Nakoda language warrior helps keep the culture alive
- NC Raine | April 28, 2023
Shayna McArthur’s Nakoda language classes are more than learning words and phrases – they are breathing life back into the Nakoda way of life.
“I think language and culture is very spiritual,” said McArthur. “When someone wants to learn a language, especially an Indigenous one, to me it always hints at them wanting to strengthen and build up their spirituality.”
From the White Bear First Nation, she spent her Fridays during March teaching a Nakoda language class to a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults through the YWCA Regina.
The classes were aimed to give the students functional, usable language over a short span of time – only four lessons.
But what McArthur found was the students not only wanted to learn Nakoda, they also sought something deeper.
“They wanted to learn Nakoda songs and to say a prayer,” she said. “That’s something they asked for at the beginning.”
Many of the students were Nakoda and, as the class progressed, so did their curiosity.
“They had so many questions,” said McArthur. “We talked about our bloodlines and how we’re all related to each other as Nakoda people. Kinship is very important to us.”
She grew up learning the language from her late grandfather, Armond McArthur, who taught Nakoda language classes at the university.
For as long as she can remember, she had a desire to learn about who she was and where she came from. She would speak Nakoda with her grandfather, she would listen in during his university lessons, and she would attend classes whenever they were held in the community.
“My grandparents tried to instill in us who we are, and we should be proud of that,” said McArthur. “So I’ve always taken an interest in culture.”
This led McArthur to study Indigenous Education at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), where she is in her final year. When she was approached by the YWCA last winter to teach Nakoda language classes, she looked at the offer with humility.
“I had never done anything like that before, so it was a big step,” said McArthur. “My grandfather always encouraged me to go out and do it. So that’s what guided me.”
This understanding of culture and kinship is deeply engrained in her.
“I feel there’s both a responsibility and obligation to carry the language on,” said McArthur. “Both of those are intertwined within me. So, whatever I learn, I try to teach to others or to help someone else.”
Over the course of the four classes, she taught the students to introduce themselves in Nakoda: to say who they are, what their occupation is, where they are from and what they can do. In addition to a song and prayer, they also practised how to ask questions and respond to basic conversational topics.
Her goal was to provide her students with a basic, real-world understanding of Nakoda.
“I tried to make the environment as safe and comfortable as possible,” said McArthur. “Where they can try things and make mistakes. I was really proud of how far they had come, and proud of how strongly they felt about being Nakoda.”
Whether she’s teaching or expanding her own knowledge, McArthur never loses sight of Canada’s dark history and how her ancestors were shamed rather than celebrated for their culture, which motivates her to keep the language alive.
“If we speak our language and we keep telling our story, then reconciliation can happen,” she said.