Thinking in Cree

Share Button

“Nee Ee-Nee-Nee-Moo-N Ah-S-Pah-N Ee Wah-Shee-Shee-Yah-N,” means

I have spoken Cree since I was a child. Although both my parents spoke some English and even learned a little French during their time at residential school, the language my brothers and sisters and I grew up in at home was Cree. 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 only spoke 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 it outside of class. As a matter of fact, as children, we would make fun of one another for speaking 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 who pronounced an English phrase or used an English word in a conversation. The only time we 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, I had a hard time in high school. Back then, we had no high school in the community and were flown out to secondary schools in Timmins and North Bay. I was 13 in Grade 9 and my first year of high school was a challenge. The rest of my first-year peers and I from Attawapiskat were a group of very shy, quiet students who found it difficult to communicate with anyone in the school outside out own circle. We understood the English language but we were hesitant and uneasy to speak it.

As if life leaving home and living in a foreign culture wasn’t hard enough, 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 addition, the competition was great in the outside world and I was no longer the smartest kid in the class.

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 Vezina Secondary School.

When I left my northern home to start a writing career in 1998, I had enough talent to write at a decent level in English and quickly improved with the help of my friend Mike, a seasoned journalist and copywriter. However, I still struggled with my self-esteem and shyness expressing myself in English. It took me many years of trial and error, practice and confidence building before I could comfortably participate in an English conversation.

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. Now that the language has taken over my thoughts, I think and speak in English more fluently while my ability in Cree is falling further away. I speak, read, write and use the English language so often 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. 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 and make them 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 humorous 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 or the subtleties that I allow me to joke in my mother tongue. Oo-was-a-ma-na!

Share Button

Comments are closed.