Interest in online Indigenous language class spikes during COVID-19

·3 min read

An Indigenous language teacher has seen a boom in people interested in her class during the pandemic.

Theresa O'Watch teaches Nakoda language classes online through the File Hills Qu'Appelle Tribal Council. They can be found online or through the tribal council's app.

Before the pandemic, she would have a small group in person at the Friendship Centre in Regina. Since moving online the class has continued to grow.

"It's been an amazing response," O'Watch told The Morning Edition host Stefani Langgenegger. "I believe we have well over 150 and climbing."

O'Watch has had a complicated history with her language and culture. She grew up speaking her language but soon stopped when she began school.

"My mother and father were fluent speakers, so I was born into the language," she said. "I wish that I would have appreciated it more … the reserve life … But at the time, I didn't realize how valuable that knowledge would have been to me. I should have embraced it more."

aba wasté is 'good day' in Nakoda

O'Watch was sent to school in the nearby town, where she says she was ridiculed and taught English. At the time, she was ashamed of her culture.

Decades later, O'Watch was living a difficult lifestyle and dealing with alcohol consumption. Then her sister started advocating for the language. Freda O'Watch wanted to see more people speaking Nakoda once again.

Freda organized gatherings of Nakoda speakers from Canada and the United States and dreamed of more people speaking. Her Nakoda name was "Pte Hoda wiya," which translates to "Great Buffalo woman."

"She was the oldest in our family," Theresa said. "Both of us were the only girls and Freda was more of a mother to me than she was a sister. So her death was a great loss for me."

Submitted by Theresa O'Watch
Submitted by Theresa O'Watch

Freda died in December 2018. It was a wake up call for Theresa. She took it upon herself to continue her sister's work with the Nakoda language. She started teaching and advocating in Freda;s memory.

"I felt very strongly that I had to continue on for her," she said. "When I'm teaching language, I know she's sitting right here beside me, watching me and guiding me."

Há is 'yes' and Hiya is 'no'

At first, uptake for the class was a little slow. Theresa would have one or a few students a night. Then it slowly grew to a bit more than a dozen. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Theresa had to move online.

"It was really hard at the beginning of the online classes," she said. "Like I'm old school, you know, I still write letters and when I'm doing my class, it's all on paper and pen."

Submitted by Theresa O'Watch
Submitted by Theresa O'Watch

Her children and grandchildren helped with the technical side in the beginning. The interactions aren't the same, Theresa said, but now hundreds have access to the class. She is just happy to see people speaking Nakoda.

"As long as we are talking the language, that's all we want to hear. We want to hear that language out there," she said with a laugh. "I'm not your spelling teacher. I don't care how you spell it. Let's just talk."

Theresa said her journey rediscovering her language shows others can do the same.

"My ancestors have always said that that language and that culture, that's your identity, that's who you are and I truly believe that," she said.

nambe yuzaza wo! means 'Wash your hands!'

She said learning Nakoda helps people know they belong.

"That's how we're going to take our children back from the streets and from a society that was never meant for us," Theresa said. "This is our culture, this is who we are, this is where we belong."

Next month will mark two years since Freda's death. Theresa said she hopes Freda is looking down on her teaching and the language with pride.

"I'm sure when I stumbled, she was right there picking me up and telling me, come on, just to keep going."