The Grand Council of the Crees

Language Conference: Report of the Cree Language and Culture Conference - Oujé Bougougmou

Posted: 1997-11-00

Report of the Cree Language and Culture Conference - Oujé Bougougmou

November 1997


The Conference was organized by the Cree (Iiyiyuu) School Board as a result of the growing concern in the Iiyiyuu communities that more should be done to preserve and promote the traditional knowledge of the Iiyiyuuch and to increase and improve the use of the Iiyiyuu Language in the Communities and in Iiyiyuu workplaces. The conference brought together the Iiyiyuu teachers, leaders, elders, pedagogical counselors, aboriginal leaders from other communities and other Iiyiyuuch interested in this matter. The presence of the elders was very important to all who attended the conference. Their clear thoughts and wise council inspired the assembly. For this reason, this report is dedicated to the elders and to the future generations of Iiyiyuuch who may benefit from the elders' wisdom and the action that they encourage the leadership to take today.

The sessions included a plenary session in which those who spoke addressed the whole assembly as well as working sessions in which specific subjects were discussed and recommendations made to the Assembly. The sessions were taped on audiotape and to some degree on video tape as well. A range of subjects was raised at the conference. Primary among these were the importance of the land and preservation of the Iiyiyuu life on the land to the protection of Iiyiyuu rights and teaching of Iiyiyuu traditions and language. In addition, people discussed the nature of the traditional Iiyiyuu education system and the impacts of residential school on the individuals involved and on the society as a whole. The assumption of responsibility for Iiyiyuu education by the Cree School Board was seen as a turning point for the resumption of Iiyiyuu education by Iiyiyuuch and for Iiyiyuuch.

Summary of the Proceedings
Present day problems and the factors influencing the successes and failures in promoting and protecting Iiyiyuu language and culture, were reviewed. For example, it was pointed out that the reason that the children and adults of Whapamagoostui write their language so well is that they have maintained over the years, the requirement that in order to be confirmed in the Anglican church, a child had to learn to write and read in the Iiyiyuu Language. This is an example of how institutions can support the use and preservation of the language and promote Iiyiyuu literacy.

"I think it was a Sunday evening, there was an evening service at the church... Ahead of me sat a group of young boys, maybe fourteen years of age, young people I was so proud of the people of Whapamagoostui... They had no problem at all reading the text which was written in Cree." (Thomas Coon Tape #4)

In regard to other institutions the assembly asked whether Iiyiyuu institutions could not do more to promote the use of the spoken and written Iiyiyuu language. It was noted that the bands could open offices to deal with translation and other uses of written Iiyiyuu ayimowin such as its use in public signs and in public announcements. Also it was noted that greater emphasis could be put on requiring Iiyiyuuch to use their own language at meetings. The comment was often made that those speakers at public meetings should try harder to find Iiyiyuu words rather than falling into the habit of mixing in English or French words when their vocabulary fails them.

"As far as keeping the language strong, in Mistissini, we made a resolution two years ago, when I first sat with the council as chief. We were planning the future of our community including where we wanted to go as far as our language was concerned We wanted to retain our language and keep it alive 25 years down the road. We called it the 'Mistissini Cree Language' I am proud as the leader of the community to be involved in a process where our Cree language can remain and also be strong. The funding we used for this came from the James Bay Agreement allocations. We hired people to work on these projects. The first thing they worked on was the translation of the word of God. Every year, as we do this, we give an annual report of our activities to our community." (Chief William Mianscum, Tape #4)

"...There should be a Cree Resource Center in each community run by all the Band Councils and the Cree School Board, in one building. This is where the people could work, at the local level. There should be a translator, to make books that are written in Cree." (Margaret Cheezo, Tape #13)

"It is my hope, looking at the written materials in the band offices, that one day, we in the various Cree communities will correspond to each other in the Cree language... We should do this to support our views on retaining the language and also for self-government."
(David Masty, Tape #4)

It was suggested that an Iiyiyuu Language Commission be created to promote the continued development of the Iiyiyuu Ayimowin. In addition the Commission could either include elders or elders could be regularly consulted on questions of vocabulary concerning traditional words as well as at times when new words are needed for new items such as "computer" for example. The comment was often made that the elders should be more involved in the education of children and in general in the communities and outside when it comes to questions concerning language and culture.

