Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2019 (329 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Mona Hart says that from the time she was born, until she was eight years old, she doesn’t remember a sad day. Life was gentle, and moved with the seasons in familiar rhythms: there were times to gather fish, hunt ducks, pick berries. Times to lay out the traplines that snared fresh meat in the winter.
She remembers being connected, that was the biggest thing. She was never alone. Her grandparents were always with her, in their canoes or out in the bush. They spoke only Cree, the language nestled into the territory where it evolved — the land of the Nisichawayasihk Cree, a community known in English as Nelson House.
"You could smell everything," says Hart, 64. "You could smell the air. You could smell the water. You could feel everything. Everything was there, at the touch. All I had to do was go down the bank and I could drink fresh water. I could go into the water and not be afraid I was going to cut myself."
She was still a child when that life was disrupted. Residential schools took her far away from home to Birtle, Brandon and Thompson; Manitoba Hydro development came in, and changed the land and the water. In Nelson House, the generational chain that connected the language itself ruptured.
Today, she says, most people over age 45 can still speak Cree. Most people younger than that cannot. This is the same linguistic fault line that residential schools forced on most other First Nations, stark in its regularity. When the language suffered, so did thousands of years of oral history, of culture, of connections with ancestors.
Now, all these years later, Hart senses a reawakening of the languages — and she has a part in bringing it forward.
This week, the University of Winnipeg released a new app, a digital companion to the award-winning 2013 children’s book, Pisim Finds Her Miskanow.
It is one of the first offerings of Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak, a program to revitalize the stories and culture of Rocky Cree nations, launched in 2017 with a $2.7-million grant.
Called simply Pisim — which is free on Apple’s app store, thanks to its funding — is a living storybook, unfolding in Cree and English. Narrated in both languages by Nisichawayasihk elder Carol Prince, it contains a wealth of information detailing the values and traditional lives of the Rocky Cree people.
As users explore the app, it unfolds as a love letter to the language and culture. With a tap of a finger, users can go deeper into each illustration, gathering nuanced explanations for words such as kotawan, or "main fire," or concepts such as role of storytelling in Cree life. They will hear the waves, and birds singing over the lake.
To Hart, one of seven elders who developed the app’s Cree translations, Pisim is a sign of changing times, a gift for the next generation. The team that translated it, she says with a laugh, was so excited to work on it that they arrived at meetings promptly at 8 a.m. many mornings, never being late, eager to carry it forward.
This is, after all, so unlike the way the language was presented to her when she was a child in residential school. To see the language as special, to see the culture taught as real and meaningful and worthy of knowledge and attention. That, she believes, is going to "do wonders" for youths who discover the app.
"Today my heart is full of education for the future generations," she says. "I want them to have that education. I want them to be happy. I want them to know who they really are, and what they’re capable of doing for themselves, and for the First Nations and our people. We are going to give it to them, and we’re all excited."
And when Hart looks at the illustrations in the book and the app, those richly drawn scenes of canoes on the water and crackling fires on the rocky shore, she remembers those joyful childhood days on the land. Then she hears her Cree language weaving through the story, and it whisks her back to those times again.
"That is actually the way that it was, a long time ago," she says. "It’s absolutely home."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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