Education

In Their Own Words

The fight to preserve the Cree language

by
Illustration by Julie Flett

• 4,915 words

Illustration by Julie Flett

Eight years ago, Delia Bull Waskewitch’s ancestors visited her in a dream. She and her husband had just driven six hours from their home in Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan to the foothills of the ­Rockies in Morley, Alberta. There, she had made offerings of tobacco to the mountains and the sacred Bow River, and asked for the grandfathers’ help with a work problem.

Bull Waskewitch’s job is to swim as hard as she can against the tide of history. She’s a pre-kindergarten teacher at Kihew ­Waciston, the only Plains Cree immersion school in North America and—since Cree is one of the surviving indigenous tongues spoken exclusively on this continent—in the world. As an ­instructor of an ancient language new to the classroom, Bull Waskewitch is forging her way with little of the support other teachers take for ­granted—textbooks, guidelines, institutional help.

That night in Morley, as she ­drifted off to sleep, a picture formed in Bull Waskewitch’s mind. She jumped out of bed, grabbed a sheet of paper, and sketched what the grandfathers had shown her: a square ­blazing with red, yellow, blue, and green. The four corners, she understood, were four L-shaped symbols from the Cree ­writing system: ᒥ (mi); ᒣ (me); ᒪ (ma); ᒧ (mo). The grandfathers had given her a teaching template. Back in Onion Lake, Bull Waskewitch began using her vision of the four coloured corners to help children learn the sounds of the language spoken on the ­prairies ­before the time of the treaties, when stories of wīsahkēcāhk, the trickster, were told through the ­winter nights.

The past 200 years have been one long funeral march for the world’s languages. No speakers remain of Russia’s ­Akkala Saami or Brazil’s Xakriabá; ­Turkey’s ­Mlahsô and Guinea’s Baga Kalem have vanished from the Earth. In Canada, from the mid-­seventeenth century until 1996—when the last of this country’s residential schools was shuttered—Indigenous languages such as Blackfoot, Tuscarora, and Squamish were decimated by church and state. Five-year-olds had glue poured on their tongues, were beaten with straps, sticks, and fists, and taught that their parents’ words came from the Devil.

In the 1970s, colonized people worldwide began to demand their languages back. In New Zealand, the Maori pioneered the “language nest” approach, which matched children with older speakers. The São Gabriel da Cachoeira municipality of Brazil’s Upper Rio Negro has declared Nheengatú, Tukano, and Baniwa official languages alongside Portuguese. In the British Isles, there has been a ­resurgence of Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish. And despite the residential school system’s best efforts to eliminate Canada’s ­Indigenous languages, this country retains a surprisingly rich linguistic landscape. From ­Innu-aimun on the east coast of Labrador to Gwich’in in Old Crow, Yukon, some 213,500 people are carrying on conversations in more than sixty Indigenous languages.

The smallest linguistic communities are perilously small: in 2011, Gwich’in had only 370 mother-tongue speakers. Cree, however, according to the most recent census, is the mother tongue of at least 83,475 speakers—the highest number of any of Canada’s Indigenous languages. (­Because of the difficulty in gathering data on ­reserves, statisticians believe the numbers are probably even higher.) Cree is one of only three tongues—along with ­Inuktitut and Ojibway—that linguists agree have a fighting chance of long-term survival.

The key to Cree’s future may lie with ­Kihew Waciston’s approach—immersion for second-language learners. The majority of the school’s parents are unilingual English speakers in their twenties and thirties whose own parents and grandparents, scarred by their residential school experiences, didn’t pass on their mother tongue. For these young parents, the Cree language is a gift they hope to give their children.

Onion Lake straddles the Saskatchewan-Alberta border about three hours northwest of Saskatoon, and the highway runs out of pavement right at the foot of ­Kihew Waciston, a long red-roofed building muralled with white teepees against a blue sky. ­Onion Lake took over its own education system from the federal government in 1981, and the band council started a makeshift Cree-immersion preschool program in the early 2000s. Today, there are four schools on the reserve. Kihew Waciston—meaning “eagle’s nest,” after the Maori model—goes up to the fifth grade, employs more than thirty teachers and staff, and houses the Gift of Language and Culture, a curriculum development centre that provides free Cree instruction templates to teachers throughout the province.

