As more Mushkegowuk people leave their reserve to live in the city, the more the Cree language will be lost, says Anastasia Wheesk, Native Education Co-ordinator at the Ojibway and Cree Cultural Centre in Timmins.
“To me, seems like the Cree language is diminishing quickly,” Wheesk said. “The young people, especially here in the city, they speak a bit of the language, but they mix it with English. They, what I call, Indian-ize the English. It’s becoming to be a common thing, mixing the languages, and because of that, the language is going down.”
Kiefer Friday, a 22-year-old who spent his childhood living between Peawanuck and Kashechewan, knows it all to well. He left the Mushkegowuk territory when he was 14 to move south with his parents.
Living the urban areas, Kiefer did not have many people to speak with in Cree.
“I think it’s ironic that I know more Latin and some French than Cree,” he said. “Which is sort of odd since Latin’s a dead language.”
Kiefer summed up the amount of Cree he knows with “pi-sheesh” – Cree for “a little.”
Despite it being spoken a lot at home and with his grandparents while he living on the reserve, learning Cree was never something he accomplished.
“I’d probably call it negative reinforcement, because every time I try to speak it, they laugh at me,” he said. “Apparently, I had a very atrocious accent.”
Like the time he was trying to say a certain species of fish, and after a few tries, his grandmother just laughed.
“She said something along the lines of ‘give it time, maybe you’ll learn,’” Kiefer recalls.
Moving to the city did not make it easier as he became disconnected from his culture. His parents only spoke Cree to other Cree adults and rarely to him.
“It is very hard to find another Native speaker of my family’s dialect,” he said.
Wheesk had a similar experience when she moved with her family to Toronto more than 40 years ago. With no Native people around, Wheesk began to use English more.
“I spoke English to my kids and used English at home,” she said. “And then we moved to Attawapiskat, and at that time, the kids (in Attawapiskat) were speaking the language then but mine didn’t.”
Wheesk made efforts to speak the language at home and her children began to learn it, but then they moved to the city again.
And though she acts as a translator as part of her job, Wheesk said she is not an “expert” at the language.
“Sometimes, I forget a word, so I call somebody,” she said. “I still need help, I still need guidance, so I call the Elders here in town or out of town, to tell them my problem.”
Wheesk said spending time listening to Elders was how she learned and how it should be taught.
“Listen to them, or talk to them and listen to how they use the language and their grammar structure,” she said.
Cree classes are offered in certain communities, but Wheesk believes they are often ineffective due to the curricular approach mandated by the government.
“Everything seems to be automated. The teacher talks, you listen. And, to me, that’s kind of boring,” she said.
Long ago, Wheesk said, the language was taught through action and demonstration.
“For example, the word ‘cup.’ You demonstrate by picking up the cup, you bring it to your month. And you say something like ‘me-ne-kwa-gan,’ (cup) ni-me-ne-kwa-gan,’ (my cup) ‘a-mii-ni-kway-an’ (I use a cup to drink). Things like that. That’s the way the Elders used to teach.”
It is an approach Kiefer agrees with.
“Every time I was taught it, it would come to my mind and it would slip away,” he said of his classroom lessons. “It was by actually talking with other youth and my grandparents, and whoever in general, is how it stuck.”
To aid in classroom teaching or for anyone wishing to learn or practice the language, Wheesk wants to create books in the Cree language.
“Doesn’t matter what level they are, they can pick up this book and practice it whenever they want to,” Wheesk said. “People say computer is the thing nowadays, but to me I think computer is automation.”
In teaching Cree in schools, teachers are often too busy preparing lesson plans to create learning aids such as books, Wheesk said.
“They can’t really make little books for kids to read, but they gotta have something else they can grab from the shelf,” Wheesk. It is Wheesk’s goal to create these books, but she is often too busy in her day job to start.
“We need to have a library of Cree-written materials,” she said. “That’s my dream.”
In order to preserve and learn the language, Wheesk said, everyone must speak the language.
“If you want to keep the language alive, use it,” she said. “Speak it. Live it. That’s the bottom line.”
Kiefer plans on talking with his grandparents more in order to learn the language. It’s a goal he has set, as he feels like he is losing out on an important part of who he is.
“It’s the equivalent of losing a limb,” he said. “It’s something you never thought would be important in your life but the moment you lose it, you realize how much more your life was more fulfilling with it.”
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