On the Front Lines of Indigenous Language Preservation: The Cree Literacy Program in Wemindji

By: Jordan Fleguel, School of Journalism, Ryerson University

Wemindji is a Cree community in Northern Quebec, about 1,300 kilometres north of Montreal. Most of its almost 2,000 residents speak English, and many speak Cree. There are those, however, who can speak Cree, but who don’t read or write in Cree very well. There are those who can speak some Cree, but who often have no reason to speak it instead of English, and there are those who can’t fluently speak Cree at all.

Theresa Georgekish is the Cree literacy coordinator for Wemindji. Her job is to raise awareness around the preservation of the Cree language in the community.

Teresa Georgekish,
Cree Literacy Coordinator for Wemindji

Through literacy classes and events, Georgekish says she hopes to keep the Cree language alive amongst people of all ages.

“It’s more than just the language that’s at stake, it’s our culture and our connection with the land. It’s all connected, and we stand to lose everything,” Georgekish said. “I try to work hard to raise awareness about that.”

The Cree literacy program was made possible with funding from the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund. It was created in part because the Cree language was in decline in Wemindji, with growing numbers of young people not learning the language.

Georgekish said that there had been a sense among some parents in Wemindji that being literate in French and English would be more beneficial for their children than being literate in Cree.

“Some [parents] said they didn’t want their kids learning in Cree, they wanted them learning in English so they’d be prepared for high school and jobs and university,” said Georgekish.

Georgekish said that despite these attitudes, progress is being made, and there are people of all ages that attend the Cree classes organized by the literacy program.

“There are younger people that want to learn the language, many of them are going into education and it’s required that they know some Cree,” said Georgekish. “There are older people who come to the classes, mostly first-generation that went to residential schools, because they weren’t allowed to speak their language. They can speak it now but they’re not as good at reading or writing Cree.”

One of the many devastating effects that residential schools had on Indigenous communities is that those who attended were forbidden to speak their language, and many lost it over time, meaning they couldn’t teach it to their own children, or properly communicate with those from their communities if they returned home.

Georgekish said that the transmission of knowledge from elders to younger generations – one of the most important aspects of Cree culture – has always been done in Cree, and losing the Cree language would mean the loss of centuries of cultural wisdom.

“If we lose our language, we lose sight of who we are,” said Georgekish. “It’s through transmission from elders that our culture is still alive, and right now we’re not doing our part of listening to the elders. We’re more focused on technology, and that’s okay, but it has to go hand in hand.”

Dr. Elaine Gold, director of the Canadian Language Museum, and her team help to raise awareness and conduct research on the subject of language preservation with touring exhibits, each dedicated to a language spoken in Canada, including one dedicated to Cree.

She says that by touring these exhibits across the country, more people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, will gain a deeper understanding of the many different languages spoken by Indigenous groups across Canada, and will come to realize that many of them are in danger of disappearing.

“Most people in Ontario have no idea that there are over 60 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada,” Gold said. “There’s so much we can learn from Indigenous language and culture.”

Gold said that although the museum raises awareness and conducts research on all languages spoken in Canada, she feels a special responsibility when it comes to Indigenous languages because unlike English or French, they’re only spoken here.

Before taking on the role of literacy coordinator, Georgekish was a teacher for many years. She says one way to preserve the Cree language is to make sure it’s taught in schools when children are young.

“If I had my way, we’d teach up to Grade 3 all in Cree,” she said, adding that in her experience, those kids who excelled at Cree at an early age also excelled at English. “When a kid is strong in one language, they’re strong in another language.”

Georgekish says that it’s crucial for the young people of Wemindji to learn Cree if the language is to survive. “If young people don’t learn the language, there won’t be a language.”

Capturing a Language on Film

Chloë Ellingson is a documentarian and photographer. Her work has appeared in Newspapers, for events, and she recently discussed a project on Radio Q.

Her most recent work has involved the study of a revitalization effort being conducted on the Mohawk language by the people of Tyendinaga. She created a thoughtful documentary which reflects upon the importance of a language for a people, how a language can be saved, and what kind of people it takes to make it work.

I was able to ask Chloë about her new film. The documentary is called Raising the Words (This comes from the name for the two-year adult-immersion program, Shatiwennakarà:tats, which translates in English as “they are raising the words again”).

[Still from Chloë's Documentary Raising the Words]

[Photo from Chloë’s Documentary Raising the Words]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to study the Mohawk language revitalization project?

Chloë Ellingson : I first became aware of the Mohawk language [known as Kanien’keha in Mohawk] revitalization in Tyendinaga through my relationship with two people who ended up studying Mohawk – Margaret and Ellie. I met them in 2011 for a photographic project I was working on about grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. I was studying photojournalism at Loyalist College at the time, which is in nearby Belleville, Ontario. Margaret and Ellie were really excited about the language programs, and talked often about what they were learning.

