Creating a language nest

I am often seized with this desire to quit my job, and devote myself entirely to developing a language and culture program for my children and others.  Language development is my most passionate hobby.  What often stops me however is the lack of resources and the massive time commitment this would entail.

I came across some words of wisdom the other day from Darrell R Kipp, who co-founded the Blackfoot Cut-Bank Language Immersion School in Montana:

  • Rule 1: Never ask permission, never beg to save the language. Go ahead and get started, don’t wait even five minutes. Don’t wait for a grant.
  • Rule 2: Don’t debate the issues.
  • Rule 3: Be very action-oriented: just act.
  • Rule 4: Show, don’t tell. Don’t talk about what you will do. Do it and show it.

No one is going to develop a program here in Montreal, devoted to teaching Plains Cree language and culture, then walk up to my door and say, “Hey, isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?”  I can think of at least a dozen Plains Cree women and children here in this city who would love this too, but it isn’t going to fall into our laps.

So.  I want to pull all my various language projects together and come up with a program that will allow me to get my kids into language and culture learning with other children at least once a week.  Of course, I want a full time immersion program, but I can’t wait for that either.  The best thing about something like this is that it can be completely tailored to the specific needs and wants of the participants.  None of this rote learning sit-still-memorise-this crap.  There is nothing stopping us from going out on the land for even short periods of time, teaching and learning various skills and in short, teaching the language the way language is meant to be taught.  As a part of life, rather than ‘as a second language’.

Preparing for one day a week will still mean a serious time commitment, but it’s a manageable one.  My girls are already 7 and 9 years old.  I can’t wait any longer.

So my goal is to come up with enough programming for a full semester, September to December.  Initially I wanted to have enough for a full year, but I remember how intense preparation time is when you are just designing a program…I was doing three hours of prep work to every hour of instructional time when I first began teaching.  I have from now until September to get a semester-long program set up for a test run.  I want to be able to provide this program to other parents/teachers as well, so eventually this blog may end up with a new page of “Cree language and culture lessons for the urban aboriginal” :D.

I know a lot of people get started on projects like these and then burn out quickly.  I’ve had a few false starts myself.  I think it is important to keep it small, and manageable, and to not depend on others for the first part.  I think that once people see a good program in place they will start to come on board…but hanging everything on having a group that will help do it with you is not necessarily a great idea.  Life just gets too busy sometimes, and ideas are much less attractive than actions.

Alright.  Next cup of coffee, please! I’ve got some planning to do…


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 Culture, Fluency, Language learning, Plains Cree, Urban Aboriginal. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Creating a language nest

  1. Emo says:

    A few things to say…
    (1) While Cree has many advantages over other languages (including some I’ve studied for x-years, myself) one of the disadvantages is sheer geographical distance separating Cree-speakers. Both rural and urban Cree struggle with many of the same issues of isolation that (frankly) white Canadians struggle with (e.g., if you live in a community of only a few thousand people… how many of them do you have any common ground with? If a minority of people are really interested in studying the language, then how many (or how few) are there within six hours of transportation?). Grant money aside, I have to suggest that websites like Couchsurfing do provide a simple “first step” for people working on the language who want to meet (even once a year?) with other people working on the language… and that could entail some very long bus trips. That probably wasn’t what you had in mind with “creating a language nest”… but I assume you’re now struggling to impart Cree fluency to your own daughters… as such, it would probably be really wonderful to get out and visit the Cree Immersion program in Onion Lake (maybe once a year?). That’s a long bus trip… but if people could build links through something like Couchsurfing, at least they’d be reassured that someone like-minded would meet them when they got off the bus.
    (2) On that note, I did set up a CS group for people learning Cree…
    My hope is that I’ll at least be able to connect some of the people within F.N.U. (First Nations University)…

    • Distance is a barrier, for sure. That being said, I recognise that moving so far away from my own territory brings with it further separation that I have to find a way to compensate for. I agree that getting out to the communities is vital, even if is only once a year. I haven’t been home in 2 years (the longest I’ve EVER been away) and this summer I am returning for a month just as the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage gets underway. I am coming to realise that if I want to live here in wemistikôsînâhk, I am going to have to arrange my life so that I can get home for enough time each year to not lose my connection to my community and my language.