"...there should be a Cree Language Commission. There should be a representative of from each of the nine Cree communities to sit on the Language Commission. There should also be a committee at the local level and one representative would sit on the Cree Regional Language Commission. They would be the ones to decide what we should call a computer, spaghetti or French fries." (Margaret Cheezo, Tape #13)

"If someone is able to get employment teaching children concerning what they need to know about Cree language and Cree culture, she should not think that she can't do it or that she doesn't know anything. If someone doesn't know what she is supposed to know, she should seek the help of an elder, so that she can tell her what she doesn't know about Cree culture. We are the ones who should do what we can to seek the help of the elders." (Florrie Mark-Stewart, Tape #8)

"The elders are a great help when we ask them to help us with our teaching of Cree courses to the teachers I would like to see more of this because we ourselves tend to forget a lot of our language You... [elders] are a great help when you do this because you have a lot of knowledge that we do not have because we went off somewhere else to school." (Mary Bear, Tape #9)

"Some of you may know Ronnie Cowboy. I will tell you about him in Montreal, when he got off the plane he got onto the moving sidewalk [in the airport]. When you get on this thing you can go quite a distance just by standing in one place. Ronnie was telling me about his experience and I asked him what he would call this contraption. He answered, kaachishiwepahiichaapayich". These are words that are not even in existence yet and the elders can help us in making this possible." (Robert Weistche Chairman of the Cree School Board, Tape #4)

The participants pointed out that adults should make more effort to learn the written language. Not only would they be able to help their children in doing school work, they would also have access to written materials that could help them in increasing their vocabularies and fluency in communicating with elders and perhaps also in increasing their knowledge of other Iiyiyuu dialects. It was stated that a high level of fluency in the Iiyiyuu Language helps with the comprehension of many dialects. This of course, would lead to a greater cooperation among the various communities of the Iiyiyuuch. On this latter point, it was put forward by the speakers that it was important to preserve the different dialects existent among the communities when writing the Iiyiyuu language. This was accepted, as was the idea that there should be a consistent spelling of the words, as consistency of spelling leads to greater ease in reading.

"It is good to learn. It is important for us to learn this well in order to read and write Cree in the future. If we do not learn, how can we [adults] expect to teach our children or grandchildren to do so? How can you help our your child or grandchild with his or her home work, if you do not learn how to read and write Cree? It is the same with either English or French, how can we help them if we do not know the language?" (Thomas Coon, Tape #4)

"This is the way it is when a book is written in Cree. There are many of us here speaking different dialects. We are not always able to read a certain dialect but when it is written in one's own dialect, he or she is able to read it with no problem..." (Albert Mianscum, Tape #4)

"Before I learned Cree syllabics, I was quite pathetic because I couldn't really understand what someone was saying to me when they spoke. Since I learned Cree syllabics, since my mother taught me, it was like someone turning on a light, to understand an elder who spoke in real Cree." (Glen Cooper, Tape #13)

"When someone is fluent in his/her own Cree language s/he is happy to understand other dialects of Cree, even if they are quite different from his/her own dialect." (Mary Lou Iahtail Tape #4)

In regard to Iiyiyuu culture it was said that it was important to teach Iiyiyuu children to the greatest extent possible out on the land, in the normal context for such lessons. It was also said that comprehension of the Iiyiyuu language was increased in this context. As well, words for geographical features and place names, weather conditions and the detailed or tough questions of Iiyiyuu traditions, and the finer points of technique and safety, could be taught very much more effectively out on the land. To this extent the speakers spoke of "the language coming from the land".

"The Cree language is out there on the land. This is why we don't keep students and young people from going out on the land for a certain period of time during the school year. Out there they get a lot of knowledge concerning the Cree language." (Isaac Masty, Tape #4)

"This past winter we wanted to do this again, to take children inland with us but we could not do it. The children we had picked to go... first we were told that there wasn't any money... then when there was money, we were told it would cost too much. Then we were told that the children we wanted to bring were behaving badly in school. But the way I saw it, the reason I wanted to take these children into the bush, was that they have only one parent or they never get to go inland to be able to see it and for us to teach them about Cree culture in the bushWhen I think about how we are trying to hang onto our culture and language, [it makes me believe that] we must find a way to help the children who are not coping well in the classroom." (Agnes Shem, Tape #16)

It was noted that children who are taught in traditional contexts and in the Iiyiyuu language are more attentive, less likely to be discipline problems, and show great interest in what they are being taught in school. It was remarked many times during the conference that children who have come up using the Iiyiyuu language as the language of instruction display increased self-confidence and ability to approach the study of a variety of subjects including their studies in English and French. In addition it was stated that these children "speak like adults" when speaking Cree in that their vocabulary and use of grammar are superior to those taught in English or French from an early age. Self-confidence is increased when a child finds his own and his family's culture and language confirmed in the school context.

