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The Future of Atikamekw
(written by Marthe Coocoo)
When we talk about the future, we are usually talking about projects
are more or less long term, and language is no exception to this rule.
all the gatherings that I have attended, it's safe to say that everyone
unanimous when it came to the subject of the conservation of our
Thus, the will to keep our language alive is guaranteed, at least for
current generation. As far as I'm concerned, simply protecting the
is not enough. We have to confer a higher status to it, and to promote
be spoken fluently as much as possible. That's the goal that I want to
To achieve this, we have to continue raising people's awareness, to
them, to speak about our language in our language. However, each person
free to choose to keep his language or not, and it is this choice that
decide what heritage he will leave to the next generation. When making
choice, people should know that these are the consequences of the
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
one of the elements of culture. In the future, it is important that
still be the vehicle that will link the elders to the youth. We have to
a way to make them come together, because at the moment, there's static
the airwaves between the generations. It seems urgent that we find ways
fix this, ways that they will both find interesting.
To my way of thinking, when it comes to the conservation of a language,
think it is also a matter of strengthening the language, and more
importantly, of ensuring the language's evolution. Thus, new words and
meanings for words will have a major role to play. In order to show
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
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
he finds quite remarkable. Will the young man be able to explain in a
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
and of the Atikamekw language. In order to do this, we need to make
realise that if our language is alive today, it's because it is used as
engine of communication, and if we don't power it on to the next
then it will lose steam. In other words, it will just become more and
difficult to maintain an environment where this language can be
to the next generation. This is for the same reason that it is becoming
and more tricky to get families to remain closely united together,
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
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
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
where we are at home and feel good about ourselves, or as a closed
where nothing ever happens but people are drawn to it nonetheless.
perception people will have will depend on several factors, including
and this perception can change from one generation to another.
The level of respect and use that an individual makes of his language
be reflected in the quality of his use of that language, and will
the viability of that language. Let's go back to the example the young
we were talking about earlier. Imagine that his family always
importance of culture, and that they were always diligent and never
about using the Atikamekw language in their communications with each
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
our young people in order to invigorate the use of our language. Means
as creating various objects that will increase their skills, all the
using appropriate terms of course, with the goal of not only enriching
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
culture is not going well, then the language will follow suit, and if
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
use music - songs. We already have songs, but we need a lot more of
because this really develops a language and its prestige, and
people to use the language more and more.
The use of media communications should always be in constant progress
several levels. Let's take the example of radio. We should increase the
number of hours of transmission. Radio programs should reflect the
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
satisfaction of the people that listen to it.
There are also audiovisual techniques that can be used, and it is
to develop them in the future. An example is community television. This
could be a special place where our language is given preferential
Not only would news be transmitted in Atikamekw, but the television
also be a tool made available to the population for them to make their
of view known, to communicate their needs, regardless of topic. We
think about creating shows that all ages of people in Atikamekw society
find interesting and entertaining. Communication will thus be
thanks to a means that has similarities with the culture - it is visual
New words will be very useful and even necessary, not only for
the news, but also for integrating those new words into everyday speech
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
to translate and for the patients themselves. Training occupies a big
Currently, liaison officers in the health sector are in training with
people concerned, in order to acquire a solid base in human anatomy.
this with the aim of ensuring an adequate service for Atikamekw people
need an interpreter, so that they can feel reassured, because they know
the interpreting will be precise and the medicine prescribed will be
Prevention is done verbally in Atikamekw, or written notices are sent
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
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
learn. Yet again, this depends on the level of respect that people have
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
the written language? I sincerely believe that writing a language that
first and foremost a verbal language will ensure its survival. But to
able to write, you have to possess a knowledge of the structure. We can
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
from the desire to understand written messages in the Atikamekw
for other reasons. This means that language courses for adults should
renewed every year, so that as many people as possible can have a
On this topic, I think that it is important that people know that they
create written works in their language, write songs, write stories,
or even write their memoirs - why not?
In every language there are rules to follow. This is what we refer to
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
language, linguistically speaking. It has a grammar and phonology. It
appear to be very complex, but as I already said previously, you have
know the structure.
Before, non-native peoples used to think that Amerindian languages
survive, and that the best way to help us was to teach us not only
language, but also another culture. Paternalism often gives results,
always the results that we expected, because in certain situations,
reactions can save the situation. All this paternalism had the effect
making us react and made us want to take charge of our situation in
areas. But the fact is we can never replace those years that we should
passed with our parents.
In the 1970s, institutionalisation of the Atikamekw language was born,
we can say that today, young people 18 years old and less know how to
and write their language. But we have to note that the written language
only at its beginnings. I believe that writing a language confers
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
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
have been undertaken to safeguard our culture and revitalise our
We should also put in place a structure that corresponds to the needs
have been expressed. The Atikamekw language should occupy a strong
in our nation. In employment advertisements at the moment, being able
read and write Atikamekw is an added bonus. However, so that this
will be considered as one of the criteria, there's still a lot of work
in making people literate in this language. We should set up a yearly
program of language courses. Steps have been taken in this direction
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
spirituality. This is an important area for each individual. It is the
of a human being where all the emotions are kept. Spirituality is
involved in culture. It completes the inner self of an individual or of
community. It is a moral force. It represents one's relationship with
others, and also with the Creator. We need to deepen certain values,
we are being attracted to things of lesser importance. It is obvious
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".
refer to what I have just said above, semantically speaking, I feel
spirituality is encompassed in this word. However, I do not mean and
should not be taken in a figurative sense. This spirituality is seen in
ceremonies that do not need to be underscored with a lot of fanfare,
the spirituality of our elders is quiet and unassuming. They are our
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
They know how to "manage" the resources so as to be able to draw from
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.
carefully exploit their territory.
It is both an individual and a community responsibility to prepare for
future, and education is the foundation of this. Thus, we have to
education. The way to do this has to be our way - that is, with our
our culture, our history, and above all, in our maternal language.
The Atikamekw language is currently taught as a subject in the schools
the three Atikamekw villages. An enormous amount of work has already
done in this area. However, there is still a lot of work to do. It has
done, if we want our children to master their spoken and written
According to specialists in school education, it is much better that
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
structure, so that the transfer into a second language will occur more
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
permit the acquisition of knowledge. It is certain that other programs
be developed, especially in the "lighter" subject areas.
An elder once said the following: "The future starts with education,
this is where the preparations for tomorrow take place, with and for
youth." I agree with this. However, we must not forget that the home
be the first educational place for a child, with the school simply
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
reflect who he is - that he is Atikamekw.
I think that if there is one subject that should be taught to the
then it is history. If we want a strong generation, standing proud on
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
we call community variations do exist. In general, the linguistic
is satisfactory. However, there is certainly room for improvement. We
worked together for many years, and we will continue to do so, because
feel very strongly about the future of our culture and our language. I
close by quoting someone who was watching a child write to her mother
Atikamekw: "What could be more wonderful than to watch a child write in
language, to see her so concentrated, and to hear her read it out loud.
still stand in awe of this wonderful sight!"