      That being said, I do think it is possible to create a linguistic and cultural community even if there are only a dozen of you in a distant urban centre. And I doubt there are only a dozen of us here in Montreal 😀 There are some ideas I have that I want to talk to people about back home before I start tossing out possible solutions… but native people have always been very good at adapting to new technologies and using them according to our own needs and within our own worldviews so…we’ll see.

      tawâw and thank you for adding your perspective and ideas!

    • That’s a good point about the isolation white Canadians can also feel. It’s important to remember that humans share many things – across groups. Where I’m from, estrangement, separation, suicide, etc., are also common. Many of the problems that Cree people are now experiencing in the city have been experienced before by other groups, and I think maybe sharing experiences would be smart. It’s not white vs. aboriginal in the city. It’s isolation vs. community, pretty much.

      • You are not the first person to suggest this to me…and I’m a bit ashamed that it’s somewhat of a novel idea still. The context of a prior suggestion was the Atlantic fisheries, where many First Nations are experiencing what appear to be arbitrary fishing quota cuts by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Now, many of these First Nations point out that the DFO does not have a stellar track record when it comes to managing resources and the science is questionable at best…so why does a Federal agency get to on one hand open a fishery up to outrageous commercial exploitation and then when the inevitable depletion occurs, turn around and deny aboriginal access to food stocks?

        Well, aboriginal people are not the only ones who feel this mismanagement keenly. Non-aboriginal Atlantic fishermen have also had their food stocks restricted, and their livelihoods directly impacted by DFO mismanagement. Yet you get situations like we saw in Burnt Church, and who is there on either side, angry as hell at one another? Native and non-native fishermen. It’s easy to not give a damn about one another, for whatever reason, and it’s easy to focus on the differences…but there is a common problem here, and it’s not the people on the ground who are the source of it. I think there are actually a fair number of common problems that native and non-native people could work together on, or at least understand, and it seems to me that’s what you’re getting at.

        I don’t know what that means exactly in a practical sense, but it’s a good thing to remember.

  2. One of my fantasies has been to construct a regular podcast setup entirely in Plains Cree. Just get people talking, and that way urban people who are disconnected from hearing the language regularly still can easily listen to the language. I like to think of the older Cree ladies in Vancouver, sittin’ on the B-line with headphones on and listening to other old ladies in Frog Lake and Saddle Lake (or wherever) telling good stories, etc. It would help a lot of people who are disconnected. Hearing your own language, in a sea of foreign talk every day, would be a big help to a lot of struggling urban people, I think.

    I tried to set it up a few years ago but ran into a lot of friction because everybody’s so worried about things being put online. Also, I’m môniyâw, so somehow they’re convinced I’m going to steal their language and run off to make billions of dollars somewhere with it.

    Anyway, good luck with your plans and let me know if I can be of any help.

    • It’s logistics too though. Funding, resources, and the energy that goes into maintaining something like this. Nothing to sneeze at, for sure. And yes there are those issues of control over what has become such a precious and dwindling resource for so many communities.

      Someone, or an organisation, could make this happen and it would be wonderful! But I don’t imagine for a minute that it would be easy, or something that could be sustained without some serious support, financial and otherwise.

      I want to be very clear that I am not saying you have suggested anything like what I am about to caution against…I’m someone who likes to think aloud and my thoughts are often triggered by what other people say, though it may not quite be related.

      I do think that there continues to be a tendency to expect our learned ones to share their knowledge without proper compensation. We’ll pay for certain academics to travel and talk and we won’t blink…but when it comes to our own BPhDs (Bush PhDs) we give them some tobacco and maybe feed them and we feel good. Well I don’t suggest we start adopting capitalist approaches and talking about supply and demand when it comes to linguistic knowledge necessarily…but we do need to value our experts more. I think if we want to really access our experts then we have to bring the mountain to Mohammed, hey?

