An event comes along once in a while that defies description. We can give you a physical description: 300 delegates from nine communities arrived in Ouje-Bougoumou to talk about the future of the Cree language and culture. Most were from the Cree School Board, some came from the Band Councils, some were Elders, some were young and so on. But this all doesn’t give you a sense of what really happened November 4 to 6,1997.

The Cree School Board hosted a forum to discuss where the Cree language and culture are, and where they are going. It looked at Cree language and culture as something living and evolving. We can only give you a small idea of what went on, as there was so much that happened. In addition to this report, the school board’s Learning Circle newsletter will be inserted in the next issue of The Nation and will fill in some more blanks for you.

Chief Mary-Ann Stoney, from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan, was up first to speak at the Cree Language and Culture Conference. She has been a chief for just one year in an area that has seen a recent crop of women taking the leadership roles. Stoney can remember a time when there was only one woman chief in the province. Within the last three years, that number has grown to six.

Chief Stoney spent the past 20 or so years helping to develop Native language curriculums for First Nations across Canada, the Crees of James Bay included. After working in this field so long, she recognized a need for leadership to get involved and so she became a leader. Chief Stoney talked about the loss of the Cree language in Saskatchewan and the some of the impacts she has seen.

The Nation: You gave a talk on losing the Cree language and impacts.

Chief Mary-Ann Stoney: Yes, I find that our people in Saskatchewan are losing their language at a remarkable rate. I find this very disturbing. I would say that in my reserve the majority of people under 21 don’t speak it. Some may understand some of it but there are others who don’t understand it.

What kind of impacts or changes in attitudes do you see?

Our youth have tried to adopt non-First Nations ways of life and doing things. It doesn’t really fit, so they’re in a kind of limbo. As a result a lot of our youth are involved in alcohol and drugs. A lot of them are getting into conflicts with the law.

Do you have some sort of program to regain the language?

In my reserve, yes, we’ve implemented a language program from Grades 1 to 12. This was actually one I had developed for another band. I’ve been in the language and culture sector for the past 20 years and one of the contracts I did was where they developed a Grades 9-12 language program. They did that area first because in Saskatchewan you need a second language to get into a post-secondary program or institution. So they developed that area first in order to meet the needs of the students. Then we went back and developed Grades 1 to 8. So that program is the only developed program teaching Cree language and culture from Grades 1 to 12. As a result other bands are utilizing it and I’ve taken that program into my school and it’s being implemented.

Like everywhere else I find that our problem is a lack of resources. There just doesn’t seem to be enough around and the teachers are overworked trying to develop materials to go with the program.

Would you like some sort of a government program that would focus on getting resources or would you be looking at training as a priority?

I think teacher-training programs would be helpful. We have a First Nations post-secondary institution in Saskatchewan. I’ve recently became part of the board of governors. I feel I want to make those kinds of changes. We have to address the language and culture needs of our people. I believe teacher training is one of the ways to do it. Within that would be the development of materials and that sort of thing.

I was disillusioned working as a language teacher and consultant. I feel the changes have to be made at the leadership level if they’re going to happen.

So you see the problem as being more than just the educators working towards a solution?

It has to be leadership as well because a lot of our leaders in Saskatchewan don’t even speak their language. How can they possibly prioritize it? I feel that I would like to make a difference at that level.

Do you have anything to say to the Crees in this part of the world?

You have it made. Count your blessings. I’ve met some really good people here. I’ve been in Chisasibi and did some consulting work with them. I’ve had a lot of experience with curriculum development for many language groups across Canada. I was fortunate enough to be invited to that community on two or three occasions and then they came to Saskatoon to work with me on the work we were doing at the time. I never really completed the work I was doing with them because I got into this other role. As a result I’ve quit my other activities in actively working with language and culture, and I am trying to make a change at another level, especially for my people. I think that needs to happen.

I would like to say hello to everybody, Ella, Elsie and Daisy, wonderful people that I worked with in Chisasibi and the people that I have met here.

Do you find that the Cree as a Language of Instruction Program is up to standards?