The new education system’s philosophy can be summed up by a school billboard that shows a man standing with his feet apart, a vertical black line cleaving him into two halves. One half wears a grey suit and clutches a rolled-up diploma—what administrators call the “keeping up with the Joneses” side. The other half, clothed in moccasins and fringed animal hide, holds an eagle feather—the spiritual side. ­Kihew Waciston’s teachers are ­native Cree speakers, many of whom graduated from the University of Saskatchewan’s longstanding Indian Teacher Education Program. The school’s emphasis on “land-based education” means that while students learn math, science, and language arts, they also learn to build campfires, pluck geese, harvest and dry sweetgrass, and snare rabbits. Enrolment sits at about 200, and demand has been growing every year.

On a recent morning, five ­students—four girls and a boy, all about four years old—sat on a circular mat printed with images of beavers, whales, ducks, and wolves. Bull Waskewitch, wearing a black-and-yellow sports jacket, stood in front of a Smart Board. “Kīkwāy ōma?” she asked, pointing to a picture. “Horse,” volunteered a girl with a long ponytail sprouting from the top of her head. “Nēhiyawē,” Bull Waskewitch chided (“Say it in Cree”). She motioned to the little boy to press the audio icon that accompanied the horse picture. “Misatim,” the Smart Board said. It spoke in a child’s voice; Bull Waskewitch had made the recordings herself with the kids earlier in the year.

The class played a sort of Simon Says, touching their noses—niskiwan—and eyes—miskīsik. Bull Waskewitch brought out her guitar. She changed the Smart Board image and began singing a song of greeting to the weather. “Tānisi isiwēpan, tānisi isiwēpan?” she sang, to a tune reminiscent of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She asked a little girl in a pink shirt and Hello Kitty socks to approach the Smart Board and show the class the day’s weather. The girl selected a picture of a woman in the snow. “Mispon-āyāw?” Bull Waskewitch asked. It was springtime, and prairie dust floated through the dirt parking lot outside the classroom window. “Are you sure? Maybe tahkāyāw, ‘it is cold?’” The girl decided on yōtin—“it is windy”—and the class sang hello to windy weather. Later, while they put on their coats to go home for lunch, the Hello Kitty girl sang softly to herself—tānisi isiwēpan, tānisi isiwēpan . . .

Linguists have a saying: the younger the speakers, the healthier the language. Set in a landscape of ochre fields ­dotted with horses, where the early spring scrub blooms with yellow buffalo beans and prairie vetch, Onion Lake is home to an on-­reserve population of some 3,200;
40 percent are mother-tongue Cree ­speakers. But these speakers are aging, and as older generations pass on, the ­balance of the community’s linguistic life tips ­toward English. Buffalo were once so thick on these plains that hunters feared being trampled in their tents; today, Bison Transport trucks thunder past. The nation’s ­determination to create young speakers of a critically ­endangered language has turned Onion Lake into a testing ground for a high-stakes pedagogical mission. Schools were once the ­instrument of Cree’s suppression; could they become the means of restoring its future?

Illustration by Julie Flett

The earliest resources on record for the transmission of Cree were aimed at Europeans. Even after generations of ­colonial presence, seventeenth-century French traders were still expected to learn their suppliers’ languages, not the other way around. The central region of the continent took longer for Europeans to ­penetrate than the coastal areas, and the first Cree-French dictionary was compiled by an ­Oblate father, Père Albert Lacombe, in 1874. “One could say that Cree is for the North-West what French is for civilized ­nations,” wrote Lacombe. “With this idiom, if needed, one can make oneself understood by any tribe in this country.”

