This teacher is revitalizing an endangered language spoken by only 215 people in Canada

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This teacher is revitalizing an endangered language spoken by only 215 people in Canada's Profile


Ktunaxa Nation language and culture co-ordinator Barbara Fisher says her community celebrates Christmas and New Year the same way as everyone else.

Except in their community, they greet each other in a language inherited from their ancestors.

“Kiʔsuʔk Kyukyit, K̓usmukusa‡ Ȼxama‡i‡” translates to “Hello, first prayers,” while “Kiʔsuʔk Kyukyit, K̓ukun Makut” translates to “Hello, another year.”

These are the Ktunaxa equivalent of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year,” according to Fisher.

Ktunaxa is the language of the Kutenai people living in British Columbia and neighbouring Montana and Idaho in the U.S.

A Christmas tree in front of a wall written with words "Ktunaxa Nation" in an office.
A Christmas tree at the Ktunaxa Nation office in Cranbrook, B.C. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

Latest census data from Statistics Canada shows that only 215 people across the country speak Ktunaxa.

The scarcity of speakers has prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to call it an endangered language.

Fisher says she was born and raised in a Ktunaxa-speaking family, but only learned to speak the language six years ago with elders in her community. 

She’s now part of a six-person group working with the Ktunaxa Nation Council to teach and preserve the language.

A woman in black looks at the words she wrote with a water pen on a white board.
Barbara Fisher pictured next to Ktunaxa holiday greetings on a whiteboard. ‘Kiʔsuʔk Kyukyit, K̓usmukusa‡ Ȼxama‡i‡’ is the phrase for ‘Merry Christmas’ while ‘Kiʔsuʔk Kyukyit, K̓ukun Makut’ is equivalent to ‘Happy New Year’. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

Fisher spoke to CBC’s Alya Ramadan and Corey Bullock about the importance of revitalizing the language.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


You were an adult when learning this language. What was it like to have the connection with your elders?

One of my mentors told me that you’re going to die, and what you leave our people with is your identity — who you are, where you come from, speaking the language and learning the culture.

My mentors gave me many obstacles and challenges to overcome, and I am so grateful for my past hardships. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.

Every day moving forward, I would love to give to others our Ktunaxa language and culture tools to start understanding how our communities need to heal to build up confidence, and to give others a safe place to do so when learning our language and culture.

Words printed on a wall mural.
Ktunaxa printed on a mural inside the Ktunaxa Nation office in Cranbrook, B.C. UNESCO has described Ktunaxa as an endangered language. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

Can you tell me about the work you’re doing to keep the language alive?

I do a lot of podcasting on Facebook and I bring a lot of awareness to our language. 

It’s really hard to know that our language has gotten to that point, and with about maybe 10 fluent speakers within our nation now, it’s really hard to keep the language going.

I studied with my elders, and they were able to give me an understanding of why our people are the way they are —  the hurts, the struggle, the pain — and why there is trauma attached to our language and why it’s so hard for our people to learn it, let alone to accept that this is their language.

A woman holds a paper with words printed on it over a desk.
Barbara Fisher reads prose in the Ktunaxa language. She’s part of a six-person group working with the Ktunaxa Nation Council to teach and preserve the language. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

I understand that there are going to be hurts and challenges for my apprentices. I understand those challenges will come to a point where they want to stop and cry. I’ll be there to let them know that they’re not doing this alone.

Do you have a message that you might want to send to your community about the language?

I want my community to know that the challenges are there, but you’re not by yourselves to overcome them. We’ll be able to work through things together.

Our ancestors have strived to continue to let us remember who we are and where we come from. I want people to understand that I am here to help and to give them a hope that one day we will have a revitalized language, and that we will become stronger and more resilient than other people.



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