Episode 3: Abenaki
Director: Paul Chaput
"There (are) 6 fluent speakers: 3 in Canada and 3 in the US. So I mean you can’t get much more endangered than that." - Nancy Milette, Chief of the Koasaek Band of the Koas, Vermont
The Abenaki language has managed to survive the past several generations with only one speaker like Cécile Wawanolett or Monique Nolett-Ille teaching a handful of students in Odanak or the eastern United States. Today their students Philippe Charland and Brent Reader maintain the thin lifeline to this endangered language.
The Abenaki population in Quebec is estimated at 400 on-reserve and 1,500 off-reserve members, with only three fluent speakers remaining. Odanak, Quebec is the present day hub of Abenaki language and culture. Within this community, Monique Nolett-Ille, who is not a fluent speaker, teachers the only weekly Abenaki class in Quebec. She introduces us to some of the activities that she uses with her learners, including games, one-on-one coaching and learning Abenaki songs.
One of her most apt students is non-native linguist Dr. Philippe Charland, a professor at UQAM. Having become sufficeintly fluent in Abenaki, he now teaches a beginner class in Montreal. Together, Monique and Philippe have taken on the task of teaching the Abenaki language in Quebec.
"Our whole culture is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that somebody took and threw in the air and the pieces are all over the place. And we’re trying to piece these pieces back together to bring back the old culture, the old traditions, and one of those old traditions is the language." - Roger Longtoe, Chief of the El-Nu band, Vermont
An estimated 10,000 Abenaki live in the New England states. In the town of Swanton, Vermont, an hour south of Odanak, Abenaki leaders and speakers from the US and Canada gather to discuss the fate of their culture and language. Also in attendance are members of the newly revived seven-nation Abenaki Alliance, composed of disparate bands in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine who are struggling for government recognition.
While in attendance at the Abenaki meeting in Swanton, Vermont, Dr. Philippe Charland meets another young speaker with a strong grasp on the language, Brent Reader. The two converse in Abenaki in a way that neither thought possible.
"The fact that I met someone who is able to say something in Abenaki is progress. I can speak a little, he can speak a little. We both know enough vocabulary to have a conversation." - Dr. Philippe Charland, UQAM professor