A woman who’s had a remarkable impact on education in the Northwest Territories received an honorary degree earlier this year.
Fibbie Tatti was recognized by Concordia University as an “ardent champion of Dene languages and cultures and Indigenous language education.”
“It was quite a surprise,” Tatti told CBC News this fall. “I feel great about getting this recognition for the work that I’ve done.”
Tatti, who grew up in Délı̨nę, is Sahtuotine Dene, a fluent speaker of the language, and a former languages commissioner of the N.W.T. She worked with the Dene Nation in its early years, hosted a radio show on CBC North, and visited Russia in 2003 as part of the Governor General’s state visit.
But her most significant legacy for northerners may be her work on the N.W.T.’s Dene Kede curriculum for Grades K-9.
The curriculum was developed in the 1990s and is “still upheld as probably one of the best Indigenous-focused curriculums in the country,” says Mindy Willett, an author, educator and the northern studies coordinator for the N.W.T.’s education department.
“Northerners don’t always know we’re leaders in this field.”
To write the curriculum, Tatti traveled all over Denendeh, meeting with elders, teachers and language specialists.
“It’s still being used 30 years later,” Willett says. “And it’s amazing.”
A unique effort
He describes Dene Kede as “a unique effort in the field of education to integrate Indigenous perspectives or to, in fact, express curriculum from an Indigenous perspective.”
He views Tatti’s work as part of an era of “profound reclaiming” of Indigenous language and culture prompted in part by the Berger inquiry.
Stewart said its influence has gone well beyond the N.W.T., informing similar efforts elsewhere.
“And it’s still used,” he said. “It’s still informing and guiding education in the N.W.T.”
In addition to her research and writing, Tatti is also known for her 2015 master’s thesis written for the University of Victoria, entitled The Wind Waits for No One. The paper offers a rigorous examination of Dene spirituality.
“There has been a lot of attempts to try to understand Dene spirituality,” says Paul Andrew, another Sahtugotine Dene who has known Tatti for 50 years. “Her paper is probably the best example of somebody who knows and is able to articulate what Dene spirituality is all about.”
More than that, Andrews says Tatti has had a profound impact on young people in the Sahtu region.
“She doesn’t talk about drum dancing: she drum dances. She doesn’t talk about knowledge of the language: she shares that language,” Andrews says.
“For her it’s all action, and I think that’s what young people see more than anything else.”
A love of language
Tatti says her career stems from her unusual upbringing.
When she was born, tuberculosis was raging in the North. When Tatti was one and a half, her mother and six other family members went to Fort Simpson, where the hospital was located, leaving young Tatti in the care of her grandfather.
This was the beginning of Tatti’s education.
“All the people that we went to visit were people of his age,” she said. “And we went to visit all the elders, and learned the language, heard the stories.
“The highlight I think is that the elders … decided that they’re going to share all their knowledge with me, and that I would carry it and share it. And so that’s what I’ve been doing for years.”
In her speech at Concordia, Dene thanked the elders who helped to raise her.
“I feel that in being granted the honorary degree, I am receiving it on behalf of my community,” she told the audience.
“But I also just love the language,” Tatti told CBC. “You can’t say enough about it. But also you can say exactly what you want to say in the language. You’re not looking around for words, you know, as you would in English.”