They will speak their language again and forever

This week we are looking at Mi’gmaq, a First Nations Language spoken in Eastern Canada.

More specifically, we are looking at efforts to revitalize the language, and a very promising and encouraging trend among minority and endangered languages : linguists and academics working with and among the community rather than deciding what is best for them.

To that end, this week I am speaking with Carol-Rose Little, linguistics Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and Madelaine Metallic, Mi’gmaq language teacher at Alaqsite’w Gitpu School in Listuguj, QC about efforts currently underway to protect, preserve, and promote the Mi’gmaq language.

Micmac_pater_noster

[The Mi’gmaq “hieroglyphics” described below.]

MI : So I suppose, to start, what is Mi’gmaq?

CRL : Mi’gmaq is an Eastern Algonquian language of eastern Canada.

MI : Where was it originally spoken?

CRL : Eastern/Atlantic Canada/Newfoundland and Labrador and Maine

MI : Where is it spoken today?

CRL : Eastern QC, Cape Breton, NB, NL

MI : How many speakers are there?

CRL : Numbers are hard to come by…Ethnologue says 8,000 but I would say it is definitely less than half that amount. It is hard to get this kind of survey data.

MI : What makes it unique?

CRL : Mi’gmaq is a polysynthetic language, which basically is to say that each word is composed of many parts. So in one word it is possible to say “I see you” nemul nem=see, -ul = first person acting on second person.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

CRL : Mi’gmaq has a number of different writing systems, there was even once a hieroglyphic system (*cover this* -MI), though that system has not been in use for many years. The orthographies used in communities today all use Latin-based characters [The Mi’gmaq language is written by all communities today using the same alphabet as English].

MI : Are there related languages spoken currently?

CRL : Many languages spoken today are related to Mi’gmaq (all Algonquian languages, e.g. Passamoquoddy-Maliseet, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, Cree).

MI : Now turning to you both, did you grow up with Mi’gmaq as one of your languages, or did you learn it later?

CRL : I began learning Mi’gmaq in the classroom in 2012 and am still learning today.

MM : I grew up with Mi’gmaq as one of my languages. My grandparents have been speaking to me in Mi’gmaq for as long as I can remember, and I have been speaking the language ever since.

MI : And your project “migmaq.org”, how has it been built?

CRL : migmaq.org is meant to be a place where members of the project can share updates and keep updated themselves of what is happening with the work being done by both the community and linguists. It also acts as a place where those interested in Mi’gmaq can go and find resources and references on Mi’gmaq, and how to learn it.

MI : What are the project’s goals?

CRL : The collaboration is a collective effort to bring Mi’gmaq speakers, teachers, and linguists together to develop a deeper understanding of the grammar of the language, create teaching materials, and facilitate the learning, speaking, and promotion of Mi’gmaq.

MI : What is the role of the linguist, and what is the role of the community and its elders in a project like this?

CRL : My role is to help in whatever way possible to build language-learning resources! I’ve helped document course curricula, organize language workshops, contribute to social media campaigns, and record and document the language. I also do fieldwork on Mi’gmaq. For instance, a paper I wrote on Negation will be published soon. This research also feeds into the grammar wiki [Found Here].

MI : What are some of the challenges in a project this big?

CRL : Not getting overloaded with resources! I think at one point we had so many different platforms (apps, social media, computer softwares, websites) to learn Mi’gmaq, we just had to stop and re-evaluate, then cut the programs that were not attracting traffic, and work more on the apps/sofwares/websites that were drawing users.

MI : What are the advantages of modern technology and the internet in revitalizing First Nations languages?

CRL : Accessibility, being able to share resources quickly, and having access to open-source programs that are very attractive to limited budgets.

MI : On the website I see that there is a decision to be active on social media, why is it important to have the community use social media? And how does this impact interactions with the outside communities?

CRL : Social media is a powerful marketing tool. For instance Savvy Simon’s #SpeakMikmaq movement has garnered a lot of support. Many people are posting instagram videos of them speaking Mi’gmaq, even if it is just a word.

MM : Also today, many people are actively involved with social media, so one way to promote the language and reach these people is to share the language through social media. Social media also allows communication between different Mi’gmaq communities, which allows for sharing of resources as Carol-Rose mentioned.

