There is no single Indigenous language or culture.
Across Canada, there may be some common ground between different Indigenous languages and cultures, but there are unique regional dialects and histories.
Dakota, Dene, Cree, Saulteaux, Michif and their different dialects are among the 58 native languages in Saskatchewan. Beyond that, the origin stories of an Indigenous community’s place on the land and its cultural customs vary.
With such a wide array of local knowledge and languages of Indigenous people, it is a struggle—and some researchers say, a losing battle—to try to preserve them. The number of people who identify an Indigenous language as their mother tongue in Saskatchewan declined by more than 2,500 people between 2011 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada.1
Despite this decline, there is a group of dedicated academics, teachers and USask alumni who have taken on the fight to preserve their culture in the classroom. They’re building a lifelong understanding of Indigenous history and language not only for Indigenous people, but for students from all backgrounds.
DIY language teaching
When Feather Pewapisconias (BEd’16) first started teaching Cree to Grade 1 and 2 students at Saskatoon’s Confederation Park School, she struggled to find teaching materials.
She could find flash cards to give children a picture and Cree word to associate it with—but the cards would be in the wrong Cree dialect.
"I found that really challenging, when you're trying to reinforce this idea of language but you don't really have those materials to solidify it in the classroom," she said.
At times, she resorted to building materials herself. When she couldn’t find Cree medicine wheel materials either in teacher’s stores or online, she made her own, using colours and teachings specific to Cree people.
It’s not the first time the 24-year-old Pewapisconias has had to lead the way. When she was in Indigenous studies at USask, as well as on the executive on the Indigenous Student Council, she took action when she saw racism circulating on campus at the idea of introducing mandatory Indigenous studies in all classes. She took it upon herself to “myth bust” people’s misconceptions about education practices worldwide around the Indigenous peoples of different lands, and to meet with the president and deans to push against Euro-centric views at the university.
The work paid off, with USask now responsible for incorporating Indigenous teachings into every single college classroom.
Her push for more Indigenous education in schools is rooted in her own experience growing up. She spent half her childhood on reserve, either on Little Pine Cree Nation or Saulteaux territories by Nipawin.
But when her family moved to Regina, she ended up in schools with very few fellow Indigenous students in “upper-class” neighbourhoods. She recalls the students, and at least one teacher, making her feel insecure about her race.
“I spent a lot of time actually trying to talk normal I guess, or in my mind, it’s how to talk more white,” she said. “I kind of lost myself.”
But in university, Pewapisconias rediscovered her Indigenous identity. While student teaching, she found that her mostly non- Indigenous students really absorbed her style.
"If I want the audience that I'm speaking to to really understand what I’m talking about ... I have to show that passion. And in order to show that passion I need to talk about where I came from and how I got to where I am,” she said, adding that showing vulnerability by sharing her own stories is a way to build trust and engage students.
Now, she envisions getting her master’s degree and creating change from a higher position, helping teachers change their classrooms and clear the way to see Indigenous people as more than just people of the past.
People who have come before her are guiding the way. One of them is Darryl Isbister (BA’96, BEd’97, MEd’08). As the First Nation, Métis and Inuit co-ordinator with the Saskatoon Public School Division, he has been through a long journey.
The Métis man was born and raised in Saskatoon, and was among teachers who started prioritizing Indigenous education long before the province made treaty education mandatory in 2007. He started including Indigenous history throughout the semester in History 30, rather than leaving it as a two-week lesson at the end of the year that teachers try to cram in.
As a man with still-unanswered questions about his family’s roots in Batoche and Quebec, he said the lack of focus on Métis history is a factor in his efforts.
“The biggest thing was not seeing [my own Métis culture] in the curriculum, seeing it as an add-on or not even at all,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody should leave high school without knowing prehistory, the pre-contact history of this land because it does impact perceptions.”
To future educators, his biggest piece of advice is to be open-minded.
“Start to know who you are. Know where you are at in terms of your knowledge. And then be willing to find more. Find as much information as possible.”
A way of life
USask Indigenous studies and Cree language professor Randy Morin (BEd’07) is a storyteller.
His home community is officially called Big River First Nation, but when he starts talking about its traditional name of Whitefish, which the locals call it, Morin’s storytelling comes alive.
He can tell you of the origins of his community, when a man named atihkamêk, which is Cree for Whitefish, came to the land from the muskeg, swampy land around Lake Athabasca. The game there had become scarce, but atihkamêk fasted and had a vision of a place with plentiful game, lakes, forests and rolling hills. He and his tribe travelled for months until they came to the exact spot from his vision.
“It wasn’t a place where we were placed when we signed the treaties. It was where, like we wanted to stay there. This is our land,” Morin said.
Not only does the story of the land hold a place in Morin’s heart, but the way he learned to share stories does as well. He describes his upbringing as a simple one, steeped in ceremony and the Cree language (he didn’t speak a word of English until Grade 2 or 3), spent trapping, hunting, fishing, running around with his cousins and doing work for local farmers to make money.
