The northern area of North America lying south of the Inuit land was bilingual four to ten thousand years before the French and English in the 1960’s began squabbling about official languages. When the fur traders entered the Peace River area, they found many tribes speaking a language that was new to Europeans. It has been named the Athapaskan language. In the great Hudson’s Bay drainage system which surrounds that body of water had for a hundred years known many tribes who spoke different dialects of a language that is called Algonkian. Neither the Athapaskans nor the Algonkians can understand the other’s speech.
In the eastern and southern part of the Peace River region the Peace of Unchagah had ended the wars between the two groups shortly before Peter Pond arrived on the lower Peace River around Lake Athabasca. The Crees – the Algonkian speakers – had agreed to stay east of the river, but before long they began to push peacefully westward when bands of the Athapaskan speakers died out (as they did around Lesser Slave Lake) or moved back toward the mountains. The fact that the Athapaskan Beaver tribe had also obtained guns even before Alexander Mackenzie arrived, tended to keep the two sides on an equal basis. Also, without using guns, the Beavers had inflicted a crippling defeat on the Crees when the Beavers lured them into a trap, and set fire to the autumn-dried waist-high grass behind them. Although the two groups have lived amongst each other ever since, neither has adopted the language of the other, but they converse when they must, in their versions of English. Since the Algonkian is an introduced language in this area, let use talk about the Athapaskan first.
Before going into particular observations – some general remarks are in order. “Western” fiction, movies, and television shows have conditioned modern non-Indians to believe that the natives were stolid, unemotional, and almost silent. They are represented as able or willing, to communicate only by the single word “How?” and an assortment of grunts. Since the Indian has also kept his form of good manners – (not smiling broadly when greeting a stranger) – the white man thinks of the Indian as “unfriendly.” Those who have lived in Asia know that there are other races who also consider that showing the teeth is a possible act of aggression and who reserve their smiles for relatives and accepted friends.
Again, contrary to much that has been written, when among themselves Indians were anything but silent, although their form of good manners recognized the right of an individual to keep silent and meditate, or go off by himself to think, pray and communicate with nature. Having no written language, their communication was always by spoken word. On certain occasions long orations were expected. White people who took the trouble to learn the Indian tongues were amazed at the imagery, the prose-poetry and the passion of their speech. It is no accident, but an unborn eloquence, that makes the speeches in English by Chief Dan George and others rank as literature. Even today among the north Coastal Indians of British Columbia, oratory is stressed. It is said that when tribal councils meet, every person who has a vote in the deliberations must rise and address the meeting no matter how briefly. “Participatory democracy” is no new concept to these tribes; it goes back into prehistoric time. It was based on speech making.
It also comes as a surprise to most people that even the most isolated Indians for which the grammar and syntax were so organized and precise that modern English is sloppy and unstructured in comparison. White men can learn the native tongues correctly only when they grow up with Indians from infancy.