Riley Vance is perched on a wooden horse in his Whitehorse-area daycare when he starts singing about tidying up in Southern Tutchone, an aboriginal language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers left.
The three-year-old’s ditty is the fruit of an effort in Yukon’s Kwanlin Dun First Nation to teach dozens of children words and phrases in the endangered language daily at a local head-start program. They now have the first ever children’s book in the language.
“We’re at a critical stage with our language with only a few fluent speakers left, so it’s been exciting to have them singing nursery rhymes,” said Erin Pauls, who runs the Dusk’a Head Start program.
The Kwanlin Dun’s work has received royal attention. Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sat down in Whitehorse in late September with 25 children, an elder and the Southern Tutchone children’s book, which tells the story of William the moose searching for his son George. (The characters were named in honour of the royal visit.)
It is all part of an unprecedented effort by First Nations across Canada to save their struggling languages as fluent elders die off, the legacy of the residential school system’s attempt to suppress indigenous culture. First Nations leaders say that with forecasts that half of their elders will be gone within six years, the added sense of urgency has been channelled into children’s books, grade-school programs, smartphone apps and other initiatives.
Read more: The Globe and Mail