It was within the walls of the reserve’s pool hall, surrounded by a jukebox and arcade games, that he and other children would sit attentive listening to Elders tell them stories in Cree.
One of Morin’s greatest teachers was his kokum, or grandmother, Flora Weenonis who speaks only Cree. At the age of 106, she has always had a sense of peace in the Cree ways, which Morin says are not just linguistic.
Conversation in Cree is full of the deepest gut laughs Morin has ever had, because it’s a very descriptive language that creates deep visuals. The sense of humour is, in itself, a part of the culture. The teachings are common sense, he said: to not waste anything, to pass along and share your possessions and the more you give to something the more it feeds you back—whether it’s good or bad.
Living in Saskatoon now, Morin speaks Cree as much as he can.
He also seeks the sense of community he grew up with, but finds himself disappointed in how people so often seem to be content to be alone. He’s bemused by how people are so fixated on keeping their lawns pristine, while he invites neighbourhood kids to come and play on his lawn—it’s in keeping with his belief that the land is meant to be shared.
He speaks Cree to his children, who understand him but don’t speak it back. Morin said being surrounded by English, they don’t know why it’s important to speak Cree. But statistics show that the number of Plains Cree speakers dropped by 2,000 in Saskatchewan
between 2011 and 2016.
“It feels like I’m a lonely, lonely island, you know, trying to keep this language alive, even amongst other Cree speakers. I ask them, ‘do you speak Cree to your children?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I don’t know why, it’s easier to speak English.’”
These days Morin works at the University of Saskatchewan, and is developing a Cree Language Certificate Program. The program is meant to create language teachers who can create fluent speakers.
It’s imperative work.
We can expect half of the 6,000-plus languages in the world to risk being lost over the next century, according to a 2010 UNESCO report. In 2011, just 15 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada identified an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. Half a century earlier, that number was 87 per cent, according to the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project.2
Morin said the mentality that "we need to teach them how to read and write" needs to give way for more successful methods that focus on getting people speaking the language first. The languages are structured too differently for the same methods to work for Cree, in which words mean different things depending how they’re used in a sentence.
As he squares up to the challenges to come, he keeps in mind the ancestors whose stories he collects and shares.
“They fought, they died, they were persecuted, you know, for us to maintain and retain our languages and our culture. That would be just a big slap to their face if we don’t do that,” he said.
Sitting in a lawn chair at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Kevin Lewis (BA’01, BEd’03, CERTEE’03) watches his USask Indigenous Language Certificate program students scrape hair off a hide that’s been stretched out on a wooden apparatus. At another station, other
students shake the hide, stretching it out.
The group shares laughs as the older “master speakers,” fluent Cree speakers, discuss what they’re doing with the newer speakers. The apprentice-master relationship is a fast way to learn language, Lewis said.
His certificate pupils are teachers from across the province who devote their own time each weekend immersing themselves in the Cree language and cultural practices.
Falynn Baptiste drives up from North Battleford, and did the same thing during the school year. Her mother had always spoken Cree to her, and while she understands it she’s just now learning to speak it.
There is a sense of urgency and obligation to her studies as knowledge-keeping Elders are dying.
“We're taking fragmented pieces and trying to put together a narrative and it's difficult. It's scary actually. Partway through the course I cried because I thought I'm never going to know what I need to know in this lifetime because there isn't enough time,” she said.
She wrote a paper in Grade 8 about how she thought the Cree language was going to disappear, and turn into something only learned about in books. Now, at 35, she feels things have come full circle.
“I love that I will be a part of keeping it alive,” she said.
Lewis believes learning Cree restores people, not just the language. He said the lessons give people confidence and an understanding that their people had sophisticated societies and technologies before settlers came.
Coming from the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, he sees himself in the traditional Cree role of a scout: a man who leaves home but frequently returns to share what he has learned. He has been a teacher, vice principal and band councillor on the reserve.
Growing up at Ministikwan, he learned English through shows like The Muppets. And when he started learning the two languages in school he never felt overwhelmed.
“That’s what I say to immersion teachers, the students are like sponges,” he said.
Lewis’ eyes light up when he talks about the changes he already sees in Saskatoon: a syllabic sign on Broadway Avenue that shows the Cree words for “river and sky,” a playwright who incorporates Cree into his scripts.
He’s a visionary. He wants to see a full immersion school in Saskatoon, and has had parents support the idea.
“We have a voice too,” he said.
But on this day at Wanuskewin, Lewis’ focus is on the students who need a hand spreading a modern oiling mix of moose brains, Dove soap and other liquids to spread on a skin, softening it up to be used for making moccasins. The plan is for his students to
graduate with their moccasins on.
The strong smell lingers in the air as Lewis' gloved hands glide over the skin, and the sound of his students speaking to each other in a mix of new and well-seasoned Cree is a show of culture in action.
Photos by Chelsea Laskowski