"For many people my age, the ones who have been out of the community for one reason or another and also away attending school, we notice that the young children in our community speak much better Cree than we do." (Isaac Masty, Tape #4)

"There are so many words from the life in the bush, that we don't have within the communities, because we don't use this vocabulary in town. When you teach in the bush, in a camp, then the child or other person, who is in school, can hear what things are really called. The way the elders used to speak, and what they called things, the things that we see when we are on the land, like trees and other growing things, the things the animals need to live. These words are not used at all when you are teaching inside a classroom." (Florrie Mark-Stewart, Tape #8)

It was noted that the primary responsibility for the education of the children lies with the immediate family of the child. It was also observed that times have changed and not all families have either the time or the capacity to teach their children in the traditional manner. In part, this is due to the fact that many parents now have full time employment within the communities and do not have the time to spend many days on the land with their children during the different seasons of the year. In part however this is also due to the long-term impact of residential schools.

"...I do not know why my grandfather sent me away. '...What is being done to me? I thought. When I left I wore moccasins. ...What I wore there was clothing that had been given to me and I was called 'Indian Girl'. ...We would huddle and sit together evenings and cry and when we cried we would often get spanked afterwards. ...We would ask why we were not sent home. The response was that: 'The government does not have enough money for you to be sent home.' ...We used to sew our own clothing and one that did not do a good job would get spanked. We would wash all the beds as well as the school. ...I almost died when we were there. I remembered seeing children maltreated. When I finished school I did not recognize this person who was standing there. It was my father. I did not even know my own father. ...Going ashore there were lots of people by the shore and I was told to go and see my mother, I did not know who she was. I did not even know my grandmother, not until I heard someone speaking English, then I knew she was my grandmother. I did not know my mother and I did not understand Cree at all. ...Then I realized that I had been told that I would not be going back to where I came from and that I would be staying here." (Katherine Gull, Tape #3)

"I remember when I first got out of school, I was sixteen years old and I didn't think that I had learned enough, of even the language, to go and look for work in the white society. I went to the bush with my family right after because my father was still hunting and trapping at that time. Sometimes I almost cried when my mother told me to do something because I knew I did not know how to do it or maybe because I hesitated to do it. Then one time my father told me that you will not be sure of yourself in doing something that you have been taught, even if the person who teaches it to you is very good, unless you give yourself to the task of learning it and want to do it." (Ella Neeposh, Tape #9)

The residential schools only too often did not equip students for life in the larger Canadian society. Moreover it also broke the traditional Iiyiyuu educational system. This Iiyiyuu system was finely tuned to teach the child Iiyiyuu skills and knowledge. As the children were capable of learning tasks or of acquiring knowledge requiring higher levels of effort and sophistication, this was taught to them. When the residential students came back home, they were not linguistically or culturally equipped for life in the communities and the communities were not able to accommodate and easily provide for their unprecedented deficit in Iiyiyuu educational accomplishments. As a result, many Iiyiyuu parents today do not have the traditional knowledge necessary to teach their own children. Many, having been reared in a foreign and uncaring institutional environment lack basic parenting skills. An additional large problem in the communities today is that parents lack time to teach their children and the village context is in any case ill-suited for teaching many of the traditional skills.
Note the confidence and grace of the next speakers' recollection of a difficult but traditional family child rearing. In the first speaker's account note the importance of one of the fundamental values learned in this traditional setting:

"I am one who never set foot inside a school while I was growing up. This Cree culture that we are planning about, out there I was never told: 'At a certain time you will go there and by this certain time you will complete this.' I wanted to mention this first.

...I only received an Iiyiyuu Education. For those of you who do not know me, I will say that I must have been around five years of age when my mother passed away. I don't exactly remember. I lived only with my father for a while and then when I was around thirteen years old my father died. After the death of my father I lived with my grandfather for one year. He was unable to travel over the land and was in the declining years of his ability. The year that I lived with my grandfather I turned fourteen and this was the time that I started to do things for myself, in respect to Cree culture. Of these three, including my own parents, not one introduced me to any other language than the Iiyiyuu language.

That is how I lived when it was time for me to begin using what I had been taught of my way of life. I was fourteen when none of my parents were around. I was twenty years old when I started living on my own. At that age nothing was done for me. I was able to do everything that was required by people who live in a self-sufficient nomadic way on the land.

...I lived with my uncle and he taught me about living on the land. I observed him in what he did on the water and in rapids and I learned from observing his way of hunting. This is what I learned from him and what I retained.

