Language past and present
Conference focuses on culture-based education and the role of language

by Glen Korstrom
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 13/98) - Elders, parents and educators all expressed their desire for more culture-based education at a recent territorial symposium.

"Language is very important because when we use our own native language we go into the thought world of our ancestors," said Angayuqaq Kawagley, a keynote speaker at the Yellowknife conference.

As a child, Kawagley was raised by his Alaskan grandmother, who told him stories that helped him realize what his Yupiaq ancestors were doing thousands of years before.

When stories are repeated, he said, they become part of a culture's present.

"In 1886, my grandmother was not allowed to go to school by her parents," Kawagley told the conference. "They thought that she'd become dumb."

The conference focused on completely different world views present in English-speaking newcomers, compared with various aboriginal local cultures.

"We have a right to our own native language," said Kawagley, who recently taught teacher education at Aurora College in Inuvik.

When Kawagley speaks of the need to keep the language, he does so from the perspective of someone who was forced into a church-run school in Alaska.

"I was punished so often for speaking my own language," he said. "'I must not speak Eskimo,' I had to write 100 times on the board. Then I could go home," Kawagley remembered.

Peter Fraser, from Fort Resolution, similarly remembered his days in the 1930s at a residential school in Hay River.

"When I went to

school it was more of a struggle than learning. If we didn't have a block of wood to burn, they'd send us home," he said.

"And that pretty much made thieves of us because we didn't have access to the wood."

When speaking more seriously, Fraser said the experience was tough because it was five years of not being home.

There were no letters from home and no breaks for Easter or Christmas, let alone a spring break.

According to Pauline Gordon, assistant deputy minister for education and culture, the government has learned from the past and schools are always improving.

Culture-based education has grown considerably in the last five years, she said.

Not only is the concept set out in the department's strategic plan, but communities are encouraged to develop their own programs to promote aboriginal culture.

Funding is assigned to education councils, which disperse the money to schools for local programs.

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