In 1993, the Assembly of First Nations declared the month of March as Aboriginal Languages Month. Since then, March is a time when First Nations celebrate their languages and their survival. There are 192 different Aboriginal languages that are recognized in North America. Canada is home to 70 of them.
Statistics paint a pretty grim future for their survival. Linguists say about 80% of Canada’s Aboriginal languages are becoming extinct. Many languages spoken by First Nations peoples have only 10 or so speakers, sometimes fewer (e.g., Chinook, Comox or Kutenai).
This is a shame because Native American languages are among the oldest languages in the world. Many of them are thousands of years old making them far more mature than such Johnny Come Latelies as English and French.
The good news for Cree is we are fortunate to possess one of the strongest languages. It’s expected that only Cree, Ojibway and Inukitut have a large enough population of fluent speakers to be considered viable to survive in the long term.
Others though warn us not to be too complacent. The Cree Cultural Institute said, “In Iiyiyuuschii, the Cree language is very much alive: It is spoken by almost all 15,000 of us. It is taught in our homes and schools, beginning in kindergarten. And, it is everywhere you look, on signs and banners, in books and films.
“Despite its relative health, however, our language is still threatened. For Cree society has been subjected to the same forces that have resulted in language loss in other communities: Residential schooling and the ensuing break between generations, economic change in the communities, and the lack of Cree terms for some of the newer aspects of Cree life all conspire to undermine our language.”
The Cree Nation, though abounds with examples of Crees working to preserve and promote the Cree language. I remember attending a Cree Youth Council AGA a number of years back. They had a money jar and every time you lapsed into non-Cree words you had to put money in the jar. It cost you to say something in English or French!
I was quite proud of my mother and Uncle Luke among many who went and learnt syllabics and proper ways to translate. They were both grandparents at that point.
The Nation itself promotes the use of Cree. We have spent our own money to develop Cree type fonts. This was not cheap and we did it without any assistance, financial or otherwise. It was not an easy task for our Iyiyuu Ayimuun editor Brian Webb.
He was also the one who translated the legends you see in the Nation. Even the older issues of the Nation are still used in schools in the Cree communities as they are in both English language and Cree syllabics.
Then there are our holidays like goose break and moose break. Isaac Masty at the Cree Language and Culture Conference held by the Cree School Board in Oujé-Bougoumou November 1997, said, “The Cree language is out there on the land. This is why we don’t keep students and young people from going out on the land for a certain period of time during the school year. Out there they get a lot of knowledge concerning the Cree language.”
All in all, wouldn’t you say it’s time to celebrate the survival and the future of the Cree language?