After the first snowfall there were tracks of a bear, this was the only big game around as at this time there were no caribou or moose. We had not yet seen them. He said: "Let's follow the bear tracks." So we tracked the bear. It was getting late when we followed the tracks toward a river and we camped there that night. All he did was build a fire we had not brought anything along. The following morning at dawn... yes we walked toward the river and yes the bear had reached the shore of the river. "There is nothing we can do, we will go home", he said.

...Afterwards, about a week later, it rained and the snow almost completely disappeared. He said to me again: "Go back to where the bear tracks are, to where the bear walked, it is probably still visible." By the time I got back to our camp it was nightfall. Yes, you could still see the bear tracks; they were quite pronounced and stood out. He said: "I think when we can we will go again." And I said okay.

...Early at the crack of dawn... "Let's go", he says. He led the way onto the ice on the river. At the place where the river narrows is where we camped. Yes, he lead the way, "I will walk ahead of you", he said, "as you will not be sure of the way." He had already taught me lots about walking on dangerous ice conditions. ..."Look for the tracks", he directed. ...We came across the bear tracks when it was already dusk. ...We stayed there that night. Early that morning he said: "Let's go." ...As night set in, two nights had passed [on the lake]. ...We stayed out in the open, every night. We could not even sleep due to the cold. We only stayed close to the fire. ...The next morning, "Let's go", he told me. ...We came upon a big lake where the bear had headed. He said: "The lake was not frozen when the bear arrived." Here we lost track of the bear. ...By this time it was quite easy to walk from island to island, which we did. We could not find it. Finally he told me: "Let's go there to that little point." Somewhere in the middle of that small point we reached the bear and this was when he killed the bear.

...All of us come together from the nine communities and what we want to do, what we are aiming for, if we do not turn around, we will eventually succeed." (Samuel Bearskin, Tape #8)

"The women always helped their husbands hunt, in the past. Like today, when a woman works, she helps her husband support their children, like a woman who helped her husband hunt, in the past. She tried to kill game herself. Many times when a woman's husband didn't bring anything from a full day of hunting, she might have been the one to kill game for food. Even if she stayed close to the camp, she killed game near the camp. This is often what happened to a woman. The woman always had the most work to do when she was in the camp. She was the one to get all the firewood and to fetch and provide water, and to take care of her children and her home. She was the one who prepared all the food that her husband killed, and she dried the fur. ...

She would look after her children. When a family lived alone, she did all the work in the camp and hunted nearby and this is how I lived. ...I did all the work I could outside, leaving my children inside, as I didn't have a daycare center. ...When I had to go outside, I had to harness the ones who couldn't go outside (for safety reasons), and the children who could go outside were dressed for it. They looked after themselves, and I would periodically come back to our camp so I could build up the fire in the stove because there was no one there to watch my children for me. I often snared rabbits and I hunted and killed ptarmigan, sometimes I got a porcupine."
[Florrie Mark-Stewart Tape #8]

The participants at the conference strongly supported the need for increased resources to teach the children Iiyiyuu culture and language skills on the land. This was not expressed at the conference as a need to do away with the present classroom approach but rather as a substantial supplement to this program. It was felt that more teachers should be hired for Iiyiyuu Culture and Iiyiyuu Language programs. It was also thought that there should be more Cree teachers hired in the primary and secondary sectors. The need for more teachers was also expressed in regard to the Adult Education sector where there was a call for more courses to teach adults to read and write in the Iiyiyuu language. In addition, the Iiyiyuu teachers expressed a need for ongoing instruction in the written Iiyiyuu language as well as in Iiyiyuu culture in general. One of the problems noted in the conference was the need for more special education teachers. Presently many of the Iiyiyuu teachers are too preoccupied with these students to teach the rest of the class properly.

"Some of the Cree [language] consultants have to help two or three Cree communities, to help the Cree language teachers. They have too much to do and they don't have time to do everything." (Margaret Cheezo, Tape #13)

"Consider how difficult it is for us to teach the Cree language and Cree culture. We put a lot of work into it especially when we have to come up with the materials we need, compared to the other classroom teachers who just take things off the shelf to use as teaching material." (Eliza Webb, Tape #19)

"It seems to me there are Cree culture teachers out there who have nowhere to turn when they want something to use right away." (Margaret Bearskin, Tape #19)

"It is very hard to teach in Cree. There are many times we stay at the classroom after hours and even after supper. We often go back to prepare something for the children to do. Nobody seems to notice how much we try to do things on our own and try to teach ourselves and teach the children at the same time." (Lucy Shem, Tape #10)

An often-expressed comment was that the Iiyiyuu teachers did not have enough in terms of professional guidance and curriculum materials. This was true in regard to Iiyiyuu Culture, Iiyiyuu Language, using the Iiyiyuu Language as the language of instruction and also in Moral and Religious Instruction. Teachers expressed grave concern about the lack of budgets to buy needed supplies and said that they often had to spend their own money on this. In addition, it was said that in comparison, the non-Iiyiyuu teachers seemed to have ample curriculum materials and budgets to, for example, go on excursions down south with their students. It was said that it was difficult to find funding for excursions onto the Iiyiyuu lands into traditional Iiyiyuu settings.

