Fourth year Indigenous Studies and Linguistics student Alexandra Smith is using her learned knowledge and skills in a hands-on project on the Blackfoot language. Working with Dr. Inge Genee, Alex is documenting variation in Niitsi’powahsin, the Blackfoot language. She says the project responds to the importance attached by Blackfoot-speaking communities to the correct representation of dialect variation in the Blackfoot language.

Generally, the language is well-described, but not when it comes to understanding regional dialects. Niitsi’powahsin is spoken in four communities: Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, and Aamskapipikani in Montana. Each community has variations in the dialect of the language.

“In addition to variation between the four main dialects of the language as spoken in the communities, there is also variation based on age, gender, and style (such as Old vs. New Blackfoot),” Alex says.

“Linguistic descriptions of the language have included comments about variation from the beginning, but it has never been the subject of systematic investigation. It is important to document all this variation for inclusion in our dictionary but also to allow us to create community-specific language teaching and learning resources.”

Alex says conducting this research at the U of L, which is located within the Blackfoot Confederacy, is the perfect place for her. She is a Blackfoot woman from the Piikani Nation and brings with her significant experience in linguistics training and research.

“I obtained the Community Linguist Certificate (CLC) from University of Alberta through the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI) program in 2019. I have always been interested in learning Blackfoot as I was raised within the Blackfoot ways of living. Obtaining the CLC through the Peigan Board of Education Academy introduced me to the linguistic side of Blackfoot and since then I’ve been interested in studying the Blackfoot language.”

With her minor in linguistics, Alex says she can carry the skills she has taken from this project and apply them to her work in the future. She adds that working with Dr. Genee, who is the lead researcher for the online Blackfoot dictionary project, provides her with an opportunity to contribute valuable research and knowledge to the dictionary project. Alex was awarded a Chinook Summer Research Award to work with Dr. Genee, and she says she enjoyed the experience.

“Having to conduct ethnographic interviews with Blackfoot speakers from beginning to end, from the invite to setting a date, conducting the interview and transcribing and coding the interview is a valuable skill and experience that I will be able to use in the future. Also, the fact that this position was done from home because of COVID restrictions, and I had to be accountable to my team members has allowed me to develop skills that will last a lifetime.”

When asked if she has advice for other students interested in becoming involved in research, Alex says that while the beginning of a research project may make you feel like there is a lot of time, it’s important to remember that time flies.

“Make small achievable tasks that will get you to your end goal and doesn’t make the big task seem so daunting.”