Cree is alive and well at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre.
Instructors Liz Buckley and Doris Caudron have two full classes showing up to learn about the language and culture.
“The only way to learn is to say it over and over again,” said Caudron to her class of six.
She is teaching them basic Cree conversational skills – greetings and everyday phrases.
“We’re trying to cover the basics – things people use every day,” she said. “Even if it’s just a few words, when you speak someone’s native language, it creates a bond.”
Student Pat Strang loves to learn new languages and cultures, and hopes to inspire his grandchildren to do the same.
Strang said he will use his new Cree skills in both places but was mainly thinking about a specific friend of his when he signed up for the course.
“I want to speak with (him) in his own language,” he said. “I want to be able to relate to that culture.”
Rocky (R.J.) Simpson said he found himself in the course after his girlfriend signed up. Having a Cree grandfather, Simpson said he would like to know more about the culture and language, as well as use it in his role as Hay River North MLA.
“I’d like to be able to make statements in the (legislative assembly) in Cree,” he said. “They are encouraging the use of aboriginal languages.”
Caudron and Buckley are enthusiastic about keeping their language and culture alive. According to Caudron, the Cree people make up the largest aboriginal linguistic group in Canada with 117,000 people using the language.
“It has declined for sure,” said Caudron of the use of the Cree language. “It has to do with the residential schools. They were told not to speak their own languages. My parents never spoke Cree. I think lots of people can understand Cree but not so many people are speaking it anymore.”
Caudron said her Cree gets rusty when she doesn’t use it, and she has to find ways to keep it sharp. Teaching the class is one of those ways.
“Lots of English words don’t translate into Cree, so I have to erase the English from my mind and then I can remember,” she said.
Buckley’s mother tongue is Michif, a dialect of Cree with French influence.
Although she didn’t pass her language on to her children, she still speaks with other family members in her native tongue and has many opportunities to practise.
The two instructors told their students language and culture are tightly tied together.
“One thing about native people is that we always laugh,” Caudron told her class. “We laugh at ourselves, and at each other. It’s a good thing.”
They hope that by the end of the class their students will be able to communicate with Cree people in their native language and have a basic understanding of the culture.
“When you speak someone’s native language to them, there is a commonality,” said Caudron. “It brings people closer together.”
The class will also be experiencing demonstrations of beading, embroidering, cooking, and fish scale art.