First Nations youth learn ancestral language by correspondence

A healing process

According to Marianne Ignace, director of the First Nations Language Centre at Simon Fraser University, learning ancestral languages is an important step towards spiritual, emotional and physical healing for indigenous people.

“Language connects individuals to their identity, to their history, to their past, and their culture. Being able to maintain those connections has serious benefits for a person’s health,” said Ignace, who is currently directing language revitalization projects in 12 First Nations across British Columbia and Yukon.

Language learning thus becomes much more than a mere skillset. According to Ignace, “it’s a symbolical and practical tool for rebuilding cultural connections.”

Rebuilding cultural connections from his past is what motivates Matthew Ward to learn Swampy Cree.

Ward, 22, is a citizen of the Driftpile Cree Nation and was born on the nation’s reserve in northern Alberta. As a child, he learned some phrases in a different dialect of Cree known as Plains Cree, but forgot most of his ancestral language when his family moved away from the reserve, first to Slave Lake, Alberta and then to Edmonton.

Now, he welcomes the opportunity to learn his traditional language (albeit in a different dialect) as a necessary step towards reconnecting with his Cree identity.

Ultimately, he views the course as a necessary step towards living a more fulfilling life.

“Learning any language is hard, but you have a different relationship to it when you are indigenous and you are learning your own language. It’s not recreational; it feels like its something that’s really missing in your life,” Ward said.

The course is also giving McKenzie, who was born and raised in Calgary, a chance to mend an ancestral bond broken two generations ago. Born to a Cree father, McKenzie is a citizen of the Opaskayak Cree Nation, but grew up with very little contact to her language and traditional culture.

“Growing up in an urban space, away from my reserve and my family, I was never able to learn my language,” McKenzie said.

Her grandparents were fluent speakers of the Swampy Cree language, but fear of being marginalized from settler society forced them to move off the nation’s reserve in northern Manitoba.

“When my dad was young, my grandmother made the conscious decision to move away from the reserve and raise her children as non-natives,” McKenzie said.

Once the family was off reserve, connections to the land, culture and language were lost. McKenzie grew up far away from her traditional culture, but a desire to reconnect with her indigenous ancestry led her to UBC’s First Nations Studies program.

“The more I learn about the history of indigenous people in Canada, the more I learn about my own history, the more I feel unfulfilled by not being able to speak my ancestral language.”