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Dictionary aims to revitalize Blackfoot language


Windspeaker Staff







Page 44

LETHBRIDGE - In an effort to aid the Blackfoot people in their quest to revitalize the Blackfoot language, researchers at the University of Lethbridge have been compiling material for a Blackfoot-English Dictionary.

The project, supervised by Don Frantz, professor of Native American Studies, has received an additional one-year grant for $43,698 from the Social Services and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Dr. Frantz says the Blackfoot language is quickly becoming a lost art. Almost every Blood Band member spoke fluent Blackfoot when Frantz arrived from California in 1961 and at that time most preschool children on the reserve spoke more Blackfoot than English.

"Now it's the other way around," he says. "It's amazing that the language could lose ground that quickly."

Dr. Frantz says part of the problem results from a loss of pride in the language. "Children were bused to schools off the reserve where they were a minority," he added. "It was there that they picked up a negative attitude about their Native identity."

Dr. Frantz says there needs to be a change in the attitude toward the language, which he says is the foundation of the Blackfoot culture.

"The dictionary will be a valuable reference for preserving the language and will hopefully help reverse the trend in the declining number of Natives who can speak Blackfoot."

Norma Russell, a Native American Studies Graduate from the University of Lethbridge, has been the primary researcher for the project since it began. Currently, Celeste Strikes With A Gun, another U. of L., graduate and Jocelyn Shade, a U. of L. student, are working with Russell and Frantz on the project. Frantz hopes to have a publishable edition of dictionary completed within a year.

In the last four years, the team of researchers recorded more than 3,500 entries. They began their research using the only two Blackfoot dictionaries ever written. Both were written over 50 years ago and have long been out of print.

In addition to the old dictionaries, researchers have searched recorded Native text and spent many hours talking with elders of the Blood reserve. The Blackfoot language is still spoken by about 8,000 persons on the three southern Alberta reserves: Blackfoot, Blood and Peigan.

"All the information that we've gathered is recorded on a computer making it easy to revise each entry as often as needed," Dr. Frantz says. "We can correct or add to the definition of each word and the computer alphabetizes entries automatically."

The number of entries is deceiving, adds Frantz. Entries may have from two to eight forms of the word making the work move involved.

Sections of the dictionary are already being used in classrooms and for workshops.

"With the computer, we can supply parts of the dictionary to teachers who use Blackfoot in the classroom before the full dictionary is completed," says Dr. Frantz. "I have already used the dictionary in my Native American Studies courses on the Blackfoot language."

Dr. Frantz hopes the published dictionary will contain about 5,000 common word stems, basic roots and their uses in various types of sentences.

Most people have a "working vocabulary" of far less than 5,000 words, Dr. Frantz explains. "If you wanted to look up a Blackfoot word you hear in normal conversation, there's a really good chance it would be in a 5,000-entry dictionary."

He added that it would be possible to expand the dictionary extensively by asking elders about words and definitions no longer in current use. Since the roots and stems in the dictionary can be put together in various combinations to form new words there is theoretically no limit to the size of a Blackfoot dictionary.

"Any dictionary is a long-term project and it would take many years of work to do a complete job," said Dr. Frantz. "Our first step is to get the initial dictionary printed and then we'll work from there."