Rosa Mantla attended residential school in Fort Smith in the late 1950s and early ’60s but she never completed high school, choosing instead of spend her days on the land with her parents in the Tlicho region.
That decision preserved an important part of her heritage and didn’t prevent her from earning a master’s degree later in life.
“My parents and a group of families lived together in a camp out on the land, summer and winter, all the time. That was a great thing for me,” she recalls. “Otherwise, maybe I would have lost my language and culture. I really appreciate those years, living with my parents out on the land.”
Missionaries from Behchoko would leave books at the Indigenous camps and Mantla’s school-going siblings enhanced her literacy during the summers. She grew fond of reading.
She got a job as a classroom assistant in 1975.
“Just working in the schools, I gained a lot of knowledge in reading, writing and speaking (English),” she remembers.
She also recalls that many of the young pupils were proficient Tlicho speakers in the 1970s, which isn’t true today. Back then, there were many Tlicho people working as school staff – classroom assistants, elders, cooks, janitors, finance staff, school bus drivers. They would often speak in Tlicho.
“So the language was always there,” she says. “Our cultural way of life was lived by our people. In Edzo, kids would go hunting and snaring. They did practise their culture even though they were living in public houses – tanning hides, fishing, trapping. Our culture and language were connected together in the homes very strongly at that time.”
But the way of life continued to change.
“Most of our elders that were always out on the land, they’re not around anymore,” says Mantla, who now serves as language and culture co-ordinator for the Tlicho Government. “(The Tlicho language) can be stronger if we can get more funding and more programs developed. I’m sure it can happen. The Tlicho Government are running programs summer and winter, but they need to be well organized with programs and also to hire people who capable of passing on their knowledge and skills to the younger generation.”
There has been some headway with Tlicho language instructors working in the schools. Dene Kede and Tlicho history are part of the curriculum, Mantla acknowledges. Reinvigorating the language and culture is still possible, she insists.
“I have hope. Yes, I do. That’s why I keep on working all these years,” she says. “We have to have hope. It’s called survival.”
In her current role, Mantla also adapts Tlicho terminology for new and unusual English words. For example, over the Christmas holidays she translated words for gifts, decorations and manger.
She also has a hand in Tlicho immersion classes and ensures classroom materials are adequate.
Having worked as a teacher and a principal, Mantla gently laughs when asked why she felt compelled to pursue her master’s degree in language revitalization through the University of Victoria.
“You know, I asked myself that when I started to take that language revitalization course,” she says. “I asked myself so many times: at this age what am I doing?… I know how students feel now sometimes. It can be difficult.”
It took several years of determination to refine her thesis and build upon it whenever she could fit it into her schedule outside of work. She didn’t allow herself to quit. She did her thesis defence in Behchoko in front of her own people. Mantla was awarded her masters in 2017, the year before she was enshrined in the NWT Education Hall of Fame.
“One of the reasons why I really wanted to finish off the language revitalization (masters degree) was ever since I started working, the elders and our administrators at the time were telling us that you have to be a role model, you have to set an example,” Mantla says. “So, I said I’m going to set an example to complete what I started.”