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Blackfoot language taught through new app

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A Piikani Nation member and professor from B.C.’s Simon Fraser University has developed an online tool to help people learn Blackfoot. As Erik Bay tells us, the hope is to revive the language not only among the Blackfoot community, but among those living on their traditional land. – Jul 7, 2021

Originally from the Piikani Nation, Eldon Yellowhorn hopes to revive the Blackfoot language with a new online app he helped develop as part of a team from Simon Fraser University.

“If we allow the language to go silent, then we lose a big part of our identity,” Yellowhorn said.

The program translates words from English to Blackfoot, allowing users to build phrases.

“We were inspired by Lego… because you can take elements and put them together to form a sentence,” Yellowhorn said.

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Using oral tradition — passing the language from person to person — which is an important part of Blackfoot culture, Yellowhorn’s voice provides the pronunciation of the words.

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Yellowhorn said he remembers when the Piikani Nation was hooked up to the electrical grid, bringing television, radio and record players into the community, which he believes led to a decline in Blackfoot speakers.

“All of this popular culture was coming in English and it didn’t have any room for Blackfoot, because we didn’t hear anything in Blackfoot,” he said.

“We missed out on the broadcast revolution and now we’re into this digital revolution and I don’t want Blackfoot to miss out on it too.”

He said the program is meant to bridge the gap between generations, helping elders spread their beloved language.

“If you only speak with an elder or somebody once a week, by the time you go to meet with them again you’ve forgotten the lessons you learned the last time,” Yellowhorn said.

“This helps people to keep refreshed in their use of the language.”

As the Lethbridge Friendship Centre’s youth coordinator, Latoya Healy creates cultural programming for Indigenous youth.

“A lot of our youth clientele who come through our doors are actually looking and seeking to find out more about their culture and their roots,” she said.

Healy is excited about the possibilities of digital programs like the app, for anyone trying to tap into their heritage.

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“A great approach towards reclaiming our language and reclaiming our identity because it kind of gives these kids easier access,” Healy said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

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Created in partnership with the Peigan Board of Education as a resource for students, Yellowhorn doesn’t see the technology limited to the Blackfoot community.

“There are millions of people who live in traditional Blackfoot territory,” Yellowhorn said. “Why can’t they contribute some of their energy in helping to preserve this Blackfoot language?”

Yellowhorn is currently making voice recordings of Blackfoot words for numbers to expand the program. A Cree version is expected to be developed by the fall.

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