Manitoba Aboriginal Languages Strategy—2020 Aboriginal Languages Symposium

The Manitoba Aboriginal Languages Strategy (MALS) was created to revitalize First Nations languages. MALS is committed to promoting and developing First Nations language resources throughout the province.

On February 20–21, MALS hosted the 2020 Aboriginal Languages Symposium, also called Ki kiikidowininaand Maamawi’opiwin (Gathering of Our Languages). “My hopes for this conference are that everyone leaves here feeling inspired to go and learn the language if they don’t already know it, and to teach as many people as they can,” said Kea York, MALS researcher, who along with other event organizers hopes this gathering will become an annual occurrence.

Ki kiikidowininaand Maamawi’opiwin reflects the urgency to use and strengthen First Nations languages, ensuring their survival. At this event, we gathered to share, inspire, and teach about different languages and cultures. “Language revitalization is important! It’s your identity, and it’s your culture, it’s what the Creator gave you!” said Elder Ruth Norton. “You have to pass it on to the younger ones, and it’s their right to have their language and culture. It’s like every other group of people across the world. They teach them their language. Without language, you don’t have the background or the foundation of appreciating what the Creator gave you, and for the past thousands of years, that’s what we had, our ways.”

Essissoqnikewey Siawa’ sik-l’ nuey Kina’ matinewo’kuo’mmatinewo’kuo’m matinewo’kuo’mmatinewo’kuo’m Mi’kmaq Immersion School

Ida Johnson Denny, principal at Essissoqnikewey Siawa’ sik-l’ nuey Kina’

matinewo’kuo’mmatinewo’kuo’m matinewo’kuo’mmatinewo’kuo’m Mi’kmaq Immersion School, was the first keynote speaker at the symposium. She shared an inspiring story of creating an immersion curriculum, wasting no time in the pursuit of language revitalization. Ida spoke passionately on the importance of meeting children “where they are at.” She offered that you can teach kids anything. Still, real interest develops by infusing language into the things children already have an interest in; one way to do this is to seek permission from authors children know and to translate their works into the Mi’qmak language.

Similarly, older students at the immersion school translate their favourite songs into Mi’kmaq and sing it. Another way is to incorporate Traditional Knowledge by bringing Elders into the classroom to converse in the language and teach cultural components. This school recently saw their first Kindergarten class graduate high school and are now going onto post-secondary.

Riverbend school Ojibwe singers

Nehiyawak Language Experience

The second keynote speaker was Belinda Daniels, a language revitalizer activist and founder of the Nehiyawak Language Experience. The Nehiyawak Language Experience includes Cree camps, developed with the use of language on the land in mind. Belinda spoke on how her passion turned into her work, “I wanted to know what it meant to speak from a Nehiyaw perspective and went the extra miles to do so. I lived out on the land, and continue to do so from time to time. I also wanted to give others like myself (also in search of their indigeneity) an opportunity to learn. I was attempting to heal what residential schools had done to so many countless others.”

Belinda’s research speaks to how language connects to the spirits to whom the Nehiyawak pray—if the spirits do not hear their language, they will leave. “Because of this understanding, engaging in practices of reclaiming the language and researching that process must also involve spiritual communication and use of appropriate cultural Protocols.”

On Language

Learning about spirituality in English is difficult, as so much is lost in translation. Many of us are on a spiritual journey, reclaiming our histories, traditions, knowledge, and ceremonies. Spirituality is held in the language. Wanbdi Wakita, MALS Grandparent, says, “Language is culture, and it’s important in how you grow up and protect and maintain your culture. No matter what age, the young ones, the youth, the adults, our professors and our old people, we need to learn our teachings.”

Symposium Workshops

The symposium offered different workshops centred on various First Nations and Métis language perspectives, including their importance, use, and revival. Educators and language speakers shared some of the strategies they are using to pass on their languages to the next generation.

One workshop encouraged participants to make language buttons in Cree, Dakota, Dene, Ojibwe, or Ojibwe-Cree. A different workshop focused on the Michif language and how some classes offered through the University of Manitoba show a keen interest in learning the language.

language button making workshop

Participants also heard from a bilingual school in Winnipeg that is working to incorporate Anishinaabemowin. Young people are demanding to learn the language; this is reflected by a waitlist to get into the program, creating inspiration for more schools to initiate a similar learning opportunity.

We also learned about language conjugation through a funny game, available in Cree and Ojibwe, about farting, which was developed by the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre. Children from Riverbend School sang O Canada in Ojibwe—these are the same students who sang at the Jets game on January 17, 2020.

Honouring the Grandparents

MALS honoured the late Elder Don Robertson, one of their Grandparents, for his life’s work in First Nations education. They also honoured retired MALS lead partner Esther Sanderson for her contributions to MALS and language revitalization.

Star Blanket ceremony for Esther Sanderson

Closing Thoughts

When First Nations youth understand the importance of language, they will become personally committed to learning it. Language programs must reach beyond the classroom to encourage outside language learning and practices. Developed fluency strengthens a deep connection between our languages and cultural understanding.

Learning the language on the land is one way of connecting language to culture. Still, another way is to recognize the limitations of western teaching methods, incorporating Traditional Knowledge from Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

Elder Ruth Norton shared, “You’re learning English, and you’re not English. You’re learning French, and you’re not French. You need to know your language and your own culture. The residential school tried to erase it, and when we came out, we still had enough of us who still knew the language.”

“Now it’s a struggle for the communities to retain the languages. I worked in language revitalization right across the country, with the Assembly of First Nations, and went to many reserves up north. You can see the language dwindling. They are so involved in mainstream education—events like this help. Everything helps, but what I see, as an old-timer, that the young kids have to demand their culture, language, and teachings. I tell my grandkids now: Demonstrate! Don’t be afraid. Demand that you learn your language and culture.”

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