Cultural Conservation:  A Tahltan fights to preserve his first nation’s language

Photo Credit: Amanda Follett Hosgood

Cultural Conservation:  A Tahltan fights to preserve his first nation’s language

👤Amanda Follett Hosgood 🕔May 31, 2016

It’s a well-worn cliché that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow.

Though widely disputed among academics, the claim underscores a language’s inherent connection to its culture: a people cannot live so close to the land for thousands of years without finding intimate ways to describe it.

Similarly, the Tahltan, a once-nomadic First Nation that has inhabited BC’s northwest for countless generations, have 400 ways of saying “to move.” But with only a handful of Tahltan-speaking elders left in the community, those words—along with the rest of the language—are at risk of disappearing.  

Oscar Dennis grew up in the Tahltan village of Iskut, 400 km north of Kitwanga. Although his father, James, spoke only Tahltan growing up, Oscar didn’t seriously begin studying the language until 2011. Today, it’s his passion to preserve it for future generations.

Oscar began the Tahltan Language Conservation Initiative after completing a master’s thesis about Tahltan language structure in 2014. He says the current “revitalization” method—attempting to preserve language through teaching memorization—isn’t enough: Memorization doesn’t work when there are 400 ways to say “to move,” he points out.

Instead, he advocates an emphasis on recording the language: preserve it now, so it can still be taught later. He is working with remaining speakers to create archives in both audio and printed formats, and to develop interactive digital resources, such as apps and e-books. He also hopes to produce a printed dictionary.

Connection to culture

In the past year, Iskut, a community of only a few hundred residents, has lost nine Tahltan speakers, often to cancer. Others are aging and unwell; all but two of just over a dozen remaining speakers are over 70. Oscar describes only five “high-level speakers,” one of which is his father, who learned English as a second language.

James Dennis suffers from Alzheimer’s. Living close to his father and helping to care for him has given Oscar the opportunity to work with his dad and develop a better understanding of the language.

“Our language is so complex,” he says. “I’m still learning.”

Tahltan is a Dene language, as is Navaho; the two are similar. During the Second World War, Navaho was used as a code system against the Japanese. Though complex, it is encrypted with pattern and understanding those patterns makes learning the language easier, Oscar says.  

“Many linguists I’ve talked to say there’s nothing like the Dene language,” he says. “It’s a really amazing language.”

Tahltan was originally documented by non-native speakers, preserving only a superficial snapshot of its complexity. Because those recording the language weren’t familiar with the culture or its worldview, translations directly from English meant that a Tahltan word was simply substituted for an English concept, Oscar explains.

Take, for example, the word for rainbow. It had previously been translated based on its English roots: rain and bow. According to Oscar, “In Tahltan, we don’t call the rainbow ‘rainbow.’ We call it ‘sky rope.’”

Additionally, no culture, and by extension no language, is static. Even as he works to preserve the language, it continues to evolve. As a result, Oscar questions the usefulness of teaching today’s students antiquated phrases like, “My mother is picking berries on the hillside.”

In an effort to keep up with the times, he recently created an app to help his 18-year-old nephew practise his Tahltan language skills. “He wants to say what’s real, what he could use,” he says. The app includes phrases for introducing himself, asking how a person is doing, and saying, “Check out that beautiful girl.”

Generation to generation

Caitlin Nicholson is Oscar’s former partner and greatest champion in his work to preserve the Tahltan language. As the mother of a Tahltan son, her motivation stems from wanting her grandchildren to know their language.

“You want your children to have the best. To me that’s the best—to get to learn your language,” she says. “If the older generation starts learning and we can get a few fluent speakers, we can teach the younger generation.

“It was super important for me that I start learning it.”

Nicholson lives in Prince George where she teaches high school art and English, including English First Peoples, which integrates an aboriginal curriculum. Working closely with Cree and Tahltan elders, she developed a children’s book in 2008 about the First Nations’ values of preserving language and culture: “I’ve always been interested in promoting indigenous languages,” she says.

Through editing Oscar’s work and studying independently (she listens to recordings in her car), she is beginning to pick up bits of Tahltan.

“I’m actually able to pick out sounds and words now. That was really exciting for me,” she says. “I’m not super good at it yet, but enough that I’m even starting to pick up errors in the Tahltan.”

Nicholson points out that Oscar has the cultural, academic and technological background to make this project a success. All it lacks are the funds to move forward: “It would be great if he got enough funding to work with a few more people,” she says.

“Oscar’s unusual. He will live on nothing to get this out there. Not everyone’s like that,” she adds. “It’s hard to have that discipline to not give up on your dream.”

Funding a dream

Government funding currently goes toward revitalization of the language—the memorization approach that, as Oscar points out, has been unsuccessful over the past 40 years in increasing the number of Tahltan speakers.  

Without funding for his efforts, Oscar has been working independently and recently began fundraising in the hopes of bringing others on board. A crowd-funding campaign (visit and search “Tahltan Language Conservation Initiative”) hopes to raise $35,000, which would buy recording equipment and hire other native Tahltan speakers to document their knowledge of the language.

“We need to get into conservation mode because our elders are dying,” Oscar says. “I can’t do it by myself.”

Using today’s technology means these modern-day teaching tools would be readily available to anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in learning the Tahltan language. De’eda Es-li’e Te-degēt, a book for children under 5, is already available for download through iTunes.

Oscar has also developed an interactive website dedicated to teaching the Tahltan language at A Facebook group called Tahltan Language Collective, which teaches through social media, has close to 800 members.

“This is my passion and my goal,” Oscar says. “I see how vulnerable our language is.”

Once the project comes together, a template for using modern technology to record and teach endangered languages would be made available to other First Nations. Through collaboration and innovation, there’s hope that not a single word for describing what’s important to a culture would ever need to be lost.  

“It’s really amazing to see a whole different worldview,” Oscar says about the learning process. “That’s what keeps people passionate about it.”