Elders Maintain Crucial Link to Language and Knowledge

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The recent passing of elder Noel Starblanket represents more than losing a respected elder, political leader or advocate of Indigenous traditional ways.

I noticed this last year with the passing of Walter Linklater: Along with the sadness for their families, there was a sense of panic.

First Nations elders are the carriers of knowledge that has been handed down from one generation to the next. 

They hold the stories, songs, dances, medicines and history of North America’s founding nations. Of course, any other ethnicity could claim this, but they generally have something written to refer to.

Indigenous people carry all this knowledge in memory. Today, there are many ways of recording and ensuring not all is lost. This is especially true when it comes to languages.

The disappearance of Indigenous languages has made its way to the United Nations. The frightening threat of lost languages of Indigenous people were enough to have the UN declare 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages.

In February, the Government of Canada introduced the Indigenous Languages Act. The purpose of this legislation is to “reclaim, revitalize, strengthen and maintain Indigenous languages in Canada.”

This should have been done a long time ago, because there are Indigenous languages on the “critical” list.

In 1999, there were only 40 people who spoke the Sechelt language. The West Coast language today is only spoken by four people.

The elders who passed away took the language with them. The passing of an Indigenous elder is like the black hole; it’s infinite.

There’s no going back to France to relearn the language; there’s no going back to Ukraine to kick start the culture and there’s no going back to Ireland to learn the songs of their ancestors. 

Cree is my first language. I feel fortunate to have maintained my language, but it came at a cost.

 Both of my parents were in a residential school for most of their young lives. There, they tried to “kill the Indian in the Indian.” This was done with intimidation and, in many cases, with violence.

Even after years of attempting to “civilize the Indian,” both my parents came home still proudly speaking Cree. 

It amazes me how they were able to hide their first language, knowing full well there would be severe punishment if they were caught speaking it. 

To this day, my dad doesn’t read or write English even though he was in a residential school from age seven to 16. 

He spent the first five years peeling potatoes 12 hours a day. When he turned 12, he looked after more than 300 chickens. The “students” only had eggs at Christmas and Easter. The rest were sold, sometimes to the parents of those being used as child labour. How do you feed 400 children you weren’t expecting? It was all done with forced child labour. There were several elders who would speak from the sides of their mouth or cover their mouth with a hand when they spoke Cree. 

I used to wonder why, but now I know. I thank my parents for their courage and strength then so I can speak Cree now.

When I was attending college, I met a special woman. Dr. Anne Anderson was a linguistics professor at the University of Alberta. To her, I may have been just another student; but she set me off on a fascinating journey with languages. 

I wondered why – and I still wonder why – the Navajo of Arizona speak the same language as the Dene of Northern Saskatchewan. They are a whole continent away and don’t bother me with the migration theory because it can’t be proven. 

The late Dr. Anderson pushed me on the history of the Cree language and taught me how to read and write in syllabics so I can fully communicate the language. She showed me the beauty of a living language.

As someone who is approaching an age where young people are coming to me to help them learn the language, I have come to realize one thing. I ask people what their biggest hindrance is in learning the language, and most responded they were scared they would get laughed at if they tried to speak it. 

That’s just not right. Nobody should be made fun of if they are trying to learn. It may seem intimidating when surrounded by those who speak their first language, but if one listens, it doesn’t take long before understanding and speaking comes around.

It’s really easy to speak Cree. How easy? As easy as saying Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

ken.noskye@gmail.com