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Waskaganish Cree: Language [archive]

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Waskaganish Cree: Language

Our Cree language is the most important link to our past and is very much alive in Waskaganish today. As one of the strongest native languages across Canada, there are many things that have contributed to its preservation. The first of these is the development of Cree Syllabics.

The Cree Syllabics chart employed today is a key element in the survival of our language. The syllabics chart used to represent our Eastern James Bay dialect is a modification of the basic four symbol chart that is used in writing several similar dialects of the Cree and Algonquin languages across Canada. However, the Eastern James Bay Cree have accommodated several long sounding syllables found in our dialect, and have added these syllables on to the Cree Syllabics chart.

The Cree syllabics chart consists of four basic syllables, each of which have a matching long sounding syllable that coincide with its sound. There are four basic sounds, E - I - U - A, that are followed by each of the syllabics. There are approximately fifteen rows of consonants which represent the different sounds used in the Cree language. To read the chart, one must first find the row which corresponds to the sound of the English consanant. For example, if one wants to spell the name Susie, one would utilize the ‘s' sounding syllabics found on the fifteenth row of the chart. Moving across the row of the ‘s' sounding syllables, the third syllabic of this row would be used to represent the ‘su' in Susie. The second syllabic on the same line would be used to represent the ‘sie' to complete the spelling of this name. This is a basic demonstration of how the Cree syllabic chart is used to correspond to the spoken word of the Cree language.

Over the years, the spoken Cree language has changed. As non-native influence became stronger, it became a struggle to keep our ancestral language alive. With increased contact with the outside world, more and more English words have been found to be mixed with spoken Cree because of unavailable translations for the new words and phrases which never had been part of the Cree vocabulary.

One of the main causes for this change was the generational gap in spoken Cree between the youth and our elders. Before there were any formal educational institutions in Cree territory, many children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools. Far from their families and homes, as well as from Cree language instruction, many Cree children found themselves under the guardianship of non-native instructors who forbade them to speak their own language. When this generation of residential school children returned to their families, and eventually had families of their own, many found themselves having a stronger English or French vocabulary than their own mother tongue.

Although the Cree language was not entirely lost, the number of those who were able to speak their mother tongue fluently had drastically been lowered. For this reason, there have since been several programs launched to strengthen and preserve Cree language.

The strongest of these campaigns has been to strengthen our native language among our Cree children. Along with all of the schools in the Cree Nation, at Wiinibekuu School in Waskaganish, the main focus of instruction for primary grade levels is Cree language and Cree syllabics. Since the opening of Wiinibekuu School, each child entering the Pre-Kindergarten level has been taught only in Cree language. At this level, the students are given visual and oral practice of Cree words written in syllabics from the basic four symbols syllabic chart. Stories and other listening activities are used to develop vocabulary. At this level, they are also introduced to writing the syllabics by means of over copying short Cree words.

Within the few years following, Cree as a language of instruction was implemented within the Kindergarten grade level. The complete syllabic chart with long sounding Cree syllables is introduced to the students at this level. Continued increase of vocabulary and writing in simple sentences are given to improve their Cree language skills. As opposed to over copying words written in Cree syllabics in Pre-Kindergarten, the students at this level are given words to write on their own to improve their spelling of short words.

During the 1993-94 school year, a pilot project known as the Cree Language Instruction Program (C.L.I.P.) was implemented at Wiinibekuu School which consisted of a curriculum with increased Cree language instruction for the grade one to three levels. Under C.L.I.P., the grade one level focuses on strengthening the students' Cree writing skills. They are introduced to new vocabulary with long sounding syllabics. At this level, with the help of visual aids, the students are encouraged to read and write on their own. They are also familiarized with pattern books featuring similar sentence types such as "I ate..." or "I saw..." This format of instruction is maintained throughout the grade one and two levels.

As the students enter the grade two and three levels, the degree to which the students are taught in Cree is decreased. In the grade two level, 70% of the curriculum is taught in Cree, where in the grade three level, it is 60%. By the third grade, the students are completely familiar with the Cree syllabic chart, including the long sounding syllables. However, vocabulary continues to be developed at this level. By this time, writing is the main focus where the students compose short stories entirely in Cree syllabics. Journal writing is a frequent exercise. The students also participate in group activities such a writing storybooks and recording of monthly events, all of which are written in Cree.

For the remaining elementary years, Cree as a language of instruction is maintained. However, at the grade four level the student reaches the Immersion stage of the C.L.I.P. program. At this time, the students begin the French or English sector curriculum which they continue until grade eleven. The students' Cree language instruction is reduced to one 90-minute period per day at the grade four level. This is continued until they reach the grade six level where it is two 90- minute classes per week. From the grade four to grade six, the Cree language classes consist of lessons on several topics such as days of the week, months, body parts, animals, cardinal points, weather conditions, etc. - all of which continue to be taught in Cree syllabics. Other activities throughout these grade levels include board games, presentation of cultural videos, and reading of books written in Cree.

Cree classes continue to be taken throughout the secondary grade levels. Each student from grade seven to eleven attends two classes per week. From grade seven to nine, sentences and vocabulary continue to be developed and reinforced. For the final two years of the high school levels, student writing is expected to be more detailed. Journal writing is the main tool for instruction and improvement at these levels. Every student is different, but there are those who graduate from Wiinibekuu School who are highly literate in Cree language.

Although there are a limited number of jobs which require the extensive use of Cree reading and writing, the knowledge of the Cree language is carried well beyond the high school years. Cree is spoken throughout the community. Those who continue to follow the traditional way of life on the trap line contribute to the survival of our language. Part- time Cree Literacy classes are also offered for those who wish to return to their Cree syllabic studies.

Today, although the strain from the English language is strong, Cree among the James Bay people continues to thrive and grow. More and more of our Cree children are reacquainting themselves with the written syllabics of our language which is a large part of preserving it for future generations. The continued practice of our Cree language is a strong tool in the maintaining of our native identity, and in turn a direct force in conserving our culture. For our ancestors, and for our children, this is the most important of all.

Additional Reading

  Language Preservation
  Cree Culture
  Northeast Woodland Tribes
  Native Tribes of Canada

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