Language and power

I talk about language a lot, so it is not strange that on various occasions people have brought up the issue of language as power. This has happened enough times that I’ve given it a fair amount of thought, without necessarily having resolved any of the issues.

Most of us are not fluent speakers of our indigenous language.  The whys of this are well known…sustained cultural and social interferences resulting in a reduction in our ability to maintain fluency.  In fact, many of our languages are in danger of dying out completely.

It is not surprising then that maintaining and revitalising our languages is (or would be, absent more pressing issues like ensuring food/shelter/safety) a major focus in our communities.  Our languages are incredibly important to the maintenance of our cultures.  Our Elders are expected to have some level of fluency.  We want to teach our cultural concepts in our language rather than use poor translations.

Fluency as power

We run into danger however, when we link fluency to power…when we assign social prestige to speakers of our language absent other criteria.  Many people are ashamed of their lack of fluency despite that lack not having been a personal choice but rather a symptom of systemic linguistic assault.  Speaking your language does not necessarily mean you have learned your people’s teachings, are more ‘traditional’, or more ‘native’ than others…just as not speaking your language in no way ensures you are less a member of your community.

Yet it is fairly easy for these perceptions to be formed.  Where once we were encouraged not to speak our languages, now we are expected to, and it is a difficult standard to live up to.  Who will teach us, when many of our parents and even grandparents are no longer fluent speakers?  Who will teach us when our communities often lack the funds to set up comprehensive language instruction?  Who will teach us to move beyond language-as-ceremony and into language-as-quotidian?

Do we run the risk of creating an ‘elite’ of fluent speakers when we focus so intently on the importance of language?  I can certainly understand the concerns though I am definitely an advocate for language learning.  The reality of our daily lives means that most of us don’t have the time, resources or even opportunity to learn our languages.

Yet many current initiatives focus on using governance, educational, health and other terms in our own languages.  While I literally thrill at this, I do understand why some people caution against focusing too much on language over the underlying concepts being put forth.  Do we alienate the non-fluent when we insist on implementing governance models that require fluency?  Many of us want official events to be held in our own language…but this would in fact remove the ability of many to participate.

We absolutely need to work on increasing fluency.  I doubt anyone truly disagrees on this point.  However, until fluency is more common, we do need to be aware of how fluency can be used as power where perhaps it is not entirely warranted.  We do need to be aware of how it can in effect deprive many of our people of their voice.


I considered myself a fairly fluent Cree speaker until I moved out east.  I learned some Cree growing up…your basic simple phrases and words, and I had enough of an ear for it that I could pick up the gist of a conversation even I couldn’t necessarily respond in Cree.  Living in Edmonton for the past few years though meant that the only time I really heard Cree was in the context of opening/closing prayers.  However I also had the opportunity to study my language with Dorothy Thunder (from Little Pine First Nation) at the Faculty of Native Studies.  This increased my fluency dramatically and has given me the ability to continuing learning the language even as far removed as I am from my community at this time.

For many of us however, our language is language-as-ceremony.  We can perhaps introduce ourselves in our language, say where we are from and introduce a few words into our English, but most of our interaction with the language is in the context of ceremony.  It is important to me that we have at least this access to the language, but I worry that for too many, language-as-ceremony is all we have.  It is not enough.

Remember that I said I considered myself fluent until I came out east?  Well, I was in Washaw Sibi in James Bay Cree territory (Eeyou Itschee) and then later in Val d’Or, where I saw Cree people of all ages speaking entirely in their own language.  It literally brought tears to my eyes.  Here is the easy, every day use that I long for.  Chatting in a hallway, children begging mothers for a treat, teenagers teasing one another.

This was the first time in my life that I have witnessed indigenous language fluency as a reality.  I know that the Inuit have maintained high levels of fluency in their communities, but I have not personally witnessed it.  When I lived in the Beaufort Delta, there were few who were truly fluent in Inuvialuit or Gwich’in.  I hear that out east, fluency is much more common.

In my mind, we should be aspiring to the mundane, not the exceptional.  I’m not sure we spend enough time focused on the end result which to me, is aptly demonstrated in Eeyou Istchee.  Fluency is matter of fact and issues of language as power are lessened because fluency is so widespread.

I am not ashamed of my grammatical errors, my misspellings, or my odd turns of phrase in my language.  I am not where I want to be in terms of fluency (yet), but I have the foundation.  Perhaps my generation can aspire to at least that, and experience a deeper fluency through our children?  The Maori have shown us that with a plan, and hard work, we could revitalise our languages in 20 years. Yes, theirs is a different context, but I have seen how Cree immersion schools in Edmonton, Hobbema and elsewhere are giving our children so much more than we had.

