Peter Bigstone’s mission to save the Nakoda Language
- Lindell Haywahe | October 10, 2023
Peter Bigstone of Ocean Man First Nation has made it part of his life’s work to preserve the Nakota language.
Twenty years ago, he was one of 10 fluent Nakoda speakers from his community.
Today, he is the only one left.
But there is a glimmer of hope.
Madison Bigstone, Junior McArthur and Juanita Big Eagle are all actively working to learn the language.
The 76-year-old says he is very proud of them and the progress they’re making.
Bigstone remains very active, he spends the school year teaching children at the Ocean Man Education Centre.
However, his work doesn’t’ stop there.
Bigstone embraces any opportunity to promote and preserve the language.
Most recently, he was featured in a YouTube series called, 10 Days of Nakota.
To put the plight of the language into perspective, there are currently only four Nakoda communities in the province, two in Alberta along with the Assiniboine Tribe in Montana.
Each community has its own dialect, which can pose a challenge in language preservation because each dialect requires its own resources.
Bigstone says he can count the number of fluent Nakoda speakers among the Southern Saskatchewan tribes on one hand.
This fact alone is what is pushing him to continue to do what he can to preserve, protect and promote the language he loves.Bigstone has many years of language teaching under his belt and it’s taken him to several communities.
In 2003, a Class 7 teaching certificate allowed him to work at the Fort Peck Community College in Montana.
Bigstone’s reason for speaking is not to “brag” about his knowledge, but rather to raise awareness about the very real possibility of losing the language forever.
He wants people to know he’s here to help and is willing to do what he can to save Nakoda for future generations.
Bigstone says preserving the Nakoda language is about preserving the Nakoda identity.
He says everything is related.
Language helps people understand their culture and identity; once that happens, they will remember their connection to the land; and finally, they will see how land is connected to language.
Bigstone has spent his life in both the United States and Canada working in a range of positions, which have allowed him to help people.
He was a certified EMT in Saskatchewan and has worked as an addictions counsellor in both Saskatchewan and Montana.
Bigstone was also in a documentary called “Assiniboine Chief Rosebud remembers Lewis & Clark”, which available on YouTube.
He says life is too short, and despite his age he’s ways willing to try something new.
In 2018, Bigstone began teaching Nakoda and land-based education in Ocean Man.
Not only is he a language and culture specialist, he’s also a Knowledge Keeper.
Much of what he learned has come from his grandfather Dick Nahbexie. Bigstone can trace his ancestors back several generations.
He is the great-great grandson of both Ocean Man and Pheasant Rump. He is also the grandson of Chief Jimmy Bigstone of Whitebear.
Bigstone keeps reminders of his life neatly tucked into a portfolio.
Among his many certificates and accomplishments are photos of his children, because, to him, family is everything.
Bigstone also has images of his ancestors from the Whitebear First Nation. Although the community is predominantly Cree it has some Nakoda descendants.
In addition to language, he provides land-based education such as teepee teachings, animals and hunting skills, survival skills, plant knowledge and spiritual teachings.
Bigstone says the Nakoda culture is complex, but said, the values can be easily applied to everyday life.
For him, teaching Nakoda is the path to self-fulfillment.
Although he is currently Ocean Man’s last fluent Nakoda speaker he believed the language can survive there are people trying to learn it.
“I advocate for the language without political aid because it is important people take responsibility for their own culture and spirituality because of the broad spectrum of practices in different communities,” said Bigstone.