“Why don’t you speak Cree?” she asked over the din of the bar. I couldn’t help thinking she was challenging me.
Without telling her I decided I would answer all her questions in Cree whether they were in Cree or not. Not too long during the conversation she reverted to English. “What’s that? I don’t understand,” she almost whined. I had played this game before with a friend and lost.
So I couldn’t help feeling a tad superior.
She got me to thinking whether she thought in Cree or English. Or if she dreams in Cree or English for that matter. I never got around to asking her. Some angry young Native approached me and a colleague and said, “Hell froze over!” “I know,” I answered. “Are you guys Native?” he demanded as he was being dragged out by a bouncer. He was looking for a fight and we looked like easy targets. Being outsiders and everything.
But that’s another story we might just get into later.
I, sadly, do not think in Cree most of the time. I don’t know when I lost the ability to do so. I remember when I did though. I was about five. Me and some Ontario cousins were sitting in their living room watching TV. They were all speaking English while I sat between them completely lost. I turned to them and asked in Cree, “Are you whitemen?”
I had never heard Cree children speak English before. The only English words I knew were: “Thessalonians, I like John.” I used to imitate the preacher from the church my mom and aunt Caroline used to take me to. My four-word vocabulary was of course useless in trying to communicate with my cousins.
I had a harder time once in school. I didn’t know how to ask to go to the toilet so I just walked up to our Filipino teacher and, with a pained expression while holding my groin, acted out what I wanted to say. It took a while for my message to get through and I almost pissed my pants. Aaah, what wonderful memories from school.
We were in Grade 4 when it was decided we would learn Cree. Our Cree teacher was not Cree of course. She was from God knows where and her teaching method consisted of her singing the sounds of each symbol to the tune of some gospel song. Me Mi Mo Ma, Pe Pi Po PA, Se Si So Sa, Te Ti To Ta. On and on it would go. We found it hard to take it seriously and would laugh at her.
Eventually, several years later in fact, our teachers were Cree but were completely unprepared to teach. One in particular would merely copy verses from the Cree holy bible on the black board and tell us to copy what he had written. Cree texts were virtually non-existent then. It wasn’t all the teachers’ fault. We were a rowdy bunch for fourth graders.
Imagine a Cree child asking for his parents’ help with school work. The parent probably had, then, a Grade 6 education and probably wasn’t comfortable speaking English. Even around his or her own children. It’s still like that for many Cree families.
It was interesting to learn some time ago from some Cree School Board personnel how well their Cree As A Language Of Instruction Program was doing. Or as they put it, “CLIP” They found that children who had been taught in their own language did better than others who didn’t. There were even several incidents where children in elementary school were correcting their parents’ Cree.
They expressed concern that the program was in jeopardy thanks to some people higher up on the totem pole. They accused a certain chief of being out of touch with the rest of Cree society. His children they said had rarely, if ever, gone to school in a Cree community and that was the reason for his insensitivity to the Cree language. But I don’t know. I just report what I hear.
By the way, I was asked to pass on the message that there will be a conference on the Cree language this fall In Ouje-Bougoumou. They say it will be all in Cree. Watch for it.