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.”

From Two Languages Comes One

Michif is a language traditionally spoken by the Métis of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, across Canada, and even in North Dakota. The language has been the subject of intense discussions in linguistics because of its unique creation.

Professor Nicole Rosen of the University of Manitoba has studied Michif since she was a grad student, and has worked on an online dictionary to try to document and preserve the language. For all that makes Michif interesting and special, it has not received the attention from documentarians and revitalization efforts that it needs. It, unfortunately like so many of North America’s Indigenous languages, is on the brink of extinction. At stake is a language represents the two sides of Canadian history: the ancient history of Canada pre-contact, and the history of the settlers who arrived from Europe and moved west.

I had the great privilege to speak with Professor Rosen about this fascinating language.

[An Android App for learning the Michif language]

[An Android App for learning the Michif language]

Michael Iannozzi : So what is Michif?

Nicole Rosen : Well, Michif is a language that is spoken by a subgroup of the Métis people, and it is a mixture of French and Plains Cree, but also a little English and Ojibwe too.

MI : Where did Michif come from?

NR : Near as we can tell, it was formed at the beginning of the 19th century. It was spoken by the 1820s or 1830s, and it was formed in the Red River Valley (Which is around Winnipeg). It was formed largely by French settlers marrying Indigenous women; who created a new culture—the Métis culture—and who also created a new language.

MI : That’s much earlier than I had thought it would be, had the French settlers been in that area before the 1820s, and just not started to create this culture until then?

NR : There may have been a group before then, but the earliest records we have of the language is from that time. There were certainly traces of this language and culture before then, but it wasn’t until about the 1820s that this group was referred to collectively as a community called the Metis, or the Red River Metis. It wasn’t until then that we have a clear record of the Métis creating their own culture, and their own identity; that may not started start until the 1820s when settlers started coming this far west.

MI : And so today where would we find speakers of Michif?

NR : There are speakers in Manitoba in a few communities like Camperville, San Clara, and around Binscarth. There are other Métis communities with speakers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and North Dakota. In the 1870s and 1880s the Métis were dispersed—or it may be more appropriate to say they fled the Red River Valley due to rebellions and battles. So they dispersed across the Prairies. The battle of 1885 is really the one that marked the end of the Métis settlements in the Red River Valley, Louis Riel was hanged, and the Michif language and Métis culture went into hiding after that.

Before that the Métis actually had a pretty good place in society because they were bi-cultural, multilingual, they knew their way around the land, and they often attended school, so they could trade between the groups of settlers and Indigenous peoples. Because of their dual heritage, they could often get along with either community : the First Nations or the settlers.

MI : So before 1885 they could be a part of both communities, and then after 1885 they weren’t really a part of either one?

NR : Yes, unfortunately then they really went into hiding, and it is really from that point that the Métis really begin to be marginalized. Also at that time, more and more French Quebecois were being recruited to settle the west: Quebecois who weren’t of “mixed blood”, and these new settlers really contributed to the marginalization of these “mixed” people.

MI : If the language went “underground” in a sense, that makes it all the more interesting that it was able to survive. The speakers were dispersed across the Prairies, and yet the language was able to survive.

NR : The Michif language really went into hiding. It was only spoken at home, it was not the language the Métis tended to use elsewhere. And there were some Métis communities that, after they spread out, they really just tried not to mix with the other communities to keep their culture alive. Part of the other side of their persecution and isolation is that their underground culture, and marginalized status, meant that they sometimes avoided being sent to residential schools. The residential schools tended to target the reservations, and a lot of Métis just lived out in the bush, off the land, and so some were able to keep their language, and avoid bringing attention to themselves. Certainly not all, or even most, but some were able to do this because they were so dispersed and remote.

MI : So would you say that that is part of the reason they were able to keep their language alive? Because they did keep themselves to themselves, and did try to avoid being a part of too many other communities?

NR : I think so. I mean, this is kind of a huge generalization. Because of the dispersed and multicultural nature of the Métis people, they are very diverse in their histories and experiences. This makes it very hard to generalize, or even say that something usually happened a certain way. Especially because Michif is just one of the languages of the Métis. They also speak a Métis variety of French, and a Métis variety of Cree, among other languages, and so when you try to describe this thing called Michif, it is somewhat ambiguous. Linguists know Michif as this “mixed” language [A creole is a language developed between two groups who develop a pidgin or simplified way of communicating, and eventually develops into a language. A mixed language develops thorough two languages intertwining because the groups are almost completely bilingual]. However, the Métis people see Michif as any one of several languages.

