“ Often, people who do not speak a language will experience feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, inferiority, inadequacy, intimidation, frustration, anger, isolation or hopelessness. They lack a sense of pride, belonging or acceptance. If language is not respected and given its proper place in society, some of its speakers may even come to resent the language group they are a part of, because they see it as being socially or intellectually inferior. All of these feelings can lead to major social problems.” …1992-93 Annual Report from the NWT Languages Commissioner, pg.9.
The Tłįchǫ Agreement and the Tłįchǫ Constitution set out the framework for self-government within which the Tłįchǫ people, through the Tłįchǫ Government, can assert their sovereignty as a distinct people within Canada. The Tłįchǫ Agreement and the Tłįchǫ Constitution lay down both a foundation on which to build and a beacon towards which the Tłįchǫ First Nation can move. These foundational documents create the legal and cultural basis for the long-term future of Tłįchǫ communities and the operations of the Tłįchǫ Government. The Constitution speaks to preserving and protecting language, culture and heritage, in the words of Monfwi, “for as long as the land shall last.” Promotion of Tłįchǫ language and cultural practices are embedded in the Tłįchǫ constitution. They are important values in their own right, and efforts to preserve language and culture parallel our governments’ efforts to protect land, water, and wildlife. As values they speak to our deep spiritual connection to the land as expressed by one of our elders, Elizabeth Mackenzie, “We are from the land…We are the land.” (Dene Kede: Education: A Dene Perspective, 1993, p.9)
Over the past few decades great changes have come to all our families and communities. Anecdotally, we know that Tłįchǫ language use is declining dramatically. At one time not so long ago, all Tłįchǫ children entered school fluent in our Tłįchǫ language, and learned English as a second language. Today most children in all our communities enter school with English as their only language. The decline of language use among children is matched by a decline in participation in traditional activities by families, and the passing of elders from many homes.
The decline of language use is noted in research around the world as a threat to the survival of minority cultures. Language is the vehicle through which cultural values, ethics and spirituality are expressed, and traditional knowledge and skills are practiced. With language loss, communities lose the vital knowledge of the specific and intricate knowledge of their ways of life accumulated over generations. In our Tłįchǫ communities, we know that as our children are involved in less and less of our culture and way of life, the “domains” of their language shrink from knowledge of the skills, attitudes and way of hunting, fishing, travelling on the land, our history, heritage and spirituality, to a limited community language that is a tragic form of language loss. Research states that language loss can damage the identity of our youth, and is related to the troubling health and other issues facing many First Nations.