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The Future of Atikamekw [archive]

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The Future of Atikamekw
(written by Marthe Coocoo)

When we talk about the future, we are usually talking about projects that are more or less long term, and language is no exception to this rule. In all the gatherings that I have attended, it's safe to say that everyone was unanimous when it came to the subject of the conservation of our language. Thus, the will to keep our language alive is guaranteed, at least for the current generation. As far as I'm concerned, simply protecting the language is not enough. We have to confer a higher status to it, and to promote it to be spoken fluently as much as possible. That's the goal that I want to reach.

To achieve this, we have to continue raising people's awareness, to inform them, to speak about our language in our language. However, each person is free to choose to keep his language or not, and it is this choice that will decide what heritage he will leave to the next generation. When making this choice, people should know that these are the consequences of the choices they make.

It has come out clearly that culture is a way of life, of doing, of thinking, and also is a way of speaking, because we know that language is one of the elements of culture. In the future, it is important that language still be the vehicle that will link the elders to the youth. We have to find a way to make them come together, because at the moment, there's static on the airwaves between the generations. It seems urgent that we find ways to fix this, ways that they will both find interesting.

To my way of thinking, when it comes to the conservation of a language, I think it is also a matter of strengthening the language, and more importantly, of ensuring the language's evolution. Thus, new words and new meanings for words will have a major role to play. In order to show what I said on this subject or what I would say, I invented the following hypothetical scenario. Let's say that we have an elder of 55 years old and a youth of 15 years old. Now make them about 20 years older. Here is the situation: the elder visits the youth at his work place, which is a chemistry laboratory. The elder asks some questions about things there that he finds quite remarkable. Will the young man be able to explain in a way that is accurate, and is also a way such that the elder will truly understand? This is the challenge before us.

The home or the family should become more than ever the cradle of culture and of the Atikamekw language. In order to do this, we need to make people realise that if our language is alive today, it's because it is used as an engine of communication, and if we don't power it on to the next generation, then it will lose steam. In other words, it will just become more and more difficult to maintain an environment where this language can be transmitted to the next generation. This is for the same reason that it is becoming more and more tricky to get families to remain closely united together, since family members pass less and less time together, and the outside world, whose values are in contradiction with ours, has a powerful pull.

The chances of survival of a language depend on the degree of motivation and interest that exists for keeping it alive. We must not forget that complacency is our worst enemy. Even if the current environment is favourable to a language, if we take it too much for granted that the language will always be there simply because it must and we tell ourselves that we have protected it, the danger is still there. It is still there because this danger does not come from the outside; it lies within ourselves. The isolation of a community can be seen two ways. As a shelter where we are at home and feel good about ourselves, or as a closed community where nothing ever happens but people are drawn to it nonetheless. Which perception people will have will depend on several factors, including age, and this perception can change from one generation to another.

The level of respect and use that an individual makes of his language will be reflected in the quality of his use of that language, and will determine the viability of that language. Let's go back to the example the young man we were talking about earlier. Imagine that his family always emphasised the importance of culture, and that they were always diligent and never sloppy about using the Atikamekw language in their communications with each other. This young man would never have any difficulty in using his language to satisfy the curiosity of the elder that visited him in the laboratory.

This brings us to the question of what cultural means we should instil in our young people in order to invigorate the use of our language. Means such as creating various objects that will increase their skills, all the while using appropriate terms of course, with the goal of not only enriching their vocabulary but also their knowledge of how to do everything. There's a saying that "language is the mirror of culture", which means that, if the culture is not going well, then the language will follow suit, and if the culture is blossoming, then it will be reflected in the language.

There is another area we can use to reach the greatest number of people possible, with the aim of making them more aware of their language. We can use music - songs. We already have songs, but we need a lot more of them, because this really develops a language and its prestige, and encourages people to use the language more and more.

The use of media communications should always be in constant progress on several levels. Let's take the example of radio. We should increase the number of hours of transmission. Radio programs should reflect the quality of the everyday, natural language that is used and accepted by the community. They can also be used as an instrument to measure the level of satisfaction of the people that listen to it.

There are also audiovisual techniques that can be used, and it is important to develop them in the future. An example is community television. This could be a special place where our language is given preferential treatment. Not only would news be transmitted in Atikamekw, but the television could also be a tool made available to the population for them to make their point of view known, to communicate their needs, regardless of topic. We should think about creating shows that all ages of people in Atikamekw society will find interesting and entertaining. Communication will thus be encouraged thanks to a means that has similarities with the culture - it is visual and auditory.

New words will be very useful and even necessary, not only for transmitting the news, but also for integrating those new words into everyday speech so that the language can cover more than just local subject matters.

Terms related to health should be precise and integrated into everyday language, not only to help medical personnel, but also for people who have to translate and for the patients themselves. Training occupies a big place. Currently, liaison officers in the health sector are in training with the people concerned, in order to acquire a solid base in human anatomy. All this with the aim of ensuring an adequate service for Atikamekw people who need an interpreter, so that they can feel reassured, because they know that the interpreting will be precise and the medicine prescribed will be appropriate.

Prevention is done verbally in Atikamekw, or written notices are sent to people's homes, and this way of doing things is going to continue.

To go from one subject to another, there is also the question of inter-tribal marriages that plays and will play a role in the transmission of language. Let me explain myself. When a couple is formed from two different nations, each one speaking their own language, very often one language will dominate over the other and is the one that the children will learn. Yet again, this depends on the level of respect that people have for their language. Sometimes, one language dominates over the other due to social or economic pressures.