MI : So if you were to estimate, how many speakers would you say there are today?

NR : Our best estimates are a few hundred; however, we don’t really know because a speaker can check Michif on the census, but, as I said, Michif means three different languages, and so we don’t know which language people who say they speak Michif necessarily mean. Even when Michif is included in the census (2011), the numbers it comes out with are kind of meaningless unless you also know which language the speakers are referring to—a speaker can check the Michif box, but what does that mean: Michif French, Michif Cree, or the mixed Michif [There were 640 respondents in 2011’s census who reported Michif as a Mother Language].

MI : So when a Romance language (French) and an Algonquian First Nations language (Plains Cree) mix, what does that end up looking like?

NR : Well, people have differing views on what it looks like, but overall, it does look like it has a heavy influence from French, but it is mostly Plains Cree. The nouns and adjectives tend to come from French, and most of the verbs tend to come from Plains Cree. That’s very broadly speaking: in reality it isn’t exactly that cleanly split.

MI : Would someone who speaks French understand Michif better or worse than someone who speaks Cree?

NR : Someone who speaks Cree will understand Michif a little better than someone who speaks French, but it would still be very difficult. However, I do think the language, as a whole, is more like an Algonquian (First Nations) language than a Romance language like French. However, there is a large number of French words incorporated into it, and even sounds that exist in French, but not in Plains Cree, have become a part of Michif.

MI : So how did you first begin studying Michif? How did you even first hear about it?

NR : I think in the past most people hadn’t even heard of Michif—even here in Winnipeg. I think that is less true now, but it is still not widely known about. It was actually during my Master’s in French linguistics at the University of Toronto that I first heard of Michif. I had always been interested in French in contact with other languages, such as when it creates Creoles [like in the Caribbean].

When one studies languages in contact, there is always a section that covers “mixed languages”, and it is always the same example for a mixed language: Michif. There are others, but that is the one that is most commonly used as the example of a mixed language. I thought to myself, “Really? This is spoken here, in Canada, by the Métis people? I’m from Winnipeg, they speak Michif around there? I’ve never heard of it—I have to go and find out what this thing is.” That was really what started it all. I found out about Michif, and then I called the Manitoba Métis Federation when I was doing my Master’s, and I just asked if anyone spoke Michif, or if they could tell me anything about the language. It turns out they had just begun developing a Michif Language Project, and I started collaborating with them, which I continue to do today. It just all worked out.

[Here is a video of a Michif speaker singing “oh where, oh where has my little dog gone”. Credit : Manitoba Métis Foundation]

Thank you sincerely to Professor Nicole Rosen for her time and fascinating insight into the Michif language. Professor Rosen has done significant work with Métis elders who speak Michif in creating an online dictionary, and making recordings available on a linguistic atlas of the Algonquian languages here [An amazing and fun website to see where the speakers are across Canada]. Importantly, her work has involved listening to the Métis communities’ needs and goals in helping to revitalize and document their own language…or, as we’ve learned, languages.

The Métis have had a very different path toward the formation of that culture and community than many other groups. Their language and culture is young, and it has already had more than its fair share of trials and strife, yet the Métis culture, and the Michif languages continue to be celebrated today. Hopefully this fascinating language, that played such an important role in Canada’s history, will survive long into the future.

Prof. Rosen has provided several resources so you can learn more about Métis culture and Michif languages:

The Gabriel Dumont Institute

Louis Riel Institute

The Michif Language Project

The Michif Language Dictionary

Learn Michif

Remember to be proud of the languages you speak. Your heritage has a language attached, and you should be proud of what makes you unique.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi


Reviving a long-lost language

Professor John Steckley is the person who brought the Huron language back into being in the 20th century. It was spoken until the mid-17th century, and then it died out due to many reasons: from European contact to war with other indigenous groups. Three centuries later, Professor Steckley started translating texts, and taught himself a language that had lain dormant for hundreds of years.

He was kind enough to speak with me about his fascinating work on a language that had no speakers when he started his work.



MI: You’re known for reviving the Huron language, what is the Huron language?