According to European accounts, Cree was an exclusively oral language until the 1840s, when the Methodist missionary James Evans, drawing on scripts for ­Sanskrit, Hebrew, Cherokee, and Pitman shorthand, invented the syllabic writing system. By the 1850s, European observers were surprised to find the Cree people almost perfectly literate in syllabics, surpassing the English and French literacy of settlers. However, Cree elders have their own history of the provenance of the syllabic writing system. I heard this account, out on the land, from a Cree storyteller, in exchange for a gift of tobacco. One challenge in the transmission of Cree knowledge is the injunction against writing sacred stories down, but I will give you a hint: it does not involve Reverend Evans.

Lacombe’s dictionary focused on the Plains Cree dialect. However, the Cree language comprises a dialect continuum, with communities of speakers all the way from Labrador to the Rockies. The Cree for “Cree” isn’t “Cree”—East Cree speakers call their language înûayimuwin or îyiyiuyimuwin, while Plains Cree speakers call their language nēhiyawēwin—and dialects are often mutually unintelligible. (Today, Quebec’s dialects are considered the healthiest, as they are spoken on a daily basis by the youngest speakers, while speakers of the prairie dialects are the most numerous.)

The Europeans’ attitude toward Indigenous languages mirrored their attitude toward Indigenous people: both were pronounced nearly dead as soon as Europeans stopped needing them to ­survive. A ­romantic nostalgia quickly began to permeate European scholarship on Indigenous cultures, and the documentation of their languages was considered an exercise in preserving ­historical artifacts. The dictionaries and grammar books compiled by non-Indigenous linguists, with the guidance of elders, tended to reside in urban universities, where they did more to advance academic careers than to stem language loss in communities.

It was in the 1970s that the first generation of Indigenous scholar-activists began to shift the conversation from language documentation to language revitalization. Although reserves were starting to take control of their own education systems, English was still seen as the language of the classroom. Some elementary and high schools began teaching Cree as a subject for a few hours a week, and teachers improvised a patchwork of materials. In eastern Canada, immersion programs for languages like Kanien’keha and Mi’kmaq came into existence, but the differences between indigenous languages are vast, and communication between communities sporadic. In 2003, the Gift of Language and Culture was ­founded with the help of two other nearby reserves and Saskatchewan’s largest tribal ­council. Onion Lake began ­developing flash cards, games, and vocabulary sets for its own teachers and distributing its materials for free to any Cree teacher off the ­reserve who wanted to use them.

Since that time, the demand for Cree classes in Saskatchewan’s cities has ­created a historic reversal: there are now more posts for Cree teachers than there are fluent instructors to fill them. Belinda Daniels, who recently received the Canadian Teachers’ Federation 2015 Outstanding Aboriginal Educator Award, differs from Onion Lake’s teachers in that she’s a second-­language learner herself. Brought up by her grandparents in Sturgeon Lake, ­another Saskatchewan reserve, Daniels didn’t learn Cree as a child. “They wanted to protect me,” she says of her grandparents’ reluctance to share the language with her.

Suffering an identity crisis in her late twenties, Daniels felt a strong pull back to the language of her ancestors. She ­enrolled in university classes, took trips back to visit her grandparents, and travelled to Montana to work with Stephen ­Greymorning, a linguistic anthropologist who developed an accelerated second-language teaching methodology for his own Arapaho language. When Daniels began teaching Cree in Saskatoon, there were minimal resources available. “I basically used my grandparents; I used my friends who spoke Cree. I learned how to sing songs in Cree.”

Today, there’s an explosion in Cree teaching tools. Should you need a vocab­ulary set that tells you how to ­order at Tim Hortons—or cim-ōtan—there’s a Quizlet site for you. (A double-double is a nīswāw-nīswāw.) The YouTube channel want2speakcree features audio clips of common phrases such as “How are you?” (tānisi) and “I am from ­Edmonton” (amiskwācīwāskahikanihk ohci niya). Sites such as the Cree Literacy Network, First Language Speaking Project Inc., and ­Maskwacis Cultural College offer vocabulary sets for days of the week, kinship terms, colour names, animal names, and numbers, while audio on the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas allows users to compare the word for “mittens” in Buffalo Lake’s ­Métis Cree ­(astisak) with ­Whapmagoostui’s East Cree (astisich).

