First Nations youth learn ancestral language by correspondence

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Matthew Ward and Anna McKenzie are taking a course to learn Swampy Cree.

It’s a normal campus scene—a study group session for an introductory-level language course. But what Anna McKenzie and Matthew Ward are trying to learn is far from typical.

“Ininîmo-w-ak nêhiyawêwin“, says Ward, fumbling through his first attempt at the phrase.

“It means, ‘They are speaking Cree’,” McKenzie loosely translates, before trying to say the phrase herself.

It takes a few tries, but soon the syllables are rolling off their tongues with relative ease, and the Elder’s Lounge at UBC’s First Nations House of Learning fills up with the sounds of forgotten ancestors and distant lands.

A personal obligation

Far from their families and traditional territories, McKenzie and Ward have taken it upon themselves to learn Nehinawewin, or Swampy Cree—a dialect of the Cree-language traditionally spoken in the areas known today as northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

The pair is learning the traditional language in a surprisingly untraditional way: through a correspondence course offered by Ontario’s Laurentian University.

Every week, the two students get together to do their homework and practice new phrases and vocabulary. They use their iPhones to record each other speaking, and scan the completed pages of their workbooks before sending them to their instructor via email.

They have been doing this since September, when UBC officials finally approved the course for credit. It took months of emails and paperwork to get the course approved, but this now allows McKenzie and Ward to fulfill the indigenous language requirement they need to graduate from UBC’s First Nations Studies program.

For the two friends, however, learning Swampy Cree is much more than an institutional requirement—it fulfills a much more personal and important obligation: to reconnect with their traditional culture and to reaffirm their identities as members of the Cree nation.

“There is massive responsibility behind language learning, and I think that it’s tied into an understanding of what it means to be Cree,” said Ward.