By Zoltan Varadi
In 1957, Sheldon First Rider, a member of the Kainai Nation, was taken from the home he shared with his grandmother and sent to St. Paul Residential School near Cardston – just one of the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada placed in the residential school system over the course of its more than 100 year existence.
As with so many who were separated from their families and culture and forcibly assimilated into settler society, the effect of the experience on First Rider was traumatic and devastating.
“I was taught that my language was Satan’s language, and that we were Satan’s children – that our language was evil,” says First Rider, who was just five years old when he was removed from his home. “If any of the children were caught speaking Blackfoot there was severe punishment – a lot of physical abuse. A lot of the children there could not even speak one word of English, not even ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Today, however, First Rider is actively reclaiming that which was silenced for him and so many others: his language. Since 2018, First Rider has spearheaded a Blackfoot Language program at Glenbow which is offered as part of the larger Indigenous Studies school program. In his eight years as an educator at Glenbow, he estimates that Indigenous programming has collectively reached approximately 150,000 students, 12 – 15,000 of those in the more recently introduced Blackfoot Language program.
Now, First Rider is poised to take the program beyond the walls of the museum with an independently-produced app called The Blackfoot Language Revival that’s set to launch on March 31 of this year.
While by his own admission, First Rider isn’t a techie — he laughingly recounts how when a developer began throwing terms like “augmented reality” around, his response was “Cool! What’s that?” — about five years ago he serendipitously befriended Rosa Hernandez of indie game developer Red Iron Labs at a Truth and Reconciliation event; Hernandez introduced First Rider to Red Iron Labs developer Lloyd Summers, and they began discussing syllabics. Eventually the pair began collaborating on an interface designed to allow users to interact with the alphabet.
“I said, let’s try this: I’ll say a word, ‘eenee’, which means buffalo – could you maybe put a picture to it?” First Rider says, recalling an early stage in developing a prototype app. “A few minutes later Lloyd comes back and he says ‘try it.’ I go, ‘eenee,’ space, and then a picture of a buffalo came up, and that just started everything.”
As the project began to take shape, First Rider and Co. were able to realize their ambitions of producing a finished, publicly-available platform after securing a federal grant from the Ministry of Culture. He says that the app’s drop date in March is really just the starting point and that the program will continually be updated and augmented with increasing layers of complexity as they move forward.
“It was like a blessing,” First Rider says of bringing Blackfoot language lessons into the digital realm. “It’s everything that I’ve been working towards for the last 40 years with this alphabet coming to light.”
A victory, to be sure, though, the journey to this point has been hard fought. Long before arriving here, First Rider needed to begin the lifelong process of healing the toxic legacy of the residential school system.
“When I was in my mid-twenties I was diagnosed with cirrhosis from alcohol consumption. I went home and my granny said, ‘it’s a life or death decision – are you going to keep drinking or are you going to live?’” says First Rider. “So, I ended up going into the mountains and being there for about a year by myself to get away from the alcohol and the drugs. And then I met a man, Thomas Floyd Heavyrunner, who’s also known as ‘Tinyman.’ He is the one who introduced me to the syllabic alphabet and also introduced me to my way of life.”
The 86-character syllabic alphabet which Heavyrunner introduced to First Rider was originally developed by Seqouoyah (1765 – 1843) in the nineteenth century as a means of reading and writing Cherokee; the only known person to have invented a whole alphabet, Seqouyah labored over its creation for over a decade before formally introducing the Cherokee syllabary in 1820. The alphabet was later adapted into Cree, Ojibway and, of course, Blackfoot.
Though he had been introduced to syllabics years ago, First Rider says his impetus for developing a program around it only arrived once he became involved in teaching the broader subject of Blackfoot culture and history at Glenbow. In particular, he cites the program he developed and taught in conjunction with the residential school-focused exhibition Where Are The Children, which appeared at Glenbow in 2014 – 2015, as sparking a moment of reckoning within himself, both in terms of confronting his past and mapping his future.
“It was then that I really realized just how traumatic my early life had been. I was very, very… I guess you could say hurt by it but also confused because I didn’t put that kind of value on my way of life,” he says. “When I started to do the programs I began to learn more. I started to see just how beautiful our way of life is. So when I started doing my research I realized just how important everything that I was doing here was. It was a reflection of my grandfather’s stories, my great-grandfather’s stories – my ancestors that had been here since time immemorial.
“Today, I look at how we have lost our language so quickly, and that is the main reason I started to focus on delivering a language program with Glenbow,” he continues. “I feel the need to be able to help my own people, the Blackfoot people, understand how important language is to them. It encompasses our history and our culture. Without the language there is no culture.”
That said, First Rider says he recognizes a general thirst for knowledge about Southern Alberta’s first peoples, especially among the youngest of those who call this place home. As an educator, whether he’s administering a lesson in syllabics or teaching about the rich traditions of the Blackfoot people, First Rider offers a path to reconciliation through the dissemination of that knowledge while also playing an important role in safeguarding a once vulnerable culture.
“What you have to understand that everything was outlawed: we could not teach about our tipis; we could not teach about our clothing; we could not even speak our language,” he explains. “Ironically, for ten days out of the year, when the Calgary Stampede was on, that’s when it was legal to speak our language, put up our tipis and wear our clothing.
“When I look at all that has transpired in my last eight years here [at Glenbow], and how we’re starting to become such a part of this community called Mohkínstsis, or Calgary, and how people have embraced what we’re trying to teach… “
“The children want to know this history: why we called [this place] Mohkínstsis; why we call the Bow and the Elbow River the names that we do; what we call the mountains and the stories that come with them. I’m really thankful that the museum allowed me to start the [language] program, and, based on its success, we’re confident enough now to be able to teach it not just to the Blackfoot people but to all of the people who are in Blackfoot territory.
Blackfoot Syllabics Demonstration with Sheldon First Rider