Then there are the apps. In 2013, Nehiyawetan Productions, a company also responsible for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network children’s show ­Tansi! Nehiyawetan, released an app for iPhone and iPad called My Cree, which its website promises is “like learning Cree from your ­auntie!” In the same year, an online dictionary ­developed by Ermineskin Cree Nation’s education authority released an Android app. The Algonquian Linguistic Atlas recently received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a five-year project to provide dictionary apps for twelve languages for phones, iPads, and tablets. In 2005, its inaugural year, the atlas’ Cree dictionary component received about 5,000 queries; it now receives about 55,000 queries every year.

While the movement to share re­sources online can help learners, the digital world may be accelerating a controversial phenomenon: standardization. In a language with so many dialects, geography has worked to create the kind of diversity we see in the plant world, with tiny pockets of delicate distinctions. But when people bring together learners from across the country, major dialects tend to crush ­minor ones. Similarly, the web is friendlier to the Roman alphabet than to Cree ­syllabics, reflecting a wider trend away from the old writing. “I cried,” Bull Waskewitch told me, of a meeting a few years ago in which ­Kihew Waciston administrators broke the news that they would be moving away from syllabics. “It was really heartbreaking for me.” The problem was that parents didn’t know the traditional symbols; people eager to help their children with homework didn’t want to contend with what, ironically, felt like a foreign writing system.

Illustration by Julie Flett

Despite the progress linguists, educators, and activists have made, Kihew Waciston still struggles to meet its ambitious goals. Ralph Morin is the school’s principal, and his office is a mix of austere professionalism and kids’ craft-making; when I visited, a Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy award fraternized on a shelf with a shopping bag erupting with tinsel. Morin explained one of the central linguistic features that can bemuse an ­English-speaking five-year-old encountering Cree for the first time. “That’s ‘a chair’ in English, right?” Morin pointed to his office chair. “But if I said tēhtapiwin—tēhta is ‘on top’—­apiwin is ‘where you sit.’ So ‘you’re sitting on top’—that’s what that means: you describe the function of the object.”

In other words, Cree words are as complex as English sentences. Unlike ­English, which is a noun-based language, Cree is organized around verb-based descriptive phrases. Cree places an emphasis on relationships—rather than floating alone as separate units of meaning, the words for people, animals, and objects are ­embedded with narratives about how these things interact with each other and the environment. Cree speakers stress that the language carries a visceral experience of the traditional worldview. It’s one thing to be the possessor of a nose; it’s quite ­another to have a mikot—a short form of “I will take in.” The word reminds the speaker that she is literally the air she breathes.

These complex nuances make for a steep learning curve. On her influential blog, the Cree teacher and activist Chelsea Vowel discusses the difficulty of developing Cree language materials that progress past basic vocabulary. “It is absolutely vital,” Vowel writes, “that we do more than recognize this reoccurring problem. And I really do mean reoccurring. I have resources from the ’70s that essentially mirror apps that are being put out right now.”

Vowel talked about a four-level scale of proficiency called “Travels with Charlie”—Tarzan is the lowest level, Charlie Rose the highest. I asked Onion Lake’s assistant director of education, Terry Clarke, where he thought the school’s graduating students—kids coming out of grade five and entering the English-language school across the reserve—fell on the scale. “Presently?” he asked. “Over the course of time, we want to get to Level 4. But we’re not there yet. We’re a long ways from there. We’ve been at this for many years, and we’re probably between a Level 1 and a Level 2, to be honest with you.”

In communities where school is the ­only place a child regularly speaks the language, it’s difficult for learners to reach Charlie Rose. And in the gas station, the grocery store, and the Horseshoe Café (Onion Lake’s lone restaurant), I heard conversations that would be familiar to immigrant families across Canada: older people speaking in the heritage language, and younger people responding in English.

