As told to Eleanor Cowan
Valuing the Cree language means pondering each syllabic and understanding that at some point in time, one of my ancestors fashioned it to express not only a noun, but also to tell what that person, place, animal or thing was doing at that moment in history.
Each of our 148 letters was shaped because an ancestor of ours thought it was important, so each syllabic reflects our past in a way no other mirror could do. And it’s alive, because in voicing the sounds, we welcome our past legacy into our future.
The importance of respecting our history was not always at the top of my list, though. Survival was.
I’m still astonished that someone who loved school as much as I did left it so suddenly. The day my Dad died in the bush, leaving his seven children behind, was my last day at school. When I approached my mother on the evening of his terrible winter accident, she asked for my help. Up until then, I may have been Daddy’s girl, but I was also the eldest child and only daughter. Overnight, at the age of 12, I stepped up to my new position as caregiver of six younger brothers. It was a huge leap for both my mother and I.
I lost my father, Alan Kakabat, and have never recovered from the loss. Yet, at the same time, I recognize that life gave me many mothers, special women who genuinely guided my life.
Up until the time of my father’s ice accident, he and my mother spent most of the year in the bush, while I lived in town with Margaret Kakabat, a loving aunt who walked me to school each day and waved goodbye to me just as my teacher Denise Georgekish smiled hello. I loved my Grade 1 teacher and felt secure in her class, a happy place where I discovered that learning was fun. One day as I watched Denise show great kindness to a classmate, I realized that I wanted to become a teacher too. Another wonderful teacher, Brenda Mills, reinforced my goal to follow in her footsteps.
My mother became a great role model for me. Immediately following Dad’s death, both of us began to work to support ourselves and the younger boys. I kept house for neighbours and babysat. My mom worked at a variety of tasks, including as a Cree translator at the clinic before she became a teaching assistant at Maquatua Eeyou School here in Wemindji. She earned a regular income for our family. Despite her shyness, when my mother was asked to teach Cree language, she agreed. She taught well and with enthusiasm for 23 years. So that makes me the daughter of a Keeper of the Language. My mother – a full-time mother, homemaker and teacher – was my inspiration.
Both my grandmothers lost their husbands due to accidents and illness when their children were quite young, so when our tragedy occurred, my mother had two examples of courage. I was blessed with devoted grandmothers, Lydia Ratt and Sally Kakabat, women who took full responsibility to carry on with strength. They prepared me for my future.
I matured so quickly that people didn’t think I was my age. I met my husband, Frank, when I was 16. I don’t think he, a 19-year-old, knew how old I was. Our first date was a skidoo ride together and I nearly froze because he didn’t take me home when I asked him to. A few days later, he wanted to know why I didn’t show up for our second date, another skidoo ride, and I said it was because he hadn’t taken me home when I’d asked and that I’d been very cold. The following night, when he arrived at my door with a beautiful, warm-as-toast winter parka, I had to smile. We got married on my 17th birthday.
My motivation to study Cree came from the desire to know the joy that I could clearly see my Mom experience when teaching our language. It was an incredible challenge for me because now I was a young mother and had to juggle school and a family with three young children – Rhonda, Damian and Marissa.
When I started substituting at Maquatua Eeyou School, I did more than what was expected of me. I wanted to prove my worthiness. One year, Principal Joseph Vettikal called me into his office and commended my work. He suggested I take UQAT (Université du Québec en Abitibi- Témiscamingue) courses to become a teacher. When Deborah Cox approved my letter of request and I was accepted, I was ecstatic. Since then, Principal Rose Marie Farago has given Cree teachers her full support. At our school we have our own classrooms.
In 1993, I began my teacher training while working as a Cree Language Teacher, sometimes travelling for courses to Chisasibi or Whapmagoostui. Then, pregnant with my second daughter, Marissa, I started off as a Grade 6 teacher with Venetia Crawford as my supervising teacher. Venetia was wonderful to me and I learned so much just observing her work. In September, I did more training with Ida Gilpin and after Christmas I trained with my Mom, which was, for me, a rare mother-daughter experience.
For the first time ever, a Cree literacy program was offered by McGill University and my mother and I enrolled together, along with Barbara Georgekish, Frances Mark and Ida Gilpin. In fact, we were the first graduates of the Cree Language Literacy program in Wemindji. What a fine graduation party we had at the community hall!
Frances Visitor was the one of the first teachers to integrate our Cree language into the Grade 3 curriculum. I was impressed with her knowledge of our language and profoundly moved by her rich vocabulary and expression. I wanted to be like her. Now, my love of Cree became passionate.
I understand the pressure our students experience as they prepare to enter competitive college, career or university programs conducted in English. Still, professional considerations need not silence Cree voices. Instead, harmonizing several languages is the answer. What many people don’t know is that three-year-olds can speak four languages as easily as they can eat four different foods. Children are brilliant. So, it shouldn’t be either/or. The key word is “both”. Why exchange one language for another when we can have both – or more?
It is the parents of our children who will model multilingualism in our Cree households. It is the parents who hold the future of the Cree language in their hands.
As Cree people, we own a precious treasure that identifies and unifies us. Some are fortunate to receive this gift easily and effortlessly on their parents’ knees. Those Cree who have not learned it must study hard to reclaim their heritage. We, Cree teachers, encourage our students to polish the gift of our ancient Cree language and in this way, we can speak our ancestors into the next generation.
This is the second of three interviews with Cree teachers from Wemindji.