Did you know that Amiskwaskahikan is the Nehiyaw (Cree) word for Edmonton? Or that what we think of as the Cree language is actually a continuum of eleven dialects that differ across the country? It’s important to remember our country was inhabited for far longer than 150 years by people who spoke languages that were neither French nor English.
According to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), there are 11 indigenous language families in Canada, with over 60 unique language dialects. Except for Inuktitut, the language spoken by Inuit, all are considered critically endangered.
Data from the 2006 census indicated approximately 117,000 Cree speakers throughout Canada. By 2011, the latest date for which Statistics Canada has data available, this number dropped to just under 83,500.
Ron Walker, the executive director of the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, thinks those numbers might be misleading and that the Cree language is not only maintaining but also rejuvenating itself.
“Despite so many years of racism and systemic colonialism, the Cree language is thriving,” Walker said, mentioning the recent Ben Calf Robe Pow Wow. “There were many Cree speakers there and lots of songs in Cree.”
Language is inextricably tied to culture. Of all the lasting legacies of the residential school system, the loss of language has, perhaps, had the most far-reaching effect.
From the late 1800s to as late as the 1980s, more than 100,000 First Nations children were taken from their families and communities and placed in residential schools. Some of the worst abuses were doled out as punishment for children speaking their native language.
With a great deal of First Nations spirituality and knowledge passed on orally by elders through storytelling and performing sacred rituals, generations of children were unable to learn their history and were disconnected from their culture and belief systems. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised last December that his government would introduce measures to help protect these languages, we have yet to see what those measures will entail. For Walker, it doesn’t matter.
“It would be nice for the government to recognize the need but it’s going to happen anyway. Our language has been our indigenous right since time immemorial,” he said. “We don’t need a bill or legislation. We know that language needs to be learned. For us, it’s about building community and identity because without language, there’s no culture.”
Walker is proud of the success of the two Cree language learning programs his organization initiated.
Edmontonians wishing to learn Cree or improve their Cree language skills have two opportunities each week to do so. Each Monday evening from 6 to 8 pm at the Highlands library, the Canadian Native Friendship Centre hosts a Cree Language Conversation Circle. They also host a Cree for Tea Talking Circle on Thursday afternoons from 1 to 3 pm at their offices at 11728 95 Street. Both are free and require no pre-registration.
As the effects of residential schools on First Nations’ language and culture continue to be felt, it is critical for indigenous people to preserve their linguistic and cultural traditions. Language learning programs are important tools in the reconciliation tool box. But for Walker, it goes much farther than that.
“There’s power in language,” he said. “What the mainstream needs to understand is that we are a living culture and there is no question of our existence and there is no going back to the days when assimilation was the goal.”
CREE LANGUAGE CONVERSATION CIRCLE
Mondays, 6 to 8 pm at the Highlands library (6710 118 Ave)
CREE FOR TEA TALKING CIRCLE
Canadian Native Friendship Centre (Room 200, 11728 95 St)
Thursdays from 1-3 pm
Both classes are free; no registration required.
Feature image: Edmontonians have two options to learn or improve upon their Cree language skills with free language programs. | Pixabay