the language grows out of the dirt here
it grows out of the children’s heads
it grows out of tota’s hands - Shelby Lisk
The language one speaks every day, like breathing, is easy to leave unexamined. But as many Indigenous educators, activists and artists point out, languages, and especially regional dialects, carry important, geographically specific cultural and historic context.
The University of Winnipeg-based (U of W) language revitalization project Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak (Rocky Cree) aims to make northern Cree stories and history accessible to a new generation of language learners.
Project director Mavis Reimer says Six Seasons builds on decades of grassroots family and language advocacy by the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, located on Treaty 5 territory 80 kilometres west of Thompson.
Six Seasons’ work producing educational picture books is meant to “support the Rocky Cree nations in the North who are working to retrieve their own culture, their own language, their own history,” Reimer says. Six Seasons launches its latest resources, an app and teachers’ guide aimed at middle-years classroom settings, on Nov. 23 at Leatherdale Hall. The AMO app and guide are companions to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership project’s picture book Amō’s Sapotawan which was released last year.
Amō’s Sapotawan is the second “historical picture book” in a planned three-part series telling the story of Kayasochi Kikawenow, or Pīsim, a 17th-century Cree woman whose remains were recovered in 1994 at Nagami Bay in northern Manitoba.
Reimer says the books focus on the “proto-contact” period when northern Manitoban Indigenous Peoples were aware of settlers’ presence on the continent but had not yet seen Europeans firsthand.
“It’s a really interesting period of time, historically, when their own ways of life were still intact, and they were living their traditional lives and thriving in their environment, but they already knew that (settlers were) coming,” she says. “It’s this very liminal period of history in northern Manitoba.”
Amō’s Sapotawan intersperses a wealth of context details shared by Rocky Cree knowledge-keepers about Pīsim and her Rocky Cree community into “story notes” surrounding the text.
The AMO app, beyond making the story accessible to a wider audience, also deepens users’ immersion through music, visuals adapted from the book’s art and full narration in both English and Cree.
Reimer says these innovative elements of the app reflect its source material’s “conversational” origins. Many of the book’s “story notes” started out as questions Six Seasons staff had for Rocky Cree storyteller William Dumas while he told them the story of Pīsim at the outset of the project.
“We’ve worked quite hard to try to make sure that the way in which you work with the app furthers your ability as a player or a reader to get immersed in the world of the Rocky Cree,” she says.
The app features interactive elements. Players who select “go fishing” from its main menu are prompted to pick one of four traditional fishing implements before playing a simple minigame, with pop-up tooltips explaining the cultural context of each tool and providing “fun facts” about South Indian Lake’s underwater denizens.
The visually unassuming game demonstrates the careful efforts of Six Seasons’ production team to reflect the vast amount of cultural information embodied in everyday Rocky Cree.
“There’s a whole technique there for fishing with what’s called a stick-and-sinew snare that the historians and the archaeologists had never heard about until the knowledge keepers talked about it,” Reimer says. “A version of this is still used in the community. It’s cool, isn’t it?”
Language is more than words
While institutional support for Indigenous languages has grown steadily since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, not all of this support adequately accounts for the heterogeneity within broad language categories like Anishinaabemowin, Cree or Mohawk.
University of Manitoba professor Frank Deer has extensively researched the ways Indigenous languages are transposed through western frameworks. He says projects facilitating language-learning via technology like smartphone apps often fail to recognize the “reductionism” of an unchallenged eurocentric approach.
“When people approach the journey to come to know what something means in another language, there’s a primacy assigned to English or French,” he says. “The primacy works out not just with the learner who’s trying to come to understand it, but the way the app or the technology works.”
Deer explains that when someone asks him the Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk word for Wednesday, he says soséhne, although the word soséhne “doesn’t actually translate” to Wednesday and vice-versa. By needing to construct one-to-one relationships between words in Mohawk and English, Deer’s Indigenous language is stripped of the ways it represents his community’s history.
“There’s so much narrative, so much history ... that’s cheated by this lexicographic approach of storing the language and having it on offer,” he says. “One of the rationale(s) for retaining language (and) for reinvigorating them at the community level is because they store so much. What are they storing? You’re storing the sort of cultural meaning that’s really quite important.”
AMO and the teaching guide’s primary audience are the Asiniskaw Īthinawak young people living in the North.
Reimer says the project seeks to help mend the traumatic disruption to Indigenous language-learning inflicted by residential schools, as well as the “pressures of contemporary life” that draw youth away from opportunities for cultural immersion. She says this is one of the first projects to correctly identify the community as Rocky Cree, as opposed to Woodlands Cree.
Deer stresses the importance of buy-in throughout the education system for two key priorities: first, providing youth with opportunities for cultural immersion; and second, helping sustain language skills and develop the teaching ability of existing fluent speakers.
“Any good linguist worth their salt will tell you that if you don’t have a purpose to speak the language, the language is going to go,” he says. “We need to ensure that there’s an inclusive approach to this ... in schools (and) in communities, as well.”
Published in Volume 78, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 23, 2023)