JS: The Huron language is a Northern Iroquoian language that was spoken in Southern Ontario for hundreds of years until the mid-17th century. From that point the speakers moved eventually to the community of Wendake, near Quebec, where they live today. Another group travelled through the Upper Great Lakes before settling in the Detroit area (whose descendants are known as the Wyandot of Anderdon), Ohio, Kansas, and finally Oklahoma. Between the dialects of Huron and Petun, there were over 20,000 speakers at around the time of first contact with the French early in the 17th century.

MI: Are there any related languages which are still spoken?

JS: There are six fairly closely related languages still spoken, the languages of the Six Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Together they make up what are called the Northern Iroquoian languages. The one surviving Southern Iroquoian language is Cherokee.

MI: How did you first hear about the Huron language?

JS: I first heard about the language and its situation when I was working as a research assistant for Roy Wright of the Anthropology Department of the University of Toronto in 1973-4. I was doing data entry for him. I learned then that the language had no speakers, but had been recorded in many manuscripts written by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th century.

The idea of studying a language that had lost its speakers intrigued me from the very beginning. I had done some limited work in the unrelated language of Ojibwe, and I had long been fascinated by Aboriginal languages. The idea that my work would make a contribution to the world: not only to academics, but also to the people themselves won me over.

MI: How did you teach yourself the language?

JS: I learned the language through the works of those who came before me. I first acquired the knowledge of how to learn the language by studying the grammars of related and still-spoken Northern Iroquoian languages such as Oneida and Seneca, and Gunther Michelson’s A Thousand Words of Mohawk (1973).

The big breakthrough was in finding Victor Hanzeli’s, Missionary Linguistics in New France, (1969). He must have had a large budget in his grant to write the book as he had made copies of a number of dictionaries of Wendat: both French-Wendat and Wendat-French. Although having almost no budget myself, I had copies of a number of these dictionaries printed off.   I soon had a Wendat language research library in my home.

This low budget library was completed by adding the linguistic work of Father Pierre Potier, which was fortunately published in 1920 as a Province of Ontario Archive Report (Potier 1920). He worked with the Wyandot of the Detroit area from 1743 until 1781, and was a dedicated copier of all manuscripts written in and about the language.

MI: Are there efforts underway to bring the language back?

JS: People in Wendake, where the language is taught in the local elementary school, and in the Wyandot communities are working on the language, beginning with its use in prayers and songs. The hardest part of bringing back a language with no speakers is the creation of a venue or forum where the language can be used by people in the community. The people are meeting this challenge through lessons taught to the children, and through the songs and prayers. I am trying to create a huge literature in the language for future Wendat as well as anthropologists and linguists to have a relatively easy way to enter the historical and cultural world that the language speaks of and for.

MI: What is your favourite thing about the Huron language?

JS: It is very hard for me to say what my favourite thing about the language is. I like that its grammar made more sense to me than the grammar of English. I really liked that verb structure was the main grammatical key to the language. I love the concepts that it taught me, such as “orenda”, the two soul/spirits each individual had (the topic of my Master’s thesis), and that it contains few terms of hierarchy (no ‘best’ no ‘worst’, no ‘command’ and no ‘obey.’)

MI: Why is it important to preserve, document, and revitalize indigenous languages?

JS: It is important to preserve, document and revitalize indigenous languages first because the peoples and their ancestors are owed the kind of respect that such activities demonstrate. Second, it puts the people in greater contact with their ancestors, a very important goal. Third, because the languages present alternative views that are so badly needed in our monocultural times.

MI: Finally, if you could go back to see the pre-contact Huron peoples, what would you most like to see them doing or discussing?

JS: If I could go back in time, I would like to hear and record the stories that the people tell. The ones I would especially like to hear are the stories of the origins of the clans. I have hypothesized that these stories contain the names that were owned by the clans, and this would be a fantastic way to test my hypothesis.



A sincere thank you to Professor Steckley.


And if you’d like to learn more about the Huron language, a language revitalization class at the University of Toronto (in which, full disclosure, I am a student) is hosting an evening of presentations and talks regarding the Huron language’s revival after going unspoken for centuries, the significance of the language, and how the language itself works.