Kihew Waciston’s grade-four classroom is just down the hall from where Delia Bull Waskewitch teaches her pre-­kindergarten. On the day I visited, the kind-eyed ­teacher, Ruby Thomas, told a long story that I gathered was about a local elder and a bear, and the students were full of questions and comments—they clearly understood. However, when not running vocabulary drills, the grade fours spoke in English both to their teacher and to each other. To illustrate her anecdote, ­Thomas brought out a plastic shopping bag and, reaching inside, pulled out an oddly flat stuffed animal. “Kīkwāy ōma?” she asked. “Hide—rug,” a pink-and-blue sweatshirted girl said. “Nēhiyawē,” Thomas gently remonstrated, but there’s no punishment here for speaking the wrong language. The girl shrugged. The toy bearskin rug was a hit, however, and Thomas allowed the class a few minutes to lie with their heads on it, stroking the dark fur. “My uncle shot a bear near our house,” a girl said in English. “Shot one?” a boy asked. “Don’t kill any more bears. We’re killing Trébear’s family,” another boy put in mournfully. Trébear—a cheerful boy in grey track pants—laughed along with the rest.

Teachers and administrators at Kihew Waciston want to make the school as supportive and welcoming an environment as they can. But the monumental scale of the undertaking—to invent lesson plans, research different pedagogical tactics, ­devise a way of measuring student progress, and create a culturally meaningful curriculum in a language on the brink of extinction—creates a heavy burden for a small community to carry alone.

In 1996, after an exhaustive research-gathering process of consultation across the country, the Royal Commission on ­Aboriginal Peoples made the following recommendation: that the federal government create “an Aboriginal Languages Foundation to document, study and conserve Aboriginal languages and to help Aboriginal people arrest and reverse the loss of languages that has already occurred.” But no such federal body was formed. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a similar recommendation, calling on the federal government to pass an ­Aboriginal languages act that would ­ensure sufficient funding for language preservation and revitalization.

It remains to be seen how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government will ­respond. At the moment, however, it is up to each small community of speakers to navigate a maze of federal, provincial, and local grants for which they can apply to develop conservation projects on their own.

“There’s no help,” Morin said simply. According to Clarke, Onion Lake receives about $8,500 from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in education funding per student every year. Schools in Saskatchewan’s provincial system receive about $10,829 per student, although their ministry of education stresses that there is considerable regional variation. (A federal representative wasn’t able to give ­specific figures for Onion Lake’s funding, but said Saskatchewan’s reserves ­receive an average of $12,202 per student, per year.)

Morin and Clarke both argue that the provincial funding model allocates more resources for French-immersion schools to pay for the higher costs they incur (in an agreement signed in 2014, Saskatchewan will receive $6.7 million per year until 2018 to fund French immersion and core instruction programs). At the ­federal level, the combined annual budget for all Indigenous language programs is $9.1 million, whereas in 2014–15, funding for the promotion of English and French was $348.2 million. In Nunavut, where Inuktitut and ­Inuinnaqtun are official languages, programs for the province’s francophone minority receive about $4,000 per person every year; Inuit-language programs receive about $44 per ­person. In Onion Lake, Clarke said, the band contributes its own money to fund Cree textbooks, curriculum development, assessment tools, and teacher training. Although capital buildings are supposed to be built by INAC, the band paid for the school’s construction.

Financially, Onion Lake is luckier than most reserves. As a nearby billboard puts it: Welcome to Black Gold Country. In 1994, when the band council and the federal government negotiated a treaty land entitlement claim, Onion Lake received about $30 million as settlement. The band used that money to buy a mineral-rich tract of land just north of the reserve and formed Onion Lake Energy, which partnered with BlackPearl Resources Inc. in 2009. In the third quarter of 2015, BlackPearl reported an average daily yield of more than 7,000 barrels of oil from the more than 300 wells on reserve land. Some of the oil trucks that speed past on the highway belong to Onion Lake’s Askiy Apoy Hauling, and the band also runs its own pipeline company, Beretta Pipeline Construction LP.

As a result, Onion Lake is ­relatively wealthy. Gift of Language distributes its materials for free to any school that wants to teach Cree, and the school often gets visitors from speakers of other languages as well; delegations have come from reserves in Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba. “Onion Lake is the model,” says Belinda Daniels, who often uses the Gift of Language materials in her ­courses. Other nations can try to repurpose the centre’s lesson plans and vocabulary exercises. But in the absence of a federal mandate for protecting Indigenous languages, immersion programs are restricted to the few bands that can afford to pay for them.

