The move to Canmore means that some of our closest neighbours live on the Morley Reserve and are members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations. Taking advantage of the wonderful resource that it ArtsPlace, we enrolled in a 10 week Stoney Nakoda Language and Culture course.
The course is run by Buddy Wesley who is one of the knowledge keepers of the Wesley Band from Morley. Stoney Nakoda is an oral language spoken by around 3000 people in Alberta. In recent years, a writing system has been developed with an alphabet and a series of rhyming syllables. Unlike English, these are always pronounced the same way.
Vowels are pronounced:
a as in father
e as in cafe
i as in ski
o as in go
u as in blue
â, î, û - nasalized
But the huge challenge is that no structure for learning the language has been developed. There are no verb conjunctions, dictionaries or spelling protocols.
It is rather fun to start to recognise words that we are familiar with as Nakoda. There is a lake outside Banff called Minnewanka. We now know that mînî means water and wanka means spirit. So Minnewanka translates as spirit water. Banff is mînî hrpa which translates as 'dropping of the water' - a nod to the waterfalls around Cascade Mountain.
And of course, language is strongly connected to culture. Numbers in Nakoda are interesting. because it is not a culture of commerce, they didn't really need big numbers. Up to about 20, numbers are quite sensible but then things get a bit out of control. One million is yawabi tâga which means big count. 152 is obûre wazi tathâm wikchemnâ thaptâ age nûm!
Time is a nebulous concept - things happen when it is time. This does frustrate the Western psyche and is known derogatorily as 'Indian Time'. But think about the concept - when is a baby coming? We cannot say a precise time but we can say early May and it will come when it is time. And when will the leaves open or the river break-up? Culturally, there has not been the need for 1pm Tuesday 10 May so the language reflects this.
The months relate to the cycle of the moon. January is wîchorâdu wahîyâba or the Midnight Moon. May is woya wahîyâba or Vegetation Moon, when things start to grow. It is also the new year due to the new growth. August is wasasa wahîyâba or Fireweed Moon. And when the leaves of the fireweed turn red, it's prime time for meat so it is when meat is hunted for the winter.
In Nakoda, you point with your lips and your fingers are used to point at people. And looking someone in the eye is rude and considered intimidating. If an older woman screeches Eeeeeh! and points at you without looking you in the eye, we think something is terrible wrong. But no, she is merely saying hello! And if you are a man, you are not allowed to speak directly to your mother-in-law instead, you must speak through an inanimate object. The same holds for a woman and her father-in-law.
And Mum will love this one - she who always watches the new moon to see whether it will be a wet month.... How the new moon sits in the sky is an indication of what the weather is going to be like for the next month. If the moon is on end, it will be a cold month. If it is horizontal, it will be a warm month and if halfway, a fair month.
And snow! Yes, lots of different descriptions for snow:
wapa - snow
wapach - snowing
wasmâ - deep snow
wasmohâ - into the deep snow
washâgejagen - skiff of snow
îhrpe yach - fallen snow
wapaïja stastach - hard snow that hurts the face
wapâtâtâ gach - big, fluffy snow
wapa ogahnorach - wet snow
wa oyumotatach - blowing snow
And some wonderful pronunciations - tababan is ball and to me sounds like a ball bouncing. Crow is a an, raven is kari and robin is siksosoga - just like the sounds they make.
And in the Stoney Nakoda culture, there is no need to say good-bye. You simply leave...