Canadian director's passion for indigenous languages, including Te Reo Māori

By Marena Mane

Documentary filmmaker Wahbi Zarry was born in Morocco, lives in Canada, and speaks French, Cree, Nakoda and English.

His passion for indigenous languages inspired him to make a documentary about the 10 days he spent learning Nakoda, a language of the Dakota in the USA but which was taken to Canada in the sixteenth century by traders.

Zarry's thirst for language continues, and he's now focusing on making a documentary, about Te Reo Māori, celebrating the revitalisation of the indigenous language.

“Our goal is simple - to promote indigenous languages and to explain to whoever's thinking about learning indigenous language that it's possible,” the filmmaker says.

Zarry says that 30years ago, the Nakoda language was on the brink of extinction.

“The Nakoda language was considered and still is considered an endangered language.”

“I believe that the world is rich with thousands of languages, but most of them are old and therefore become extinct when the last speakers die and our goal is to participate in this revitalisation.”

Zarry's latest documentary, Canadian Languages, captured the learning of the Nakoda language in schools in Saskatchewan province in Canada.

“Fluency is less than 10 people around the country who consider themselves fluent speakers.”

Peter Bigstone, an Assiniboine elder from the Ocean Man Reserve is a historical figure when it comes to the Nakoda language and as Zarry says, “He is the soul of the Nakoda language.”

“My grandfather, Dick Nahbexie, was born in 1877 and he died in 1976 at 99 years old and he never spoke a word of English and that's where I learned to keep my language,” Bigstone says.

Zarry's documentary shows him being taught the language by Bigstone’s 10-year-old granddaughter, Crocus Bigeagle.

“Working with Crocus, she's really really demanding. And I understand her why because she's involved, she's concerned. She likes her language. She likes her culture.”

Compared to Canada, Zarry says Aoearoa's government and tangata whenua have put more effort into language revitalisation and it's paying off.

“Now you have non-Māori people from different backgrounds teach in Māori. This is an accomplishment. This is what we would like to see in Canada. We would like to see non-indigenous teaching indigenous languages, and I believe it's going to happen. It's going to happen in a few years.”

Meanwhile, Zarry is excited about his trip to Aotearoa and the chance to capture the re-emergence of another indigenous language.