and so now we’re trying to figure out who can we get to takeover and teach these classes. He was also recording language audio in Saskatoon just the weekend he passed away and we won’t be able to finish that. At his age he was still wanting to teach classes and he had just finished his book that he co-wrote with Wilma Kennedy—edited by Dr. Vincent Collette—and there was just so much he wanted to get done. It’s a big loss to the Nakota community to have him pass away.”
Peter McArthur grew up with Armand McArthur and over the last few decades they’d been working to teach the Nakota language.
“We went through a lot growing up,” McArthur said. “We went to reserve school and we were integrated into Carlyle School and all that time I never knew his dad talked to him—I didn’t know his dad taught him so much and showed him so much about the language. Nowadays, we’re all basically English—my mom and dad both spoke different languages and went to residential school. Armand told me he went to residential school for just a few days, he ran away and never went back—I think maybe that’s what helped him be more with his dad and his grandpa, that’s probably what helped him learn the language more.”
It’s been a long process that began in the 1990s when Armand and Peter began to realize if they don’t begin trying to preserve and teach the language then it could be lost forever.
“The most important thing was when we realized we were almost ready to do an autopsy with the death of our language, around that time we were having thoughts about it we became involved in what we called the unity ride. During that ride we met a lot of people from South Dakota and we rode with them for years—none of us were into our ceremonies so during that ride and after it we became more involved in ceremonies and learning a few words of the language and learning how important the language was to the ceremonies. At that time there was about 70 or 80 speakers—when my dad was alive he spoke it and some uncles and we had some distant relatives from White Bear that were known speakers, but now they’re down to one known speaker and her brother is at Ocean Man and he’s their last known speaker.
“In 1996 we were riding horseback all across north and south Saskatchewan and east and west into northern Alberta. We were just meeting people and sharing our concerns about the language and ceremonies. Some researchers came out to record the language from speakers and they gave us a nice dictionary to have—there were some regional difference with the different speakers who contributed a word or a phrase.
“In 2003, we were meeting people that were preserving the language from Carry the Kettle Reserve and I brought them to my reserve—we actually went to Indiana University where the language was being preserved more. The universities down there each kind of choose a language to focus on—like Colorado has Lakota—and Indiana focuses on Nakota and they also developed a dictionary of words. We got Armand involved in the early 2000s—when we were starting to have ceremonies in ’96, he was already doing the Nakota ceremonies with the people he knew from Montana. So we kind of sprouted at the same time and we had some money to spend on resource material and make our own. It got a little frustrating because towards the end it was really just me and Armand at the language meetings and things kind of died out.”
Peter says there are others who can speak the language fluently, but the loss of Armand is substantial because of his natural ability to teach it to others—before he died he was able to finish his work with Wilma Kennedy and Dr. Vincent Collette on a Nakota dictionary.
“We have about five fluent speakers in the province—there’s some at the Battleford reserve—but there’s a big difference in knowing it and being able to teach it. Just because someone knows the language doesn’t mean they can teach it—one of my biggest plans was to do a proposal to get a facility and record the speaker using all of today’s technology, but now we have nobody to record (without Armand). We need fluent speakers with teaching skills, there’s a lot of people who understand it and can have a conversation but don’t have the ability to teach it.
“Our language is unique and so we need to keep preserving what we have now, but we still need to develop a way to teach it. Now we need to find a unique teacher with unique skills. The best guy we’ve got now is this frenchman from Montreal (Collette), he and Armand got really close the last few years and they made 7,000 words—Indiana University only had 5,000 words. He said to me at the funeral, ‘well we’re still one up on Indiana now because we’ve also got phrases and sentences.’ That was one of our biggest drawbacks working at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Culture Centre and the University of Regina was they couldn’t use any material made by another university—they couldn’t use the material created by Indiana University.”
Everyone who knew Armand knew what type of person he was, someone always willing to give his time to help and that shone through with his efforts in saving and teaching the Nakota language.
“Armand used to be a singer with a group and they’ve almost all passed away now,” he said. “I asked the last remaining guy that he sang with (Oswald McKay), ‘what would you say about Armand in a one or two sentences?’ He said, ‘Armand was a good man. He was always willing to help in any way that he could.’ I’d say the same thing. He was fortunate to learn the language from his dad and I guess somewhere along the line he realized we’d need it and he’d be instrumental in helping restore it—Louise’s film shows that.”
When asked why they want to learn their language, McArthur says it’s because they want to pray like their ancestors, but keeping Nakota alive after losing Armand becomes an even tougher task—especially with the disparities in systems and pronunciation.
“In Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta we were having online language lessons so our group is quite spread out and the talk is now, how are we going to replace Armand? What are we going to do? We have a couple southern speakers, but the ones we have left prefer to do it phonetically and it’s going to change the way we say things now unless they go back to the Indiana writing system—which uses more punctuation.
“When you speak phonetically it changes the pronunciation of some letters and that’s why we’re trying to stick with the other one. I’m glad that Vincent Collette is going with this writing system instead of the phonetic one. It’s so simple to learn, but we don’t know all of the words. We’ve had a few meetings going over words because we have to get together and make sure everybody uses the same word for an item.
“I watched a David Suzuki show where he was in Thailand with a language preservationist and he marked off a large area in the jungle and said, ‘I want you to tell me in your language every plant that’s in there.’ We’ve lost that, we don’t know all the names of all of our plants anymore and who’s going to tell us now.
“They (Armand and Collette) just finished doing that dictionary a couple days before he died. Armand was the most important guy we had, and I’m going to miss him.”