A way with words
Norwegian incorporates Dene language and culture

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

FORT PROVIDENCE (Oct 29/99) - An integrated approach.

That's how Deh Cho students are now learning the Dene language and culture, according to Andy Norwegian, language specialist with the Dehcho Educational Council since 1986.

For instance, students at Deh Gah school in Fort Providence integrated an entire unit on the traditional practice of fishing into practically every subject.

They applied it in math by graphing the number and types of fish they caught in their nets; in science by studying parts of the fish under microscopes and having an renewable resources officer explain fish migration patterns; in art by dyeing the scales and using them in artwork; in home economics by cleaning the fish and making a dinner, which the community was invited to attend.

At Thomas Simpson school, traditional drumming and science were paired. Students learned not only about drumming, but about the composition of wood, acoustics, making glue from moose joints and the effects of warming or steaming the drum.

A number of schools such as Echo Dene and Bompas have created cultural camps with traditional activities. The Dene language can then be applied in authentic situations.

Andy Norwegian helped to create the vehicle upon which many of these projects are based -- the Dene Kede program.

"These topics lend themselves well to the core subject areas," he said in his office in Dehcho Hall, which is filled with Dene symbols and photos of Dene elders.

Dene Kede, which is North Slavey for "Dene language," (South Slavey is Dene Zhatie) has been developed for kindergarten through Grade 6 and has been in place since 1993. A junior high curriculum is currently being refined.

Norwegian works with eight language specialists in schools around the Deh Cho, most of whom have their own classrooms. In his days as a classroom assistant, things were much different.

He recalls being allotted a small storage room out of which to work and he was handed a social studies textbook and told to apply the Dene language to it.

"The place of language and Dene culture in the classroom certainly has changed," he noted.

Of course, the use of the language has also changed -- it's shown signs of decline. When Norwegian was an elementary school in his home community of Jean Marie River, everyone spoke the Dene language, he said.

When he returned as a teacher 20 years later, two of 14 students were fluent in the Dene language, four could understand it but were unable to converse in it, while the rest were unilingual English.

"I think this is when I decided to specialize in the language area, to assist in teaching the language program," Norwegian recalled.

His studies in this field took him as far away as Albuquerque, New Mexico where he took courses in linguistics and to the University of Calgary and University of Saskatchewan.

In 1991, he became involved in the standardization process, which saw common symbols used among the five Dene languages. There are 46 consonants and 10 vowels in the South Slavey tongue, some oral and some nasalized. Converting the Dene language into a written Roman orthography form, was a somewhat controversial move. It had never been a written language and some questioned why such an effort should be made. Norwegian said he believes its chances of surviving are greater as a written language.

Norwegian's experiences have even seen him work one-on-one with Pope John Paul II. During the pontiff's visit to Fort Simpson in 1987, He spent 10 minutes coaching the Pope so he could deliver a few words in the Dene language.

Today, he periodically receives calls at his office from all over the country. From post-secondary students to those who have moved elsewhere and people who were adopted as children, Norwegian responds to requests for cultural history and language materials. The language centre's most recent publication is a South Slavey dictionary.

While culture and language seem to be gaining ground in learning institutions, Norwegian said it's important not to forget their importance in the home.

"I think it has to be a language that is used in the whole community, not just in the school," he said, citing a language conference in Fort Providence where all the delegates were conversed fluently in Slavey. "Those are the types of things that have to happen if the language is going to survive."

His own home is no exception.

"Yes, it's a mixed bag at home," he said with a smile, noting that his wife, Rolande, is French, while his children, Zita and Guy, speak each language to some degree. "We're a trilingual family."