Why are Indigenous ­communities willing to pour so much time, energy, and scarce resources into what may seem like an ill-fated battle? “I realized that just as the Jews could not become a ­living ­nation except by returning to their ancient homeland—so also they could not become a living nation except by ­returning to the language of their ancestors,” wrote ­Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda around 1918 in an unfinished autobiography. During Ben-Yehuda’s childhood, Hebrew had no mother-tongue speakers. Today it is the first language of about 50 percent of ­Israeli adults.

As with the rebirth of Hebrew, the ­resurgence of Indigenous languages is an assertion of political identity. Socio­linguists have long emphasized the link between language and an emerging sense of nationhood (think Quebec separatism). At a meeting between Onion Lake’s school administrators and elders, a discussion arose of Quebec’s Bill 101, which, among other things, legislates the use of French for signage and for greeting customers in businesses. “Maybe we should do that,” I heard someone say. While Indigenous people who signed the original treaties with European powers believed they were ­establishing a nation-to-nation relationship, the Indian Act relegated them to wards of the state. Twenty-first-century movements such as Idle No More are now insisting that Canada honour Indigenous sovereignty. Activists would even like to see Cree receive official language status.

Onion Lake was a signatory to Treaty Six in 1876, an agreement whereby Plains Cree people agreed to share the land with Queen Victoria in exchange for ­agricultural implements, medical care, and, ­crucially, education. It would be impossible to overstate the treaty’s place in the national consciousness of Onion Lake. One of Thomas’ exercises this year was to have her students sign a copy of the treaty, placing their names where their great-great-great-grandparents’ leader, Seekaskootch, placed his. Walk the hallways of Kihew Waciston, and you’ll see a series of framed passages from the treaty decreeing, in the royal fanfare of turn-of-the-century handwriting, Queen Victoria’s eternal pledge to the treaty nations.

Judeo-Christian civilization long considered Hebrew to be humankind’s ­original tongue, and traditional Cree storytellers ­also teach that their language was a universal speech given intact to the first people as a gift from the Creator. As a result, the sacred nature of the language can’t be disentangled from its lexical components. As Belinda Daniels told me, “It’s really the bone marrow of our philosophy.”

Language instruction, therefore, takes on a significance beyond simply memorizing vowel sounds. “I honestly believe ­Indigenous languages will help alleviate the lawlessness in our communities,” ­Daniels said. “It’ll help us remember the old ways of how we governed ourselves. It will help us fix the things that are so broken.”

Indeed, studies support the link between Indigenous-language retention and well-being. In 2007, a study found that suicide rates among the young were well below the provincial averages in communities where most of the population had a ­conversational fluency in the heritage language. And according to a 2013 analysis of the First Nations Regional Health Survey, suicidal thoughts and attempts were lower among adults with intermediate or advanced proficiency in their language. Bringing Indigenous languages into schools also helps improve ­academic outcomes, and parents who feel more positive about their children’s school environments are more likely to become involved. Maybe best of all, Indigenous children who speak their heritage language seem to enjoy school more.

When I asked Morin how the Kihew Waciston children benefited from an ­immersive Cree environment, he noted that the students—compared to those at other schools where he’s worked—are ­better behaved. “I haven’t seen one child here this year for behaviour,” he said. “Whether it’s for teasing, whether it’s for fighting—not one.”

As Canada re-envisions its relationship with Indigenous people, Kihew Waciston offers an example of how schools can use traditional knowledge to improve their students’ lives. The next generation of Indigenous children is inheriting the hardest conditions of any group in the country. Many of the adults I spoke with in Onion Lake were raising children from extended family networks whose own parents were unable to care for them. Many had lost children of their own. One key virtue discussed in Kihew Waciston’s morning ­assemblies is kihcēyihtamowin—taking pride in what is loaned to you from the Creator and ­assuming your spiritual and physical ­responsibilities. The names that children learn to give themselves at Kihew ­Waciston, Morin says, remind them of their role in their families: for older brothers, “nistēs is equivalent to ‘brother,’ but nistēs really means ‘the heart that walks ahead of me.’” Nimis, for older sister, means “the one that will pour knowledge that she gains.”