The Iiyiyuu teachers also noted that the Cree School Board student-teacher ratio for Iiyiyuu Culture courses was too high for effective teaching of Iiyiyuu students. Moreover, even this number was often exceeded in the classroom. The Board explained that these ratios are negotiated with the Teachers Union. The opinion was widely accepted that the Iiyiyuu teachers should have greater input into the negotiation process before such questions are decided and agreed to.

"Maybe there could be separate paper of the Cree teachers' demands." (Mabel Herodier Vice-Chairperson of the Cree School Board, Tape #19)

Those involved in the production of written Iiyiyuu materials experienced problems in not being able to do all that was required. They said that there were demands on them for translation of a variety of materials for the administration of the Board, for translations of materials from English and French, for the creation of original materials and texts, for the transcription of traditional Iiyiyuu materials and for the development of Iiyiyuu language policy, all this in addition to curriculum development responsibilities. As a result they expressed the need for others to take on parts of the enormous task of promoting and protecting a whole language. They, as well as others expressed the need for more Iiyiyuu written materials of all types, an Iiyiyuu dictionary, reading material including materials translated from other languages to be published and for more resources, both within and outside of the Cree School Board, to be devoted to the task of preserving and developing the language.

Many who spoke expressed the need for increased efforts to record both the Iiyiyuu language and the oral traditions of the Iiyiyuu people. In addition there was urgent need expressed that Iiyiyuu cultural practices also be recorded on video as the storehouse of such knowledge is largely with the elders, who as they gradually pass on diminish the knowledge available to those left behind. It was also thought to be important to pass on to the coming generations the fundamental values of determination, patience, obedience etc. coming from the traditional way of life on the land. The elders, as they have experienced life before the more recent intrusive presence of non-Iiyiyuu society, can impart such lessons as no others can. This was evident in the stories told at the conference by some of the elders present.

The youth at the conference expressed a strong interest in seeing the traditions preserved. They also said that the legends and details of Iiyiyuu technology should be preserved but also made more accessible through the use of Compact Disc technology (CD-ROM) and computers.

"...We have to try to preserve and hold on to the legends. ...I really would like to learn these legends so my children will know them. ...The last item is the elders being filmed or taped as they tell stories of the life in the past... I would like the ones in charge of the Cree School Board to bring these tapes to each community, so everyone can learn how to strengthen their language."

"We have to recognize that the youth are very attracted to computers. ...One new thing is called a CD-ROM ...This will show the correct names for the trees, mountains and other things that exist in the Cree Way of Life. We can also learn the correct names of all kinds of animals." (Bertie Wapachee, Tape #12)

Overall, the conference expressed a wish for more involvement of the Iiyiyuu leadership in the duty of preserving and developing the Iiyiyuu Language and Iiyiyuu Culture. It was noted during the conference that the Iiyiyuuch, by creating the Cree School Board, have effectively asserted their right to educate their own children.

The history of using Cree as the language of instruction was recounted to the conference and the participants were made aware of the progress made to date.

The conference was also aware of the importance of the Iiyiyuu traditional way of life to the advancement of Iiyiyuu rights over the full extent of Iiyiyuu Istchee and to the continuation of the unique Iiyiyuu system of values. In this regard, one issue which brought this home was the plight of the Iiyiyuuch living at Pikogan. They asked for support in their efforts to gain recognition to practice their own culture and language without fear of assimilation.

Finally, the assembly expressed interest in continuing to hold annual meetings to review the progress made in implementing the recommendations coming out of the workshops held as part of the conference. These were adopted by those gathered and will be included in the final report along with the proceedings of the conference, reports from the workshops, a list of resolutions passed in previous years in respect to Iiyiyuu language and culture, photographs, a mission statement and a report from the Cree Programs Department who made this report possible.

Tapes of the Conference Proceedings and Written Transcripts in Cree and English of the Proceedings in Iiyiyuu are available from the Cree School Board.