Indigenous 101: Language is the key to our culture

February 6, 2019

Indigenous 101: Language is the key to our culture

Residential schools forced Indigenous people to abandon their native languages under threat of severe punishment. Even after residential schools were shut down, a fear of speaking Indigenous languages lingered for many years, resulting in loss of culture. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to preserve Indigenous languages, both by Indigenous communities and federal government policies.​

NorQuest College Elder Delores Cardinal spoke with us about language – its importance, structure, and spiritual connotations.

Why is language so important to Indigenous peoples?

Language is the key to our culture. Keep in mind our history. Our languages were forbidden for many years, and so much was almost lost. Speaking our language is also a form of resistance and decolonization. They tried to take it away from us, but we preserved it. I always say “language is in our blood”. I have a 20-month old granddaughter, and I’ve noticed that she responds better when I talk to her in Cree!

How often do young people express an interest in learning an Indigenous language?

Every week! Students want to know their language after they hear it during prayer, or at a smudge. Once they hear it, they feel it, and want to learn. Right now I’m teaching a few students and a NorQuest staff member, and they’re all feeling really good about learning the language.

Besides Cree, what other languages are common in this part of Alberta?

Dene, Stoney, and Salteaux are very common. Cree and Salteaux share a lot of words; the languages may be different, but we can understand each other. And then there are different dialects in each language, depending on where you were born. There’s Swampy Cree, Woodland Cree, Plains Cree… When I visit northern Saskatchewan, you hear Woodland Cree. I’m Plains Cree, but I can still understand them. Woodland Cree talk really fast, so I have to really listen! (laughs)

What kind of slang terms or colloquialisms are there in Indigenous languages?

In Cree, we have interesting ways to talk about the weather. If it’s raining, we might say “this is good weather for ducks”. Or in autumn, we might say “this is a good time to go moose calling.” We try not to complain about the weather but find something positive to say.

Spoken language is very important, what about written language?

I can only speak for my Cree language; oral language will always come first, but we have always had written language. My grandmother, my nookum, was a medicine lady, very well-known in many communities. Her recipes were all written. We need to preserve both.

Final thoughts?

My daily prayer is that more young people learn our language. Our Elders keep saying we’re losing our language, so we have to lift it up. We have to bring it back so that our children really know who they are. To feel that pride, and to get out of that colonized mind. A lot of communities still live that colonized life. They’re good at surviving from the land, but when it comes to our spiritual ways…they have lost everything. And it really hurts. We want to make good use of our days by teaching and learning. Language is the key to our culture, so if you can learn that, everything else will fall into place.

Indigenous 101 is an ongoing series of articles that explore Indigenous culture at our college and beyond. Our Indigenous team will be sharing knowledge as we delve into ideas, concepts, myths, stereotypes, and more.