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Indigenous language mentorship program kicks off in YK

This is the first installment of a two-part series.
Dolly “Dee” Pierrot, left, practises Dene K’ede with her mentor Mary Jane Blancho on July 8 during a lunch break at the Explorer Hotel, where a two-day training session was taking place for participants in the Mentor-Apprentice Program. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

This is the first installment of a two-part series.

As summer temperatures rise and greenery grows everywhere, Dolly “Dee” Pierrot is beginning a 10-month journey to get closer to her Indigenous roots.

Pierrot is among 80 participants in the 2021-2022 Mentor-Apprentice Program (MAP) that pairs a fluent speaker of an Indigenous language with a learner. The goal of MAP is to boost the ability of apprentices to understand and speak their language over a 10-month period, with seven to 10 hours of immersion sessions per week. The program operates under the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE)’s Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat.

READ MORE: Mentor-Apprentice Program

The 2021-2022 MAP offering pairs training in Inuvialuktun, Gwich’in, Dene K’ede (Sahtu Got’ine), Dene Zhatie, Tlicho and Denesuline (or Chipewyan).

Pierrot’s teacher, Mary Jane Blancho, is instructing her in Dene K’ede, the language spoken in Fort Good Hope and in the Sahtu region, where both women are from.

They were in Yellowknife on July 8 and 9 for a training session at the Explorer Hotel for the 12 pairs of Tlicho and Dene K’ede language participants. Sessions for the Inuvialuktun and Gwich’in pairs are due to be held in Inuvik on July 13-14 and in Yellowknife on July 20-21 for Dene Zhatie and Denesuline participants, said Angela James, director of the Indigenous Language Revitalization Initiative.

MAP began as a pilot in the NWT in 2019-2020. During the 2020-2021 program, 74 participants completed the 10-month course.

‘Language is at the tip of my tongue’

Pierrot applied to MAP in May. The program stipulates that mentors can’t be friends or relatives of the apprentices, although Pierrot was familiar with Blancho from Fort Good Hope.

“I selected (her) because she’s a patient person and I needed somebody that’s going to be committed to my learning process for the next 10 months,” Pierrot said. “I asked her and she said she was interested (and) she eventually said she would be my mentor.”

Pierrot’s goal in MAP is to advance her proficiency in the language to the fluency level. Although she said she can understand Dene K’ede fluently, she struggles to string words together into smooth sentences.

Growing up, everyone around her spoke the language but no one in her immediate family actively encouraged her to speak it or helped her with pronunciation.

“I feel like the language is at the tip of my tongue and it needs to flow,” she said. “When I told that to the MAP interviewers they said that I’m at the advanced stage and that learning can happen really quick at that stage. That made me excited and hopeful that I’m going to start speaking the language fluently. I asked (Blancho) to help me keep this dream alive. She said she would. I needed to hear that commitment from her.”

Mentors and apprentices can agree upon the weekly hours and schedule them how they want. They must submit details on how they spent their time to the MAP coordinator.

Pierrot and Blancho have yet to prepare a detailed plan of their speaking sessions, but Pierrot said they’ve discussed cooking together in Sahtu Got’ine, talking about recipes, going for walks and picking berries.

“The other idea was reading a children’s story book in Dene K’ede,” she said.

Gardening in the language could be an option too, since Pierrot’s community plot is next to Blancho’s.

This is the first time Blancho has worked in a teaching capacity with the language. She holds a part-time job as a custodian in the Fort Good Hope band office.

Blancho admits to feeling both excitement and nervousness when Pierrot chose her to be a mentor.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to teach her the correct pronunciation, but she said that’s OK as long as she learns the right words,” she said.

Originally from Colville Lake, Blancho was raised speaking Dene K’ede by her parents.

“(Pierrot) has to work on pronunciation and naming things. I’m not going to throw big words at her but start with short sentences,” she said.

Outside of the MAP sessions, Pierrot encourages friends and family to speak to her in the language as much as possible to give her added encouragement.

“I want people around me to keep me afloat,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the next 10 months of learning my language fluently, and also building my confidence around my language as well. I think that’s a barrier to many people learning the language.”

Next week: Paid to learn the language