Everything we talked about concerns oral language. But what will happen to the written language? I sincerely believe that writing a language that is first and foremost a verbal language will ensure its survival. But to be able to write, you have to possess a knowledge of the structure. We can say with assurance that the majority of the Atikamekw people posses this knowledge. You need motivation in order to take the time to learn the written language, regardless of the reason for that motivation. That motivation can come from ideological reasons, from nationalistic feelings, from the desire to understand written messages in the Atikamekw language, or for other reasons. This means that language courses for adults should be renewed every year, so that as many people as possible can have a chance to follow them.

On this topic, I think that it is important that people know that they can create written works in their language, write songs, write stories, poems, or even write their memoirs - why not?

In every language there are rules to follow. This is what we refer to as the genius of language. Standardisation is necessary when we come to transferring the spoken word into writing, because we want optimal understanding to take place. The Atikamekw language is as valid as any other language, linguistically speaking. It has a grammar and phonology. It can appear to be very complex, but as I already said previously, you have to know the structure.

Before, non-native peoples used to think that Amerindian languages would not survive, and that the best way to help us was to teach us not only another language, but also another culture. Paternalism often gives results, but not always the results that we expected, because in certain situations, people's reactions can save the situation. All this paternalism had the effect of making us react and made us want to take charge of our situation in various areas. But the fact is we can never replace those years that we should have passed with our parents.

In the 1970s, institutionalisation of the Atikamekw language was born, and we can say that today, young people 18 years old and less know how to read and write their language. But we have to note that the written language is only at its beginnings. I believe that writing a language confers prestige on it.

If we look at our language in general, I see that it has suffered side-effects. Several words have been lost. Others no longer have the same meaning. I think that this happens in any and every language.

The leaders in place, that is, the chiefs and their advisors, were all elected, and it's one of their responsibilities to support the efforts that have been undertaken to safeguard our culture and revitalise our language. We should also put in place a structure that corresponds to the needs that have been expressed. The Atikamekw language should occupy a strong position in our nation. In employment advertisements at the moment, being able to read and write Atikamekw is an added bonus. However, so that this language will be considered as one of the criteria, there's still a lot of work to do in making people literate in this language. We should set up a yearly program of language courses. Steps have been taken in this direction because we have already had several conferences about this, in all areas.

If there is one area where culture and language are strong, it is that of spirituality. This is an important area for each individual. It is the part of a human being where all the emotions are kept. Spirituality is actively involved in culture. It completes the inner self of an individual or of a community. It is a moral force. It represents one's relationship with others, and also with the Creator. We need to deepen certain values, because we are being attracted to things of lesser importance. It is obvious that we need to conserve our fundamental values, because it is thanks to those values that the Atikamekw people have survived all sorts of disasters.

In order to illustrate this, I have taken the word "nehirowisiw", which means "Amerindian". It is made up of two morphemes. One means "to be in harmony, to be in agreement". The other means "identity, reputation". If we refer to what I have just said above, semantically speaking, I feel that spirituality is encompassed in this word. However, I do not mean and this should not be taken in a figurative sense. This spirituality is seen in the ceremonies that do not need to be underscored with a lot of fanfare, because the spirituality of our elders is quiet and unassuming. They are our guides. I think that the future of our language in this area is very solid.

In the past, the Aikamekw always had a deep respect for the environment. They know how to "manage" the resources so as to be able to draw from them. Let's take the example of hunting traps. The mentality of the elders is still in evidence, in the sense that they do not lay traps everywhere. They carefully exploit their territory.

It is both an individual and a community responsibility to prepare for the future, and education is the foundation of this. Thus, we have to strengthen education. The way to do this has to be our way - that is, with our values, our culture, our history, and above all, in our maternal language.

The Atikamekw language is currently taught as a subject in the schools of the three Atikamekw villages. An enormous amount of work has already been done in this area. However, there is still a lot of work to do. It has to be done, if we want our children to master their spoken and written language.

According to specialists in school education, it is much better that the instruction of a child be done in the maternal language of the child, starting from the very first years of school life, and with the aim of strengthening his acquisition of this language. He needs to possess this structure, so that the transfer into a second language will occur more easily.

So that the Atikamekw language could be the language of our children's education, we developed programs such as natural science - Wikwasatikw, human sciences - Matakan, and preschool education - Minic. These programs permit the acquisition of knowledge. It is certain that other programs will be developed, especially in the "lighter" subject areas.

An elder once said the following: "The future starts with education, because this is where the preparations for tomorrow take place, with and for the youth." I agree with this. However, we must not forget that the home should be the first educational place for a child, with the school simply being a continuation. Otherwise, the child has or will have the impression that these two worlds are separate and different, and that they have no relationship with each other. Also, the environment inside the school should reflect who he is - that he is Atikamekw.

I think that if there is one subject that should be taught to the youth, then it is history. If we want a strong generation, standing proud on its feet, then that generation needs to know its origins. I think that generation's pride and feeling of belonging will be strengthened.

We have decided that there is only one Atikamekw language, even though what we call community variations do exist. In general, the linguistic situation is satisfactory. However, there is certainly room for improvement. We have worked together for many years, and we will continue to do so, because we feel very strongly about the future of our culture and our language. I will close by quoting someone who was watching a child write to her mother in Atikamekw: "What could be more wonderful than to watch a child write in her language, to see her so concentrated, and to hear her read it out loud. I still stand in awe of this wonderful sight!"

--written by Marthe Coocoo, Atikamekw

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