The event will be held on November 26, 2014 at 6:00 PM in ES4001 (Earth Sciences) at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus. The Earth Sciences building is across the street from New College, and kitty-corner from Sidney Smith.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi

Traditional Knowledge Licences

We have all seen the statements under Youtube videos. You know the ones. When you’re watching something that has been on television, or watching something under copyright. You’ve seen the little statement of “creative commoncc.logo.larges licence”.

The idea of a creative commons license is that people have a right to use media in educational and non-profit ways. These licences outline the terms by which one’s work can be used, shared, or remixed. Copyright is a contentious issue in and of itself. Many companies that produce cultural content such as television shows, films, videos, or music, don’t want people to be able to obtain their work in its entirety for free. This isn’t solely an economic issue, but regardless of where you stand on the issue the question remains: who, if anyone, has the right to control culture?

Today’s blog post is about a different issue surrounding cultural content. Let me begin with an example. When I was young and would be having dinner with my parents and grandparents, we would all speak English. However, certain topics would come up (often gossip, to be honest) that “wasn’t for me to hear”, and so they would switch to speaking Italian. What little passive ability I have in Italian is thanks to a childhood of straining to catch the details and juicy gossip being shared. However, the main point is that that information wasn’t for me. I wasn’t the intended audience, and I was actively discouraged from obtaining that information by the speakers using a language that I didn’t understand.

This is common among many people and families, even if a second language isn’t available to switch to. Whether whispering in the kitchen, or using vague and coded language to ensure the children won’t understand, some information in our households isn’t meant for everyone. In the digital age, so much of the information of the world is readily available to anyone with internet and curiosity.

Now, I am going to bring these two ideas—YouTube and my gramma gossiping in Italian—together. There are many cultures, peoples, and language communities that have information that is privileged, or is in some way meant for only a certain subset of the people. Today, these peoples want their language and way of life preserved, but keeping the traditions of who can possess this information is a growing concern.

lc_label_women_rlc_label_sacredA possible solution has been found in the creation of “cultural licences”. A link can be found here: Traditional Knowledge Licences.The idea behind these licences is that information, videos, images, recordings, and whole archives can be put under a licence to ensure only the appropriate parties have access.

A great example of this was shared with me from a professor Berez who taught Language Archiving at CILLDI (a summer indigenous language school) this summer. Colleagues of hers were preserving audio cassettes, by converting them to digital formats—to protect for the eventuality that the tape deteriorates and becomes unusable. At the start of one of the tapes, an elder of a tribe was heard saying that the song she was about to sing belonged to this community, and that it should never be played outside the community. The preservation of the tapes was being done off-site of the community, and this provided a dilemma for the preservationists. Preserving this cultural artifact was important, but respecting the wishes of the deceased, and the cultural values ascribed to the song were also paramount.

Traditional Knowledge licences allow people to guard against the use of certain information by unintended parties. These range from gendered (meaning some for only men, and some for only women), to geographic (the information shouldn’t be accessed from outside the community), to culture (you must be a member of a certain tribe or people), to rank (you must have attained a certain status in your community before you can access the information). There are even “sunset clauses”, which can refer to the information only becoming available after a certain number of years. For example, if in a recording the speaker says things that could be controversial in the present, they may ask for a sunset clause, so that the information isn’t released until after their death.

These licences don’t protect perfectly, much like you can still find movies that are under copyright on YouTube right now, but they are a step in the right direction. They help to protect information, and work to ensure it falls into the hands of those who have the right to possess it. Cultural licences also help to raise awareness in the general public that different cultures and peoples share information in different ways, and that these licences allow the transmission of knowledge and information respectfully.

A further step is used by some archive websites such as AILLA, which possesses recordings of hundreds of Central and South American languages. Some of those archives of recordings are password protected, or require the interested parties to contact the controller of the archive to ask for permission to use the archive, which will have restrictions. These could include being in the same country, or being part of an ethnic community.

This summer I was part of a discussion in which a Cree individual expressed that some information was so culturally significant that she would rather see it disappear from record, than see it be given to everyone with an internet connection. In fact, they said some stories need to be told again each time, and so a recording should never be done. The story must be retold, live, each and every time, otherwise it loses its cultural significance.

These cultural licences are a great step toward respecting the wishes of peoples who want their way-of-life and culture preserved, but also want what is preserved to be used and shared responsibly.



Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi

(If you have any ideas for topics of future posts please email canlangmuseum@gmail.com)