  3. Emo says:

    Have you seen the (slightly dorky) attempt at a daily news broadcast in Latin?
    Short dialogues on tape (of any kind) are extremely valuable… with the one note being that someone has to transcribe the recording (and, yes, sometimes additional words and explanations need to be added to that transcription in [square brackets] to make it comprehensible to a student or even to a native speaker of another dialect)… but it can be an invaluable resource for language study at many levels (and can provide a forum that the participants themselves value).
    The one big caveat here is that far fewer people can access “internet radio” than can access… old fashioned radio (pure and simple).
    Conversely, it would probably be a huge amount of work to gather recordings that small (local) radio stations (in rural Sask.) are currently producing (to then transcribe them and make them available in digital format on the internet).
    It would probably be better if you could get a regular group of five fluent speakers to do the equivalent of a (very brief) weekly talk-show –so that nobody feels like they’re being interviewed. I admit that any project that relies on upwards of five people co-operating is probably doomed to failure (or to involve more than seven hours of bus-transport, etc., as mentioned above).
    Re: “That’s a good point about the isolation white Canadians can also feel…”, etc. –of course, this also comes up with the oft-repeated subject of alcohol consumption. Rural white Canadians really do have some of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world (and there are epidemiological studies to prove it!) –and, having seen this first hand, I often respond to complains about indigenous drinking with a sort of attitude of, “Well… Compared to what?”

    • I can’t believe how much technology has progressed. It may seem slow…many communities are still on dial-up after all, and some people only have access to the internet at all through shared computers, but wow. The pace of change is startling, really. Those dial-up communities just a few years ago had nothing. Now everyone is an FBI (Facebook Indian) and I’m getting updates from people way up north who are using their Blackberries and iPhones with some crazy app that lets them use the Cree online dictionary wherever they are.

      I don’t want to knock the radio though. In a lot of places, the radio is still the most reliable and available resource and it’s become a bit of a lost art, I think. The awesome thing is, we can have our cake and eat it too! Most radio stations have the ability to stream to the internet as well.

      What really frustrates me is that we do have a lot of talented people who can use this technology and have the drive and have the contacts, but for whatever reason it never really comes together other than on a piecemeal basis. I think that is changing though, I really have to say…I have been searching the internet for many years now on a consistent basis for on-line resources and these past 3 years have seen an explosion in language resources. This last year alone has allowed me to triple my ‘list of resources’.

      What I’d really like to see are some popular shows dubbed into Cree. Ah but the damn copyright issues makes that financially problematic. Who wants to go negotiate those agreements? Especially when they aren’t going to be making anyone money.

      Huh. Who indeed. Guess I’d better bone up on IP law again 😀

  4. I wanted to comment on the issue of alcohol consumption separately. I thank you for pointing out that rural Canadians have some serious issues with alcohol consumption. I grew up hearing about how natives had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism because we can’t ‘metabolise alcohol’. I believed it for years, scared that I was doomed to become an alcoholic. I drank like a fish for a few years, then wouldn’t touch the stuff, convinced I was one beer away from sliding into the gutter. Meanwhile, the non-natives I grew up with were drinking like fish.

    I know more native people who won’t touch a drop than I’ve ever met among non-natives. None of the research I finally looked into actually demonstrated any such genetic predisposition to alcoholism, and this idea that aboriginal people just can’t handle the ‘firewater’ really annoys the hell out of me. If anything, those issues of rural isolation and alienation (and boredom) are something that we probably share, along with a lower standard of living and lack of access to programs/resources. I’m not sure why we don’t take a harder look at those factors.

  5. Emo says:

    Re: “I can’t believe how much technology has progressed.”
    I openly admit that I’m ten years out of date, so I may well have under-estimated the reach of the “F.B.I.” factor that you mention. In looking at the new generation of Cree resources that are online, I can see that a lot of political commentary is coming in from the rural periphery… but almost all of it is in English (some in French). Articles (and/or sound clips) in Cree seem to be pretty rare –but (1) it could be that I’m just not finding them yet, and (2) it may really be that Cree political commentary is written with the hope that people in government will hear and/or read it (thus, in English). (I give the Cree a ton of credit just for the quantity of political commentary they’re currently producing, by the way… but it will be interesting to see if “Cree commentary in Cree language” can now develop as a sub-genre within that literature…).

    • Saskatchewan does a good job of producing a variety of materials for use in the fields of health, education and so on which are done both in English and in Cree (using the RSO). I come across these materials with increasing frequency. Of course, these are written materials meant for those who are fluent rather than materials meant to teach Cree as a second language. You are right that the political messages are generally in English, and I do think it is an issue of getting the message out. Perhaps some of this is also translated into (or from) Cree, but I’m not sure. It is hard to keep track of what so many different organisations are doing for or in the Cree language. It’s why I’m trying to catelogue as much as I can on this site!

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