Non-native fluency

One issue I do struggle with is non-native fluency in my language.  On one hand, I am incredibly happy that people not of our culture find our language interesting enough that they would dedicate so much time to learning and creating materials in Cree.  On the other hand…it does make me a little sad that most of the best work done on our language has been done by non-native linguists.  I suppose I feel the same way about ethnographers.  Particularly when the status afforded to these non-native linguists and ethnographers means that errors or culturally-based assumptions become gospel.  (For example, the way David Mandelbaum has convinced so many people that the Cree were newcomers to the Plains.)

Yet many non-native linguists have worked respectfully with our communities and have produced materials that are extremely valuable.  I suppose that the root of my sadness is the fact that so many of us cannot afford to study our own languages the way others can.  It is disconcerting to come across an elderly non-native man in a Northern airport and have him speak to you in flawless Cree, when the most you can squeak out is an inadequate response.  Then again, when I speak or sing in Cree I have seen others moved with conflicting emotions too.  After all, I am a very pale Métis woman.  You probably wouldn’t expect me to be speaking Cree either.

This may be less of an issue in Cree than with other languages, as we have had some amazing Cree scholars creating materials and working on spreading fluency.  I do not want to be jealous of others for their fluency, native or not.  When I feel that way, I try to remind myself that I’ve done pretty well considering there is no one truly fluent in my family, and I am now living far from my territory in an area where my dialect is not represented at all.  Also, I truly am thankful for the materials that have been produced, particularly in the past few decades by Cree and non-Cree alike.


This is already quite a long post, but I can’t leave out the issue of standardisation.  Anyone who has done any Cree language development has likely come across the sometimes depressing politics involved.  There are many dialects of Cree, and many regional variations…so the question becomes, who is represented?

Language development has been an expensive and time consuming pursuit for many years.  We are perhaps headed into more flexible and less expensive development with the advent of print-on-demand and other technologies, but this does not resolve the underlying issues.  Can each community afford to have its particular regional dialect represented?  Do we push the Roman Syllabic Orthography or do we teach syllabics?  If the only teaching materials available represent a certain dialect in Saskatchewan, do we bite our tongues and use those materials in a classroom in Alberta?

These are not questions that have been definitively answered.  If you are somewhat of a language addict like I am, then you probably have a whack of Cree children’s books in a variety of dialects, using a variety of spellings.  I have become pretty good at sounding the words out and finding the equivalent in my dialect, but it was incredibly frustrating at first.  I want to read these books to my children, and have them read the books themselves as well, but the lack of standardisation presents some problems.

My employer is fond of reminding me that the English language has only recently been standardised.  I also look at the wide variety of spellings present here in James Bay Cree territory, and also see how fluency does not turn on standardisation.  I think we need to remember this.  Standardisation is merely a tool.  A useful one, yes…but it is written standardisation.  It is easy to become caught up in the proper way to use the RSO…or the debate between the RSO and syllabics.  Nor do I think it is inherently a bad thing to have those debates.  However, it should not be preventing us from putting materials out and using the language.  We know we need to move away from a purely text-based approach to language learning/teaching, but books are compelling things and we want them to all use the same form of writing.

If I can understand that iinuu and eenou (both spellings are used here in James Bay territory) are the same words as iyinîw, then I can get over that bazillion ways iskwêw gets spelled and so on.  I’d rather see it spelled in a variety of ways than not at all and the fact is, a lot of the historical materials and even contemporary materials use a wide range of spellings.

I cannot perhaps go as far as some have encouraged me to, however.  I am struggling with how to teach my children our dialect of Cree when we are surrounded by another dialect and have more immediate access to James Bay Cree than Plains Cree.  I am still stubbornly holding on to our dialect despite somewhat agreeing with those who tell me, “Cree is Cree!”  (I can understand anishnabemowin more easily than James Bay Cree!)

Would it be so horrible if my children spoke iiyiyuuayimuwin or iinuuayimuwin (the two James Bay dialects) instead of nêhiyawêwin?  Many Stoney and Blackfoot parents living in Edmonton end up choosing Cree for their children because Stoney and Blackfoot aren’t taught there yet. Having an aboriginal language is better than having none…right?

These are the tough decisions we are faced with, I suppose.  So much of our identity is wrapped up in our language so I understand why these various issues touch us deeply and can cause conflict.  As long as we keep moving forward, I think we can weather the problems and choices we are faced with.

Maybe I just need to start an ex-pat Plains Cree community here in Montreal…

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
This entry was posted in Fluency, James Bay Cree, Plains Cree, Roman Syllabic Orthography, Standardisation. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s