On a cold and wet November night, when the television offered little more than the Montreal Canadiens blowing another hockey game, a mysterious man from Waskaganish dropped a video tape off at my door and scurried away into the darkness. The tape had a white label with the words Cree Spoken Here printed on it. I did the only logical thing I could, I put the tape in my VCR, airlifted the cat out of my seat, and watched the video. It turned out to be the best move I made all night.
Cree Spoken Here is a beautifully crafted documentary focusing on the survival of the native tongue of the James Bay Cree. Shot on Beta and High 8 video, and filmed on location in Waskaganish and Chisasibi (not to mention one small scene filmed in Montreal), Cree Spoken Here was put together on a budget of roughly $150,000. The video is a first venture for Rezolution Pictures, an upstart production team that are already at work on their next project. Cree Spoken Here was first conceived of almost two years ago when, as writer/director Neil Diamond tells it, “Daisy Bearskin, from Cree Programs in Chisasibi, called and told Catherine (executive producer) that other native groups in Canada and the U.S were interested in what the Cree School Board was doing – using Cree as a language of instruction – and wanted a short video to send around to interested parties. Catherine thought it would make a great documentary.” The video is being released in three languages, Cree, English, and French. “I wanted Klingon too,” Neil informed me, “but they wouldn’t go for it.”
Cree Spoken Here casts an unblinking eye on issues of language and cultural identity. It examines the external factors that threatened the Cree language and culture in the 20th century, such as the debilitating role played by the residential schools, where Cree children were removed from their communities and told they couldn’t speak their own language. The personal testimonies are both moving and revealing, as members of the communities, including Waskaganish Chief Robert Weistche, recount their experiences as children caught up in the bizarre circumstances created by policies of both church and state. The filmmakers point out that only three native languages are expected to survive in this century: Ojibwa, Cree, and Inuktitut. The video suggests that the survival of the Cree language in James Bay was due in part to the fact that the residential school system came to the James Bay Cree as late as 1935, while it was instituted some two generations earlier in other parts of the country.
My guess is that Cree Spoken Here will stand as an important text for years to come. The production team should be proud of themselves for piecing together such an important historic and cultural document in a most sensitive and professional manner. They have managed to create a work that is both well researched and aesthetically striking. The filmmakers hope that Cree Spoken Here will help to build bridges to the past and strengthen the bonds of Cree cultural identity and continuity. Co-director and narrator Ernest Webb wanted to make sure, “to thank the communities, they really helped us out and understood what we were doing. We couldn’t have done it without their cooperation.”
**Cree Spoken Here will be aired on APTN Wednesday, November 29th at 8:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m.