A Cree-language compilation encourages Indigenous language learning

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There’s a lot of tradition in the Cree-language album Nehiyaw Nikamonak: Oyoyowin ohci Nanaskomowin (Cree Songs: Howls from Gratitude), produced by the Northwest Territories Cree Language Program and the NWT Métis Nation. But Kyle Napier, who manages the Cree Language Program, is especially proud of one traditional aspect – it’s free.

“Music and language, prior to colonization, that never cost money,” Napier told the Nation. “Our people do live with Dene principles, and one of the most important principles is to share. While it says, ‘All Rights Reserved,’ because all of the songs are included with permission of the artists, it also says ‘Reproduction of this album as a learning resource is encouraged.’ That’s something I feel sets it apart – our program’s mandate, we’re funded from the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment. We’re not allowed to make a profit, and that’s great!”

The album was made available for free download on National Aboriginal Day, as part of a set of language tools available from the Cree Language Program’s website, which also includes learning tools such as posters, children’s books and calendar.

However, listeners would be mistaken if they are looking for an album as a soundtrack for a summer drive with the windows down rather than a language-learning tool. It covers artists from a variety of genres, including A Tribe Called Red, Veronica Johnny from The Johnnys, the Northern Cree Singers, and blues-rock band State of the Art. But Napier proudly stands by the album’s original goal, which was to encourage people to speak Cree.

“There’s not a single English word on there,” he said. “There are at least two dialects of Cree, predominantly Plains Cree and Bush Cree. Plains Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada. Bush Cree bears a lot of similarities – they’re mutually intelligible. You can speak back and forth.”

Originating from Fort Smith in the South Slave Region of the Northwest Territories, the album reflects that area’s history of pre-colonization Indigenous society in which people had to share languages while travelling rivers and engaging in trade.

“People of our area used to speak between four and seven languages – you had to, if you wanted to travel from community to community through the waterways,” Napier said. “People had such diverse linguistic backgrounds.”

However, growing up in the south – both in Calgary, and much farther south in Philadelphia – Napier did not have access to the Chippewan and Cree languages in his Métis lineage. Only over the last seven months has he begun to learn the language of his ancestors.

“There are a lot of complex reasons that lead to an Indigenous language not being passed through the generations,” he said. “However, we live at the crux of Indigenous language revitalization. Now is the time that our whole communities need to come together – our youth working with our Elders, sharing and trading skills.”

Learning a language isn’t as hard as people think it is, Napier stressed. It’s just something that takes time.

“What we encourage people to do is learn one word a day, and make 200 mistakes a day!” he laughed. “Because as long as you’re making mistakes, you’re trying and you’re learning more than those who are too afraid to make mistakes. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

Learning the Indigenous language of their ancestors, Napier underlined, gives people the opportunity to reimagine the world in an Indigenous context that applies to them, and it doesn’t need to be Cree.

“Cree is the language we work with, but it’s about languages that connect people through their identities,” he said. “Youth can be working on trans-generational projects, even recording off their phones; their grandparents sharing stories, or their mom and dad, and other Elders. As long as they’re breaking bannock and sharing tea and showing their appreciation, I feel there’s a lot to be learned, and now’s the time to do it. Because the languages are strong now, and as young people we need to be the language leaders so that we can pass them down to the next generations.”

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