Growing up, Jules Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation didn’t speak much Cree at home.
“My mom didn’t teach us the language,” said the 39-year-old, who spent part of her childhood in Moosonee. “She never even talked to us in the language.”
While taking the documentary media program at Ryerson University in Toronto, she decided to film the process of learning the language and speaking with her mother in Cree.
The result is Remembering Inninimowin, a 76-minute documentary that screened in Kenora at the Sweetgrass Film Festival Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Koostachin spent her early childhood living in Moosonee until her family moved to urban areas such as Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. But they would still visit their home community for the summer or holidays.
By not being able to speak Cree, Koostachin said it was difficult to interact with her Cree-speaking grandparents.
“You would hear them laughing and want to be able to be a part of that,” she said. “I felt that I wasn’t part of conversations and stuff because it was an intentional act not to speak to us in Cree, like I was out of the circle.”
Koostachin summarizes Remembering Inninomowin as “the experience of being invited back into that circle.”
While studying theatre at Concordia University in 1995, Koostachin decided to take a Cree language course being offered, but she felt the sterile class environment was not conducive to her learning.
“There were non-Natives in the class who were learning it faster than we (Natives) were,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t we picking it up?’”
About 10 years later, she found herself in school again, this time studying documentary media.
While in school, she heard about a Cree language course at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto. Christopher Hunter, a Weenusk First Nation member, facilitated the course.
“His approach to teaching was great,” she said. “He would use songs, drumming and it was taught in what felt like a safe environment. Sometimes he would say one word and only that word throughout the class.”
At times, she brought her twin toddlers to class and the lessons rubbed off on them as well.
“They would just be playing and being mischievous, but they would repeat the Cree words,” she said. “They just heard it and picked it up.”
Koostachin brought a camera to the Cree classes, hoping to turn the footage into a project for her documentary course. She also travelled north to Moosonee and Attawapiskat, where she interviewed Elders and family members about the language.
In one key scene, Koostachin was talking with her mother and at one point they turned the camera off. It was then that her mother started speaking and they turned the camera back on.
“We captured this incredible moment where it was the first time she ever looked me in the eye and spoke the language,” she said.
Koostachin had also planned to interview her Cree-speaking grandmother who helped to raise her, but she passed away while Koostachin was still in school.
“I was devastated,” she said.
But along with working part-time and raising her four children, she soldiered on and completed the project in May 2010.
With Hunter’s assistance in translation, she submitted her master’s thesis in Cree syllabics.
She finished with a 3.96 GPA and was awarded an academic achievement medal.
In her documentary, Koostachin noted that the university’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, played a big part in implementing the residential school system in the 1800s.
“I bet he never thought an Aboriginal would get an academic medal at his school,” she said, adding that she’s proud of her academic achievements despite the challenges she faced.
Since it’s completion, Koostachin said Remembering Inninimowin “has become it’s own entity.” It’s been screened at numerous Indigenous or linguistic conferences in places as far as New Mexico, Australia and Peru.
“I’m glad that it’s taken this journey on it’s own,” she said.
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