HAY RIVER DENE RESERVE, Northwest Territories - Engrossed by the hand puppet that's being bobbed up and down, the dozen pre-schoolers are trying to attentively listen to the storyteller when they aren't fidgeting on the multi-colored carpet.
Watching the older man, who's taken a position on the rug with them, these children are getting an introduction to South Slavey, the Native dialect of the southern Northwest Territories. This lesson concentrated on the black bear.
"Sah!" said Michaela, 4, who mimicked the instructor's words.
While the gentleman conducting the informal language session continues about a tale involving the bear, he's conscious about continually emphasizing the word sah and moving the puppet simultaneously. This repeated action is a tool used by Alex Tambour, the local language expert on the Hay River reserve, when he offers his time at the Katt'odeeche Day Care.
The daycare has been in operation for three years though it's only been since the start of this year when Tambour was asked to spend time with the kids. For him, the reason he spends most weekdays at the center is simple.
"We're trying to bring back the culture and the language," Tambour said from within a building where there are signs everywhere printed in Slavey. "It's not the culture that you're trying to bring out but who you are in your culture."
Whenever he can, as the children interact among themselves and the staff, Tambour will utter a few words in Slavey. His favorite student is Shayna, 1, to whom he will speak entire sentences. She, in turn, giggles from her highchair towards the undivided attention she's receiving.
Like many other Indians, Hay River's Dene live within both the reserve and contemporary society. Tambour has noticed that language skills have dropped significantly during the past generation with the increased presence of television and interaction with the non-native town 10 miles away.
"This is why when they come here, I try to tell them as much as they can learn in Slavey so that when they go home they can tell their parents what words they were taught," he said.
Katt'odeeche is a pilot project within the Northwest Territories and is modeled after the Maori language nests in New Zealand. Coordinating the center is Elaine Tambour (Alex's wife) who is trained as a child and youth worker and also has a background in psychology and Native studies.
Though it may be too early to measure success with tangible results such as the children speaking fluidly, Elaine notes that their future verbal skills are presently being planted.
"When you think of language acquisition, getting the sounds into their heads is the first step and all the kids have that now," she said.
For all the toddlers can learn, both Elaine and Alex agree the daycare cannot exclusively replace learning that can occur at home. It is imperative, and becomes critical, that parents learn some of the language themselves so they can share with their children.
"We're told by the elders that if the parents don't use the language at home, how can the kids learn," he asked rhetorically.
Besides the daycare, Alex also promotes the South Slavey language at the reserve's adult education facility and is also a translator for the territorial government. Because of these two positions, he's able to volunteer at Katt'odeeche. But it isn't money that motivates him.
"Why should you people pay me when this language was given to me for free?" Alex has stated to others who want to learn Slavey: "I love this language and I love to help anybody who wants to learn. Look if you want to pay me, pay me what you want."
Any opportunity he gets he'll pull out a prop or use what's surrounding him as a teaching tool. Trees in the playground, for example, provide the chance to learn about nature, especially on a glorious summer afternoon when the children play outside.
The tipi too is also a temporary environment to stimulate a language lesson. Sprawled out on a gym mat, Alex and the kids, two at a time, enter into the shade to look at more animals.
Proudly wearing a printed sticker that's clinging to her shirt that has the letters s-a-h Michaela said "We're bears today." Then her friend Katherine, 3, quietly uttered "sah."