Under The Northern Sky
THUNDER BAY – I have spoken Cree since I was a child. Although both my parents spoke some English and even learned a little French during their times at residential school, the language my brothers and sisters and I grew up in was the Cree language. That was our language at home. For the first 20 years of my life it was my main language and it was the form of communication I was most comfortable with.
In grade school, I exclusively spoke only Cree. I was a good student in my English lessons and I could read and write in this foreign language but like my friends and relations, I never found a reason to speak aloud in English. As a matter of fact, as children, we would make fun of one another for speaking in English. Due to the fact that I could speak a lot of English I was picked on and made fun of. It was such a foreign language to most of us that often many of my peers would mock anyone that pronounced an English phrase or used an English word in a conversation. The only time most of us found it necessary to pronounce any English words was during our daily lessons at school. Otherwise, we spoke to one another, our parents, our Elders and any adults in the community in the Cree language.
As a consequence of not wanting or not having the need to speak the English language aloud, I had a hard time in high school. Back then, we had no high school in the community and we were flown out to schools in Timmins and North Bay to continue our secondary education. I was 13 years of age in grade nine and my first year of high school was a challenge to say the least. Myself and the rest of my first year peers from Attawapiskat were a group of very shy and quiet students who found it difficult to communicate with anyone in the school besides ourselves. We understood the English language but we were hesitant and uneasy to speak it ourselves.
I can remember those first years of high school. As if life wasn’t hard enough on us because we had to leave home and live life in a foreign culture, we also had to deal with the added burden of communicating in a language that was not our own. It took me a long time to learn to speak to others comfortably in the English language and even then I found it strange. I found myself having to form ideas in my mind in Cree, translate them to English and then find the words to speak them aloud. I could read and understand my studies easily enough but I struggled to carry on a simple conversation in English. In addition, the competition was great in the outside world and I was no longer the smartest kid in the class.
I had a difficult time with high school in the non-Native world. I was happy to return home in the early 1990s when Attawapiskat opened the Vezina Secondary School. My spoken English language skills lapsed again during this time as I reverted back to communicating with everyone around me in my familiar Cree mother tongue. I was able to complete my secondary education in the comfort of my home community as one of the first graduating classes from Attawapiskat’s Vezina Secondary School.
When I left my northern home to start a career in writing in 1998, I had enough talent to write at a decent level in English and I improved so much in a short time with the help of my friend Mike, a seasoned Journalist and copy writer. However, I still struggled with my self esteem and being so shy to speak English. It took me many years of practice, trial and error and confidence building before I could comfortably and easily participate in an English conversation with anyone I met.
For the longest time, I continued to speak Cree inside my mind, translate ideas and then speak the words in English. After many years, I find the process has changed inside of me. I find now that the English language has taken over my thoughts. I think and speak in English more fluently now and my ability to use Cree is falling further away from me. I speak, read, write and use the English language so often in my life that I am losing my ability to speak Cree. I don’t have as many people around me who speak Cree and when I converse in my original language, I find that I struggle to find the words or phrases that were once so familiar to me. I am also losing some of my Cree vocabulary and I have to think hard to remember the words to describe what I am thinking or trying to say.
I still have a strong grasp of my original Cree language and that is proven in the fact that I can still joke and make silly remarks in Cree with my Native friends and relations with the result being that they laugh. In Cree, a simple mispronunciation, a subtle change or a tiny addition to a word is enough to make people laugh at what you are saying. I think that is the one part of the language that I could never translate – Cree humour. It is the part of my language that I love the most. For instance, I once met an Elder, Lindy Loutit, a king of Cree jesters, who had red socks on his feet as he greeted me at his door. My cousin Ron and I commented in Cree that he was wearing red socks. It doesn’t sound at all that humourous in English but to say ‘Kah Moo-koo-sha-kah-net’ in Cree puts a smile on any northern Cree speaker. It is all about the visual, the intonation of the words and the tone.
As much as my mind may work in English these days, I don’t think I will ever lose my ability to speak in Cree and the subtleties that I grasp so that I can still joke in my mother tongue. Oo-was-a-ma-na!