On my last day in Onion Lake, one of the elders invited me to a sweat lodge for school administrators being held in the meadow in front of his house. On the drive over, the director of education, Fred Dillon, told me that, at a sweat, you can sometimes feel the bear spirit’s breath on your face. The eagle’s wings may brush your cheek, and the grandmother’s rattles fly around the lodge. From his rear-view ­mirror, several white ribbons dangled next to a dream catcher made of sweetgrass and eagle feathers. Every year, ­Dillon makes an offering to the horse spirit and has a new set of ribbons blessed. In the old days, these ribbons would have been tied into his horse’s mane—today, trucks are the new horses. And, as the region’s elders said as Treaty 6 was signed, education will be the new buffalo. As we drive by, Dillon points out where the Anglican residential school once stood; now it’s ­Seekaskootch Car Repairs & Gas Bar. On the site of the old Roman Catholic school, there’s nothing but tall grass.

The details of the sweat lodge, like the sacred stories, are not to be written down—especially by a mōniyāskwēw like me. But it is permitted to say that during the ceremony, I listened to the crash of water sizzling against rock and picked out in the singing the word nōhtāwiy—“my father.” Colleagues teased each other between rounds, chatting about the upcoming high-school graduation, at which Dillon’s youngest daughter would ­receive her diploma; she’d be heading off to university in the fall. In the tent’s darkness, the air thick with sweetgrass, school administrators sang alone and in unison, to the bear spirit and the eagle spirit. They sang to the Creator, to the north, the south, the east, and the west. And they prayed for their students.

Linda Besner will publish a new book of poetry, Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, in 2017.

Julie Flett is an award-winning Cree-Métis author and illustrator.


  • kh

    I appreciate stories about language and am especially delighted with the information about how the Cree language works — “Unlike ­English, which is a noun-based language, Cree is organized
    around verb-based descriptive phrases. Cree places an emphasis on
    relationships…” — because I’ve long thought that English, and maybe speech itself, is more about relationships than about things.

    English has borrowed from so many languages that this is obscured, but consider the well-known situation of an adopted child identifying who is her mother — her “real” mother is often felt to be the one who mothered her, the one in the relationship of mother. Refrigerator is obviously that-which-makes-frigid-again; tools are often named for their function in ways we can see (screwdriver; and saw originates in the verb to cut). “The school” is a shortcut for the school building; school itself is about how we use our time (interrupting work for learning). Automobile (moving without animate help) has given way in ordinary speech to car — related to chair, chariot, and cathedral which are all about being in a position of authority (chairman; the Chair of Economics; the privilege of a chair once conferred a notable distinction from other seatings).

    It’s interesting to speculate about the role that being -aware- of relationships plays, and about the effect of shortcuts (a building for schooling -> a school): how do they shape the way we think? would we find it easier to repurpose empty schools if we were conscious of them as buildings designed for (but perhaps not limited to) schooling?

    I live in what was an Ojibwe-speaking area myself, but am eager to try the online resources for the Cree language. Language is magical, and the more we have, the more we can do.

  • Linda Besner

    I’ve been asked to add a quick note to point readers towards another area of Cree schooling that I wasn’t able to fit into the article: Cree language and culture programs in urban environments. I spoke to two educators from Confederation Park, a Cree bilingual/bicultural school in Saskatoon http://www.spsd.sk.ca/school/confederationpark/ProgramsServices/cree/Pages/default.aspx

    The student body at Confederation Park also includes students from Dene, Ojibwe, and Saulteaux/nakawe nations.

    Saskatoon is also home to St. Frances Catholic school http://www.gscs.sk.ca/studentsandfamilies/languages/Pages/Cree.aspx

    which also offers a Nêhiyawêtân Cree Bilingual program.