MI : What is a master-apprentice language program? And why do you think it is an important tool?

CRL : The goal of the master apprentice program is to pair a speaker (“master”) up with a learner (“apprentice”), and for the speaker to go about daily routines, but only in the language [In this case Mi’gmaq], forcing the apprentice to use and practice the language in everyday settings. This is an extremely important tool because not only are learners practicing the language, but they are practicing it in culturally and socially relevant contexts, thus learning terminology and phrases related to those activities.

MI : What do you think is the most important thing for the survival of Mi’gmaq in the future?

CRL : Getting young people to learn the language, and use it with each other. Being able to have entire friendships and relationships in the language.

MM : I agree with what Carol-Rose says, but I also think that it is most important for Mi’gmaq people to begin to take initiative in learning their language themselves, and to have the motivation on their own to learn it in order for our language to survive. At the moment we have plenty of resources, and fluent speakers (although, unfortunately, not for much longer) who are willing to help; now is the time where we need the people to be willing to actively use these resources.

MI : If someone wants to learn Mi’gmaq, what do you feel is the best approach, and how should someone get started?

CRL : The best approach is to learn a few basics phrases, and some verb conjugations and just go out and start speaking. Listening to music in Mi’gmaq and learning the lyrics helps with pronunciation (My favourite song). However, I am a linguist, and I’m sure teachers would have many things to add.

MM : I agree with Carol-Rose, a good start would be to learn some simple words and phrases and to practice those. Try to use the new words you’ve just learned as much as possible. In order to learn the language, one must try to immerse themselves in the language. I was also told it was important to begin thinking in the language as much as you can, even if you only have a small vocabulary. If you see a door, don’t identify it to yourself as a “door”, but as a “gaqan”. Also speakers (especially new ones) have to keep in mind that they are still learning, and that they should not be afraid to make mistakes, or to try even if they might not be sure they know. Speakers should realize that they are making an effort to learn, and they should take pride in that, and never feel too embarrassed or shy to keep learning.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the project?

CRL : I love working with speakers. Mi’gmaq is such a different language than any other I have studied. There is so much to discover and learn from all the structure. It’s such a fun language to talk in as well. I felt so happy after the first time I managed to hold a conversation for 30 minutes in Mi’gmaq. It’s so fun being able to talk to Mi’gmaq speakers in their native language and learn about their rich culture.

MM : I love being able to learn more about my language and to discuss the language with other speakers. I also love hearing the input of others, and working to find different solutions to try for a given issue, and get other people to begin to start speaking their language.

800px-Listuguj

[The Listuguj Mi’gmaq Territory is in the far east of Quebec]

A sincere thank you to Carol-Rose and Madelaine for taking part in the interview

This project is just one example of a growing number of instances where communities are working with academics to preserve and promote their language. Mi’gmaq is a great instance of work being done by people of all backgrounds, and all ages, to create digital resources, fieldwork research, immersive language-learning, and create teaching materials altogether. A large group of people is working very hard, and coordinating a great number of people, and their time, and the results are impressive.

The work that is being done on Mi’gmaq will hopefully be used as an example of how communities and outside experts in various fields can share and learn from, and with, each other. Academics should always ask, coordinate, and work with a community. The results of their combined efforts and various skillsets and knowledge result in a very promising future for both Mi’gmaq specifically, and language revitalization across Canada!

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael

 

 

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They Are Standing the Words Back Up

This week I spoke with someone from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is the community that is the subject of Raising the Words; a short documentary from Chloë Ellingson.

Callie Hill is the Executive Director of the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre, and she has a great deal of experience engaging with, and organizing the education of the Mohawk language. As a Mohawk herself, she also relates personally to the significance of losing the Mohawk language.

I spoke with her both about the language and how to save a language that needs our help.

