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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Luci Salt reflects on a lifetime of Cree language advocacy

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 11, 2023

To commemorate Cree Language Month this March, the Grand Council of the Crees honoured language experts and advocates like Luci Salt on social media. Salt has played a pioneering role in Cree language preservation for over 40 years, working with the Cree School Board and every other major Cree institution as well as the provincial and federal governments. 

While she retired in 2006, Salt continues to work as a translation consultant and was selected in 2021 to be part of an ad-hoc advisory committee on the Cree language by language commissioner Jamie Moses. This temporary body meets three to four times each year to help guide the office of the commissioner.

“In spite of efforts to eradicate it, we still have our beautiful and rich Cree language,” Salt told the Nation. “I love my language and I feel privileged that I was a part of its inclusion in our education institutions and in the areas where our people want to show its importance in the work that they do.” 

The Cree Nation and its language have evolved immensely over the course of Salt’s life, which began in 1947 when her family lived off the land and there were no hindrances to the language’s development. To be closer to medical assistance, her parents travelled by dog team to Fort George where she was born in one of the island’s few houses. 

At the time, there were no books written in Cree except for religious material distributed by the church. All knowledge passed on to children was oral and traditional activities were learned by hands-on observation and experience. Residential school would soon rupture this bond.

“Suddenly speaking Cree was forbidden,” Salt recalled. “We were not allowed to speak the only language we knew. Everything familiar was taken away – the biggest loss was our daily connection to our parents’ love and guidance. We were put into a completely different environment.”

Although residential school students only returned to their communities for two months per year, the Cree language was strong enough that it was possible to retain that cultural connection. However, when Salt began her 11-year teaching career working for Indian Affairs for 11 years beginning in 1967, it was in English.

The establishment of the Cree School Board in 1978 began a new era for integrating the Cree language in the classroom. As there were no written teaching materials available for Cree dialects, Salt and her colleagues consulted with other Indigenous school boards across Canada to adapt resources.

“When we started our own school guidelines, we developed many books, curriculum guides and other teaching materials from the very rich source of knowledge of our own storytellers, artists of all ages,” Salt explained. “Many Elders, teachers, professors and linguists were instrumental in developing the materials.”

Some of these resources emerged from the Cree Way Project, which operated out of Waskaganish from 1973 to 1976 and was later integrated into the CSB. Salt worked with the late Annie Whiskeychan to support language and culture teachers in each community, who in those days largely spoke Cree and lived traditional lifestyles. 

After being away from her community for over 12 years as a student, it took many years of intense study for Salt to fully understand unilingual Cree speakers. She enrolled in several linguistics courses from UQAC, McGill and Memorial universities and took every opportunity to listen to community members whose only form of communication was oral Cree.

“I often travelled alone to my places of work, and I would listen to cassette tapes in my vehicle of Cree legends to hear the old Cree words, for example,” said Salt. “When I got to my destination, I would ask my co-workers who spoke the language fluently to explain the meaning of the words I didn’t understand in the stories I had listened to during my trip.”

Salt worked with others to expand the curriculum and develop Cree dictionaries in standardized Cree syllabics. She was also instrumental in developing materials for the Cree Language of Instruction Program (CLIP), which was introduced one grade at a time starting with two communities in 1993.

Before that, the use of Cree in schools remained much the same as it was in the early 1970s – sometimes used in kindergartens and taught as a literacy subject and in others related to traditional skills or physical education. However, a paper Salt co-wrote about CLIP noted that previous attempts to make Cree the medium of instruction had encountered resistance from parents.

“While Cree parents could see the point of using oral Cree to explain concepts and do classroom management, they were not as sure that literacy in Cree first would be appropriate,” stated Salt, Barbara Burnaby and Marguerite MacKenzie. 

According to anthropologist Adrian Tanner’s research published in 1981, parents expected English or French instruction from the beginning to prepare children for later school demands. There were also concerns that teachers weren’t trained to teach in Cree, few knew the Cree writing system and materials were scarce and inadequate.   

When CLIP was unveiled, language attitudes in Cree communities had changed considerably and the CSB had developed strong infrastructure, language resources and personnel. At education conferences, Salt observed that other Indigenous groups viewed the CSB as a model, telling her “You guys are so far ahead of us.”

Over the years, Salt kept busy in other language work such as transcribing and translating Cree legends. She helped develop eastcree.org, an online tri-lingual tool launched in 2000 by the CSB and Carleton University. She frequently worked as a simultaneous interpreter for various entities, which she practiced by translating television programs and bedtime stories for her granddaughter.

While new technologies bombard youth with non-Indigenous content, Salt encourages parents to speak Cree at home, listen to Cree radio and engage in land-based activities. Believing language is the strongest connection to Cree heritage, Salt wishes every month was Cree Language Month.

“I am thankful that Cree communities are promoting the Cree language and culture by organizing different activities,” Salt said. “I am happy that our local daycares in Iiyiyiuschii speak to the children mainly in Cree. We should always give our full support to any promotion and enhancement of our Cree language.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.