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Fisher River spreads the words

First Nation vigorously saves Cree language

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/11/2010 (3480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FISHER RIVER CREE NATION -- This is an achimowin (story).

I am trying to achimo (tell a story) in an achimowimaskinahikan (newspaper).

If you understand the above without the brackets (and know that the accent in each word is on the first syllable), you are probably Cree and older than 60. That's why some First Nations -- such as Fisher River, about 20 kilometres north of Peguis First Nation -- have renewed their vigour into preserving the Cree language.

The Fisher River board of education began the program several years ago when 18 elders formed a committee to write a dictionary of Fisher River's own Cree dialect.

For example, the Fisher River word for owl is ohomisiw. That word doesn't exist in the nearest Cree community at Grand Rapids, where kokokaw is the word for owl.

The First Nation did not want to lose words and expressions unique to its community, which is the farthest south of any Cree nation, said Nora Murdock, the director of education.

Cree is a lovely sounding language. It omits many consonants English speakers take for granted: B, D, F, G, J, Q, U, X, and Z. Instead, its mainstay consonants are H, CH, K, M, N, P, S, T, W, and Y. Three more consonants were added later for names and slang words: L, R, and V.

Many words are cute. Wonoo means howls like a wolf. Wiwiw means someone is married. The word for New Year's Day literally means Kissing Day: Ochemikiskikaw.

The word for December is long--Pawaschakaniswipisim--literally meaning Frost Exploding Trees Moon.

Cree words can be quite long. Writing out the number 99 requires 37 letters. However, the Cree word is hyphenated. In English, 99 written out is 10 letters with a hyphen.

Still with numbers, 10 is mitataht (mi-TA-taht) and 9 is kekach mitataht or 'almost 10.' All 'nines' in Cree are like that: nineteen is 'almost 20,' and 29 is 'almost thirty,' etc.

Not every word is represented in the dictionary. The elders chose words that were important to them. A blueberry is an ininimin. A pickerel is a okaw.

Fisher River is now expanding its dictionary and plans to place one in every home on Fisher River.

As well, the community ran a quasi Cree immersion program at its school for four years. It was mostly Cree but not all because there simply weren't enough instructors. The program was discontinued this year because the main teacher retired.

"In the whole province, there's a problem getting Cree language instructors," Murdock said.

From 60 to 70 kids were in the quasi-immersion program. Murdock has no worries the children will keep up with kids who have been in English language classes.

"Research points out that kids who learn their mother tongue have a much easier time learning a second language. If they can learn Cree, they'll catch up," she said.

Cree is part of the Algonquin family that includes languages such as Ojibway and Blackfoot. However, people who speak Ojibway don't understand Cree, and vice versa, said Roger Roulette, a consultant with Aboriginal Languages of Manitoba, which offers translation and other services in aboriginal languages.

"(Cree people) are in the same situation with other aboriginal languages. It's hard to communicate in their native tongue with their children," said Roulette.

Cree and Ojibway are the predominant aboriginal languages in Manitoba. University of Winnipeg offers both introductory Cree and introductory Ojibway. Roulette teaches Ojibway language classes at University of Manitoba. Cree and Ojibway language classes are part of the First Nation Governance diploma program offered by Red River College.

Fisher River has about 1,500 members on reserve, and about the same number living off-reserve.

 

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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