Saving the Huron-Wendat Language

Yawenda Conference sur la langue huronne 25 au 27 sept 09 012.jpg
Photo: Marie White

"Language is an integral part of culture; it is the essence of culture," says Linda Siouï, a member of a Linguistic Committee and Yawenda's organizer, a project set to revive the Huron-Wendat language, now defunct in preference for French, in Wendake. She has worked for many years on the cause, speaking out in her 1992 article Is there a future for the Huron Language? where she was already asking the question "Is the revival of the language a possibility or a utopia?" Seventeen years later, the Yawenda Project is dedicated to making it possible

Launched in the summer of 2007, the Yawenda Project has a five year span and a one million dollar grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to reconstruct the language in the hope of making it the community's second language. Based on a close partnership between university specialists (such as Louis-Jacques Dorais from Laval University, Quebec University in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and various linguists) and the village of Wendake, (including partners such as The First Nations Education Council and the First Peoples' Heritage and Language Council), the Yawenda Project plans to train teachers and create pedagogical material to teach Huron in preschool, elementary school and adult education. Presently, ten future teachers are following weekly workshops in the language and in the methods of teaching a second language. Conferences are on-going, including inspirational talks such as on how the Mohawks preserve their language which helped the Huron-Wendats to think in terms of an Iroquoian language model, unlike the now more familiar French one.

Members of Wendake's Linguistic Committee began work about fifteen years ago, stopped and then restarted in 2006 trying to standardize the written form of the ancestral language. Its handful of members has been trying to achieve a consensus on how to reconstruct the language based on the expert knowledge of scholars who also have studied the language while all share the dream of breathing life back into the precious ancestral language.
"Culture is the soul of a nation and language, its cement," says Linguistic Committee member and anthropologist-poet-artist Louis-Karl Picard-Siouï. "Yawenda will reinforce a sense of identity and bring the community closer." Elder Annette Vincent spoke of giving the youth the opportunity to learn the treasure of their rich language.
Since a language is also a window on the world, a way of seeing life, Linda Siouï hopes to better understand her ancestors' thoughts and vision. "One of the aims of restoring the language would be to shed light on how the ancient Huron thought," she wrote. For others like fellow panelist Marcel Godbout, it means taking pride in continuing the ancestors' traditions.