While I don’t speak my mother tongue, I have learned from those around me who do.
I have, as a Dene who grew up away from Denendeh, been lucky enough to be able to follow a constellation of stories to find my way home.
Whether it be the stories of my great grandfather George Blondin, or the prophecies of my four-times great grandfather Louis Ayah (Ehtse Ayah), or the works of my brilliant, beautiful grandmother Georgina Blondin, or the written work and linguistic scholastics of my scoundrel of a grandfather Duncan Pryde, language, and story, runs through my veins.
When looking at the celebration of Dene Languages, we are invited into paradigms and dimensions outside of the one that English inhabits alone, and whether that be through written story, like the works of Dene author Katlia Lafferty, or Richard Van Camp — who both utilize language as a way of bringing readers into worlds both old and new, or through films like those being shown across Turtle Island, we are lucky to live in a time when story is claiming its rightful place as medicine in a world deeply deprived.
While the Western world would have us see media and the arts as entertainment, Dene storytelling, oral culture, represents so much more than entertainment alone — story and language have the capacity to shift worlds.
We manifest in verbatim, our lived experience. And how we utilize, honour, and continue to speak languages other than English into the world will determine whether certain dreams, certain medicines, stay alive or dwindle, with time.
When I was a student in university, I first encountered works written by Indigenous authors who did not include translations and I was engulfed in wonder. We can do this? I wondered.
Slowly, over time, more literature — both academic and fictional — have shown themselves and this growing tide of holding space for stories that fall outside of what would have been shown in my classic literature syllabus — but have been far more impactful, and nourishing, for my Dene soul, especially as a young student and mother.
I craved seeing and feeling myself in stories and it is a great relief to see that work unfolding more as authors (such as Lafferty) take centre stage, unapologetically taking up space for literary expressions that do not maintain English as a dominant standard, but challenges the reader to not only consider everything from meaning, to context and pronunciation, but simply the invitation to slow down, and read/listen/engage with content in a different way than our expected norm.
We are offered this month, and every month, the chance to reflect on Dene (Indigenous) language and while I am learning as slowly as a child younger than my own daughter, how to pray to the Creator, and speak to the plants and the stars, slowly, word by word, and while I can sometimes see my late relatives chuckling or chiding me as I stumble over pronunciation, I know they do so lovingly — because, as my auntie reminds me, learning what it means to pray to Nehwesine in our way is different than spirituality and I am humbled just to be there in that moment, away from a screen like the one I type this on. Like I could be in any decade or century, sitting at the feet of my auntie — lost in learning, lost in language, lost in connection, in translation, in conversation.