[Callie in her office]

[Callie in her Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna office]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

Callie Hill : I think that having children was one of the defining moments in my life that made me realize how important the Mohawk language and culture is. And now I have a grandson so it is even more important to me. I am not a speaker, but I do have a base of language knowledge which I have gained from years of taking language programs. I hope to be able to continue learning the language so that I can pass this along to my grandchildren. My parents did not speak, but I did hear my paternal grandfather speak the language, which I don’t recall knowing was indeed Mohawk. He died when I was nine and he was the only person in my family that I ever heard speaking the language.

In 2004, I began to work for Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna (TTO) as the Coordinator. At the time that I joined I was the only full-time employee. My role for the past ten years has been to create, develop and oversee Mohawk language programs in the community, which I have been doing as a non-speaker. By this I mean that I have been the Administrator of the programs, and never a teacher of the language. We now have a staff complement of six teachers, one teacher assistant, a part-time curriculum specialist, an Administrative Assistant and myself, the Executive Director.

MI :What does a typical day consist of in your work?

CH : As the Executive Director of the TTO Language and Cultural Centre, my typical day is administrative work. I write proposals, prepare reporting, oversee the staff and work on new programming. Because my office is at the primary immersion school I also act in the position of “Principal”, so some of my time is helping the teachers in this capacity. So really I don’t have a typical day because you just never know what can happen. We all very much work as a team in every aspect of our organization. Everyone is willing to pitch in and help where they can: being a community, that is what we are all about. For instance, the primary school had a Valentine cookie fundraiser in February and collectively in one day we raised $800, by baking and selling a total of 800 cookies at $1 each – that was a great success!

MI : Where do your revitalization efforts take place?

CH : Kenhteke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) is a Kanyenkehaka (Mohawk people) territory located in eastern Ontario between Belleville and Kingston. Our land is based along the shores of the Bay of Quinte, which is off of Lake Ontario. Historically, we relocated here in 1784 after being displaced from our homelands in Upper New York State in the Mohawk Valley. Our on-reserve population is around 2,200 people.

MI : How are you approaching the revival of the Mohawk language?

CH : Because we recognize the importance of inter-generational transmission of the language for it to thrive, we operate programs geared towards different age categories. We have three levels of educational programs: Totahne (At Gramma’s place) Language Nest, which opened in 2007, is a total immersion program for pre-schoolers; Kawenna’on:we (The First Words) Primary Immersion School, which opened in 2011, is for children from Senior Kindergarten to Gr 4; and the Shatiwennakaratats (They are standing the words back up) Adult Language Program, which started in 2004, is a full-time program for adults. The children’s programs are total immersion, and the adult program, while intense in nature, uses various methods to teach the language which includes not only speaking but reading and writing.

MI : Do you think your approach would work for others (or all) Mohawk communities?

CH : Almost all other Mohawk communities are using formal educational programs such as ours. However our biggest challenge is that we do not have any mother tongue speakers in our community and all of our programs are taught by teachers who have learned the language as an adult. We have one fluent grandmother that works at Totahne as we recognized the importance of having a fluent speaker in that program with the very young children, and we were fortunate at the time to find someone willing to relocate to Kenhteke. Totahne is very much just like spending a day with “gramma” or in our case “Tota”. We also bring in fluent speakers throughout the year in the adult program as it is important for our students to hear language in its most natural form. We network with the other Mohawk communities as we are all in the same situation of trying to ensure our language thrives in our communities.

MI : How did you decide to begin this language training and what resources did you draw upon?

CH : In 2002 TTO formulated a long-term strategic plan which laid the groundwork for the revitalization efforts in the community; the plan was to teach the adults to speak—teach them to be teachers of the language, so that we could begin an immersion school for children. We have since met these goals through various ways and means. So now we continue to build upon this framework. The organization continues to hold strategic planning sessions each year.

MI : Why do you think the language has reached the point where it needs a revival?

CH : People quit speaking the language in our community for various reasons but in my opinion they all point back to colonization. In particular I am speaking of the influence of the Church through the missionaries and the Indian Act. I believe these to be the over-arching reasons which led to parents choosing not to speak Mohawk to their children, and once the intergenerational transmission in the homes was interrupted, it lead to the demise of the language in our community. By my estimation we have not had a generation of mother-tongue speakers who used the Mohawk language in daily life since the late 1800’s.

MI : How does the community feel about your efforts, and how did they feel when you started?

