Written by Taylor Behn-Tsakoza
I can’t believe 2022 is upon us. As I reflect on the past year and look forward to this year, I am hopeful for what the next 12 months have in store for me and our communities. The last two years have been a blur, but the end of COVID restrictions, virtual gatherings, and stress on the healthcare system is near; it has to be. The grief, fear, and uncertainty from this pandemic have been overwhelming. At times, hope seemed to be the only thing keeping me going. Thankfully for Zoom, I have continued to work, further my education, and connect with youth across the country.
As we enter a new year, it is a great opportunity to set goals. I am a notorious resolution setter, and at times, breaker. Nonetheless, I set resolutions and goals every year. My biggest goal this year is to continue learning my language and one day be fluent in my Dene K’e (South Slavey). What I look forward to most in 2022 is the kick-start of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).
When it comes to learning my native language, I am fortunate only to be one generation behind on my dad’s side as he is a fluent speaker in the Beaver language. Unfortunately, in learning Dene K’e, my mom is not a fluent speaker, so I have a bit more work to do. I started my learning journey as an adult a few years ago. I attended a Dene language class in Calgary while attending school there. Although the Tsuu T’ina language is a different dialect, it’s very similar to my dad’s language. But I still wanted to learn Dene K’e. So in December 2020, I approached my language teacher from elementary school and asked if she wanted to be a mentor for the Youth Empowered Speakers (YES) program through the First Peoples Cultural Council– and she said yes!
I was so excited! We filled out the application together, and I was so hopeful that by the end of the year-long program, I would at least be able to converse with her and move beyond counting to ten and saying hello and thank you. But unfortunately, she passed due to COVID a month after I submitted our application. I was devasted and felt hopeless that I would never learn to speak my language.
As I mourned her passing and what felt like my only chance to learn my language, I continued to seek out opportunities to learn. My maternal grandfather is the only fluent speaker on my mom’s side, so I spent hours recording him speaking in our Dene language. However, at the age of 96, I knew our time together would be limited. He made his way to the spirit world in November 2021. Again, death brought a sense of hopelessness. Still, my desire to speak my language keeps pushing me forward, and I am sure I will learn into the next decade and beyond.
Over the last while, small reminders have reassured me that our people’s past and ongoing efforts to revitalize our languages are working and benefiting our communities. I received a calendar in Dene K’e from my Lands Office before Christmas. Just before that, my family was gifted CDs of my grandma Mary speaking with a linguist back in the ’80s. The linguist then complied a Slavey Dictionary for our community. Our languages are not ‘dead’ or ‘dying’; they are living and, in some areas, thriving.
When I visit friends in the Northwest Territories and see people my age conversing in their native tongue, I am reminded that our languages are still alive. Our languages are ready to be picked up and carried on. Before Christmas, Yukon First Nations announced that 20 youth from across their territory are being paid to learn and work with their languages! How cool is that? I am always in complete awe of the Yukon, NT, and other regions’ language initiatives for young people. We will all get there with the use of technology, apps, language nests, culture camps, linguistics, language revitalization programs, and funding.
Happy New Year! I will speak my language.
Edáidzénéchó Sîníé! Sedhá t’áh gohneh.