When I was eight years old, I remember waking up before dawn at our bush camp. I can still hear the crackling sound from the wood burning stove. I rose slowly from my bed and thought to myself, why are we up so early? Then my grandfather said ‘Wins-chga’, which means wake up in Cree.
“I got dressed, ate and just before the sunrise, we headed out on the James Bay with our boat. The bay was so calm, it was like riding on a huge mirror glass. As the sun touched the bay, my grandfather shouted from the back of the boat, ‘When you are out on the bay, you start early, so you won’t get caught up with low tides and high winds’.”
Suddenly, a phone rang, and Jamie Moses came out of his daydream about this time spent with his grandfather 35 years ago.
Moses is the recently appointed Cree Language Commissioner. A Cree from Eastmain, his mission is to keep the Cree language strong and vibrant. Moses was always exposed to traditional culture by his grandparents and Cree was their primary language. Today, he is thankful for the chance he had to practice his culture and now to share it.
He believes knowing Cree helps keeps the community united. “It is important to keep the language because it is part of our identity,” Moses insisted.
In 2019, the Cree Nation Government adopted the first bill to preserve the Cree language. For years there has been concerns that young children and teens are losing their first language. Language and cultural programs were developed for the youth but there are few teachers because it is largely seasonal work. This is a challenge for Moses’ office.
But he has a plan as Cree Language Commissioner. First, he wants to see local representatives from each community who can monitor and encourage the youth to participate in the language programs. He’s also looking for traditional knowledge keepers to engage the people who want to learn Cree. Finally, he intends to design year-round programs.
Parental participation is very important in his vision. Keeping an Indigenous language alive starts at home and determines whether the child speaks and understands their first language. “My office will not make an impact if the community does not collaborate,” Moses observed.
Joshua Iserhoff, from Nemaska, recently moved to Montreal for educational purposes. A father of children aged 6 and 4, he speaks to them in both Cree and English because many words – such as laptop, remote, satellite – have not yet been created in Cree.
“It is a challenge for us to teach our kids Cree when our terminology is not updated fast enough,” said Iserhoff.
The digital world that we live in today is changing the way people communicate. English is the primary language for Cree people because not everyone is capable to read or write in Cree syllabics.
“If I’m texting my parents, I am writing in English because we don’t have the capacity to write in Cree syllabics,” noted Iserhoff.
He believes internet is a hugely beneficial for our daily lives but can be distracting if we don’t use it wisely. He suggested a television channel devoted to Cree programming for Eeyou Istchee would benefit the Cree language. It could air anything from news, events, sports to children’s shows.
Contributing your skills and talent to your community can have a huge impact says Kahnawake’s Konwatsitsawi Phillips. He is a culture and language officer as well as a production assistant and puppeteer for a children’s show in Kahnawake.
Phillips learned from her grandmother, someone who believed in the importance of speaking the Kanien’kehá language. Helping her people was her passion and had a big influence on her granddaughter’s life. Phillips now helps her community by working with a puppet show for kids called Granny Bear. Broadcast on YouTube, it’s been running for 19 years.
Her dream is to see the language become strong enough that it would be commonly spoken in public.
“I would love to see a time where my native language is used as much as English,” said Phillips. “It will take time and effort from everyone, but I do believe that it will get there some day.”
Nicolas Renaud, a First Peoples Studies professor at Concordia University, stated that the last fluent Wendat speakers were in the late 19th century. Hardship during the 1800s, intermarriage with French Canadians, and proximity of Wendake to Quebec City were central factors in the decline of the language. Through determination and hard work, they have managed to revive the Wendat language,
“People used to say this language is extinct. Now we want to say dormant since we’re trying to speak it again,” said Renaud, a member of the Huron-Wendat First Nation of Wendake.
The Wendat language was documented by French colonists and clergy to further the fur trade, military alliances, and religious conversion.
With anthropologists and linguists at Université Laval, Wendake researched the language to understand it and bring it back. People felt the call to learn it and teach it to others, and it grew from there. They later started offering classes to adults, programs in elementary school in the community, resources online to translate into pronouns and courses offered outside the community.
“We made the effort, we learned the structure, we learned the words, but we don’t have enough opportunity to speak,” noted Renaud.
He said it’s an advantage that the Cree, Mohawk and Innu have fluent speakers in their communities.
“Hopefully they don’t let it get to the point where you have to go to old recordings like the Wendat,” said Renaud.
Despite the relative strength of the Cree language, there is still a long road ahead to ensure its survival, Moses insists. “We understand the issue and how critical it is to lose something important to us,” he said.
Just as Moses’ grandfather was wise to wake up before the high winds picked up on James Bay, speakers of Indigenous languages need to rise early to keep their languages alive. The earlier they start early, the better.