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Educator working to preserve Indigenous language

Published on

Troy Shantz

A Sarnia woman is part of an effort to preserve one of North America’s endangered Indigenous languages.

Educator Sheri Henderson has developed a school curriculum based on the Blackfoot language for the Kainai-Blood Tribe, based near Stand Off, Alberta.

Most Blood Tribe members in the region can understand the language, but researchers estimate only about 18% are fluent or able to write it, Henderson explained, and most of them are elders.

“When those original elders are gone nobody is there to speak (Blackfoot),” she said.

The Kainai-Blood Tribe has a population of 12,800, according to the Band’s website. They’re one of four Blackfoot Nations, with traditional lands across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana and Idaho.

The former Northern Collegiate teacher said community leaders believe knowing the language is essential to maintaining customs and traditions.

She’s working with a firm called E3 on the project. Some written guides exist for the language, but much of it is through the oral tradition, she said.

And some words relevant today simply don’t exist in Blackfoot.

“There’s no word for tripod in Blackfoot. Why would there be?” Henderson said, recalling a recent interaction her team had with community members.

The first phase of the project was identifying missing words and working with leaders to fill in the gaps, said Henderson.

“They are creating the language today.”

Henderson, who’s leading the curriculum design, has finished lessons for kindergarten to sixth grade. The kindergarten curriculum will roll out this fall for the first time.

Henderson had never before worked with a North American Indigenous language, but 15 years of teaching communication on four different continents has equipped her well, she said.

She uses a teaching technique called the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. It emphasises personally relevant statements for students, as opposed to verbs and tenses, she said.

Most recently she used the approach with an indigenous tribe outside of Dubai, U.A.E.

“If you’re teaching communication, your goal, in an authentic approach, is to get people to be able to ask questions, answer questions, to actually communicate.”

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