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Cree language takes the forefront at Samson First Nation
With Carl Quinn belting out the Cree words to his much-loved song “Nipin” and the audience singing right along with him, the recent Mahtesa Nehiyawetan (Let’s Speak Cree) event on the Samson Cree Nation closed on a high note.
The evening, held April 21, was organized by Steve Wood, who teaches at the Samson High School where the event was held, to showcase and entertain young people as they learn to speak their mother tongue. Delivered entirely in the Cree language, Mahtesa Nehiywaetan featured grade school classes singing in Cree, poem recitations in Cree, storytelling, and an energetic repertoire of Cree contemporary music delivered by Carl Quinn and his band.
Wood knows young people require dynamic methods of instruction if they are going to retain their first language.
“I’ve had students who were successful in understanding the written language and fluent in syllabics, but they don’t know how to speak it,” he said. “A person needs to hear language to be able to understand it by ear.”
So, rather than have classes study language from a book, Wood has them play games like Bingo in Cree and “Who wants to be a Cree-illionaire?” Students are asked questions in Cree and if they can’t answer in their mother tongue, and their fellow classmates can’t provide the answer, they can use a classroom phone to call family members or friends to act as a lifeline source.
“The kids love games and we’ve been having a lot of fun learning in these more unconventional ways,” Wood explained.
Music is also a natural tool for learning language and Wood, who is a founding member of the six-time Grammy-nominated drum group Northern Cree, sings to his classes and coaches them to sing in turn. Repetition of Cree words in songs is incredibly effective to commit them to memory, he has observed.
With his drum group, Wood travels to communities across North America and finds the same concerns among people of his generation – who will carry on the language once the last speakers have gone?
He shares his innovative strategies with community leaders and encourages teachers to be creative and meet students where they are at – using fun and entertaining ideas. He pointed out events like the Mahtesa Nehiyawetan evening of immersion Cree was meant to not only encourage young people to converse in Cree, but to inspire members of the Four Nations at Hobbema, meaning parents, to speak Cree to their children at home.
“Rather than use language as a natural way of communicating in the home, it’s unfortunately a common thing for parents to speak Cree only when they don’t want their children to know what they’re talking about,” Wood said.
Kevin Wells, superintendent of Nipisihkopahk Education Authority, which operates kindergarden to grade 12 schools on the Samson Cree Nation and an outreach school at Ma-me-o Beach, said Cree language will be first, and English second, at planned cultural events.
“Next year we’ll have immersion Cree at the kindergarten level, too,” he said.
Photo Caption: Marilyn Roan (left) and Florence Saddleback rock out with the Carl Quinn Band of Saddle Lake at the Cree concert “Mahtesa Nehiyawetan - Let’s Speak Cree” language celebration on April 21 held at Samson First Nation.
Photo: Dianne Meili
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