CH : When TTO organized in the late 1990’s there were mixed emotions about revitalization efforts. There was a group of supporters who were very committed to the efforts, and there were also some older people who thought it better left alone, basically to die. I believe the community is supportive of our efforts today. We see support in many ways throughout the community: road signs in the language, people naming their children with only a Mohawk name, people in all our service organizations answering the phones with “She:kon!” (translated in that context as “hello!”), gravestones with Mohawk names engraved on them, the financial support of our local politicians. So I see this as support in many different capacities.

MI : What has been the biggest challenge in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

CH : Funding of programs is an ongoing challenge and we are grateful to our local government, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council, who have been very supportive financially. Also in this modern world we live in, I don’t believe people realize how colonized they are – some don’t see any point in learning the language in this materialistic, economy driven world we live in.

MI : What do you think is the chance of success for the Mohawk language revitalization project?

CH : I have to say that I have total confidence in our efforts to revitalize our language. There is no other acceptable answer in my opinion. I think it is necessary for us to continue to educate the people in our community, and I see through providing education and awareness the efforts will continue to grow.

MI : What do you feel is a key factor for the revitalization’s success?

CH : I think a key factor is the commitment shown by everyone in the process. From those of us doing the administrative work to the people who are enrolled in our programs and the parents who put their trust in us to educate their children, we all have a vitally important role to play in our efforts.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

CH : This work is my life’s passion. I could not see me doing anything other than what I do. I get so much satisfaction when I hear anyone speaking the language, from the children to the adults. I am grateful for the opportunity to be working so closely to something that is so important not only to me, but to many people in my family and my community.

MI : How have the youth, adults, and elders reacted to your efforts?

CH : There is a group of people who I credit for the original push for language and cultural opportunities in the community back 10-15 years ago. These people are now in their 30’s and they are the ones who are raising their children with language and culture. For the past few years there seems to be another group of young people who are very interested in learning the language and culture. This is very exciting for us. I think it is critically important that young people gain this knowledge prior to having children in hopes that they will raise their children in our language and our ways. Our language is not safe until we have a complete generation of speakers, and ideally this will be children who continue the process by teaching and speaking to their children.

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through this project?

CH : I have learned that nothing good is easy! I think my mother used to say that! We have had our struggles along the way, but the satisfaction of hearing the language being spoken by children or hearing it at the store is so satisfying. We have come from a community of virtually no speakers to one where language can be heard in many contexts. We are now able to conduct our ceremonies at our longhouse totally in the Mohawk language. It can sometimes feel as if we are making no progress so in those times it is important to reflect on where we were ten years ago compared to where we are today. It is nothing short of amazing, and it is the combined efforts of every person in the community who has made the revitalization of language a priority in his/her life.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where you like to see the revitalization projects head next?

CH : I am currently working on my Masters in Indigenous Language Revitalization through the University of Victoria. My project has been a community wide survey on the health, status and vitality of the language, and I am hopeful that I will be able to use some of what I have learned through that process to create more opportunities for people in our community in terms of revitalizing and regenerating our language and culture.

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

Callie hits on many points that are an essential part of the revitalization of any language. Perhaps most importantly that it isn’t easy! This project was started by a dedicated and small group who refused to allow their ancestral language to disappear. For them, it was worth their time and effort to save, and they worked very hard to reach that goal. As Callie says, if there is a committed group of people willing to work toward preserving and revitalizing the language then the language will be saved. Callie has no doubts that Mohawk will be saved, and with people like her working toward saving languages, I have no doubts either.

She also mentions that in the “materialistic, economy-driven” society that we far too often embrace there are those who might not value this kind of work. Some people see Mohawk, and any other language, as a means to an end—of gaining employment or economic gains. But to me this feels wrong. People don’t only learn (and shouldn’t only learn) a language because it is economically valuable. Language learners should be able to see the social and personal value of their language. The Mohawk language has significant cultural value for the people whose ancestors spoke it. This is a tremendous benefit that can’t easily be measured.

Thank you to Callie for her time for this interview. Her work is invaluable to the fabric of the story of us as Ontarians, Canadians, and ultimately as human beings.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

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

 

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