To me, it’s very good compared to what we have. As I was saying in my presentation, the people here are very fortunate that they still live off the land, they still have their Elders, the language is still the first language for many people. I think they have to keep that momentum that they obviously have now because if they don’t they’ll be like us where we’ve lost a lot of it. I find here they not only develop and maintain their language but are also adding to it. There are always new things coming in that you need to make terminologies for whereas back home we haven’t done that. We haven’t even written curriculums to maintain things from the past,

let alone things that are coming in. Our language is kind of in limbo whereas here it’s onward all the time and I think that’s great.

Samuel Bearskin told a story of a bear hunt long ago. He explained the hunt with detail. He said they tracked the bear for many days. There were times when they thought they had lost the bear. They were very determined to get the bear. They finally tracked to a lake and figured it had swam to one of the islands to hibernate. They did eventually kill the bear. He said everyone could succeed if you don’t turn your back to what you are doing. “Whatever you do, don’t turn your back to it because you will eventually succeed.”

Conference Voices

Robert Weistche, Waskaganish, “We should have courses for interpreters and translator just like at Arctic College. We are flooded with new things coming to us. We aren’t able to use our own language (such as “laptop” or “fax”). That is one thing we should work on. We should go to the Elders to ask them how to name the new things that come to us. This should be done at least once a month. When Ronnie Cowboy came to Montreal, he named the fast walk ramp at the airport as soon as he saw it.”

John Petagumskum, Whapmagoostui Elder, “I’m not shy to talk. I’ve been invited to many meetings. What the Elders taught in the bush long ago—the Cree way of life— we should ask the Great Spirit to hold on to what was passed on to us. What the Cree taught, that is what I’ll talk about. I used to be outside for a longtime for my children. I used to be miserable but I thought of my children.”

Daniel Moses, Eastmain, “I really feel like helping out in this meeting of Cree language and culture. Alcohol, we all know how it was long ago. It was fun for us. As we see it today, we try to stop it. It makes hurt and death. We now have fast vehicles. We get injured from them, lots of unhappiness. The language and culture is the same. Clash of the languages and cultures. In my small community, there are three languages. Even when speaking Cree, English pops up eventually. That makes me uneasy. I really think the students should learn their language first. That is how we lose our language when the children are taught another language. That was what the white man did to us before— trying to wipe us out. We shouldn’t meet like this for just one year. We should do it for a long time. The children should be taught the life in the bush—all the tasks done in the bush. It should be written down in Cree. There should be someone doing that to write down the books and to translate. Our language should be more prominent. Our culture is very important for our children to learn. When I tell a story from the bush, my children ask what I say. The references of the bush are not used in the community. I mastered the life of bush. The people of long ago kept the teachings in their heads. They didn’t use computers. I was told once that I seem to just reach into my mind for my knowledge. But white people use books, files and computers. That was how sharp their minds were long ago. Even the legends, I don’t forget what I have heard.”

Jimmy Trapper, Waskaganish, “I value the Cree teachings. I really pity when the land is destroyed. But what the Cree try to carry on, I value that. I’m grateful that I was taught that and that I understand it all. I’m grateful my grandfather taught me that. When we were young and living in teepees, we had the good life with some hardships. The rain came down through the teepee. Our children are cozy now. They should not forget. There were times when food was scarce and now it looks so fancy. When someone works, they should do it properly—everything they do, just like hunting. They should do it whole heartedly.”

Florrie Mark-Stewart, Eastmain, “For the ones that are starting to teach the Cree language, never give up. I hope they never leave their endeavours even during the difficult times. What the Elders talk about is what they have mastered. They knew everything and remembered everything without writing it down. My father made a good living for us without depending on a government cheque. The husband and wife helped each other. When I was alone at the camp, I didn’t have any daycare. Today, you just turn a knob when you want water and there’s daycare for children when you work. When someone doesn’t know how to do something, they should go to the Elders so they can strengthen their language and culture. The Elders we see today are the last ones who saw the lifestyle of the hunt, without help from anywhere else. Their knowledge is strong. They didn’t put anything down on paper. When they’re gone, we will lose a lot. It is from the bush where a lot of the language is. A child would learn many things in the teepee and the things from the land. That is what we will lose when our Elders leave us. The snow-shoe is one of the most valuable things in the bush. Everyone had them. They carried the hunter through the deep snow. He sang songs in reverence of them. Now we’re losing how to make them. All those tools that were used, it shouldn’t be lost.”