It took about a year for me to commit to the idea of working on this project, as I had sincere reservations about taking on a subject that was so removed from my own life experiences. Ultimately, I realized that hearing about what was happening in Tyendinaga was having a powerful impact on my perception of Canada, the depth of the imprint of colonialism, and also what it means to speak a language more broadly. At a certain point I felt that these realizations were too important not to share, and I had met people who were willing to share their stories with me. I started shooting this film in August, 2013.

MI : Where does the film take place?

CE : The documentary is called Raising the Words. It takes place in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is about 200km east of Toronto along Highway 401. Tyendinaga is home to roughly 2200 people, however there are many more people who are also Bay of Quinte Mohawks, but live elsewhere. It is one of the six Mohawk territories within Canadian borders.

MI : Had you spent much time in small towns before filming this documentary?

CE : Other than the short time I had been living in Belleville? Absolutely not! I had spent my life living in only big cities up to that point. All the open space and a dependence on a car was quite an adjustment for me.

MI : Going into the project, how much did you already know about the Indigenous languages of Canada? And specifically of Mohawk?

CE : I knew nothing about Indigenous languages in Canada, and certainly nothing about what was being done to revive them. I had no sense of how Mohawk related to other Indigenous languages, where people spoke it, or what it meant to communities of Mohawk people – and this is what got me into the project. It wasn’t an interest in the language itself, but an interest in what the language means to people. The more I learned about the value it held, the more my curiosity grew.

The life experiences of the people I’ve spoken to in the film have illustrated that language is about much more than communication. It’s a connection to culture, to ancestry, to self. Some of the people in the film see learning the language as a political act, and as an essential part of connecting with their Mohawk identity.

MI : Did you experience any challenges in filming this project?

CE : I experience challenges constantly. Some of the challenges are about figuring out how to piece this film together as a first-time filmmaker. I’m used to working with the medium of photography, and there are some huge differences to grapple with, such as the need to plan and do things in a pre-meditated fashion, rather than being able to have a more intuitive approach. There are more profound challenges as well, like the need to try to work away from the exoticized, distancing representations of Indigenous peoples that have plagued visual representations of the past, and continue to do so. This is a haunting challenge because I fear that the prejudices I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life could be coming out in in ways I’m not aware of.

MI : The people who form the basis of the film, what has been their reaction to beginning to learn the Mohawk language? Why is it important to them?

CE : From what I gather there are several motivations, but the overarching one is something I can’t describe, that I’ve only been able to vaguely bear witness to, and it has to do with addressing a profound need to feel like oneself after a tremendous, violent loss. I know that there are sub-motivations at play such as wanting their children to have access to opportunities they never did, to connect with culture, to live out the change they want experienced in the community on a broad scale.Important to note is also “the cool factor” that the language has now, as teacher Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow puts it. As he says in the film, the kids of ‘80s and ‘90s “grew up post-dramatic racism, post native-awakening, at a time where it started again to be cool to be native.” It’s this generation, he says, that has been raised in a context that allows for language revitalization.

MI : What has been the hardest part of putting this together?

CE : The hardest part is grappling with the fact that I talk, write, and think about this project in English. I think the work has value even coming from this standpoint, but it’s strange not to be contributing to the revitalization through what the film is, rather than just what it says.

MI : What has been the biggest surprise, or new thing that’s come from your work on this?

CE : It’s been surprising to me to hear some of the thoughts about my project from people I know who I otherwise consider to be very open-minded, curious and worldly people. One friend asked, after hearing about the work, something like, “But isn’t it normal for languages to die out through the course of history?” I’ve come to believe that this is totally missing the point. There are real people who care about their language and are fighting to keep it strong. Why entertain notions of whether or not it matters on the scale of total human history if it clearly matters to a people today?

MI : Who is this project aimed at? Who do you hope will be the audience for this film?

CE : I find this question very difficult to answer, because I’ll be happy for anyone to watch the film, and I can’t predict who will get something out of it and who won’t. That said, if the standpoint from which it was made can be an indication of the answer to your question, then I’ll say that this film came about through a realization that language revitalization is happening. It has tremendous value to those involved. Learning about these efforts at revitalization is a window into exploring the current impact of colonialism, and a desire to explore and share the life-affirming and moving stories of a few people who are involved in language revitalization in Tyendinaga.

[Still from Chloe's film Raising the Words]

[Photo from Chloë’s film Raising the Words]

A sincere thank you to Chloë for taking part in this interview. This blog has usually focussed on the work of academics and researchers, but it is important to speak also with people involved in language in other ways.

The Mohawk language is absolutely important to the people in Tyendinaga who are the subjects of Chloë’s film. They are spending their time and resources to try to revive their language, and to help people appreciate the importance that language has to Mohawk identity–both inside and beyond their community.

These languages aren’t endangered like a species that isn’t surviving due to natural selection. There has been nothing natural about the suppression that Indigenous languages have underwent that created a situation in which so many are now on the edge of extinction.

Efforts like those taking place in Tyendinaga hope to restore a language’s place in its community, and efforts like Chloë’s hope to inform those involved, and the public at large, that these languages can be saved, but they need our help.

 

Information on how and where to see Chloë’s documentary can be found Here.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi