The Native Languages Club forges valuable links with culture
Danni Okemaw recalls playing outside with his cousins when his mother asked him to stop and watch TV.
It was 2008 and Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister of Canada, was publicly apologizing on behalf of the Canadian government for his role in residential schools – the first step for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to begin its work.
She also remembers being confused.
Okemaw’s father was a residential school survivor and her mother from day school, but she wanted to better understand what the government’s apology meant to her and her community.
“I tried asking other people at school about it, but nobody could really explain it to me,” Okemaw said.
This marked the start of her quest to connect with her story.
“That’s what ultimately drew me to Indigenous studies at the University of Alberta, where I found a love for research, writing, reading and language,” Okemaw said.
Today, Okemaw is one of the student leaders of the Native Languages Club – a student- and native-led grassroots group for U of A students to help each other learn languages like Cree, Ojibwe, Anishinaabe and more.
The club is supported by First Peoples’ House and Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization (see below).
But Okemaw’s journey into language teaching didn’t come until later in his life.
Although her parents are fluent in their own language – her mother in Anishinaabemowin (a First Nations dialect of Berens River in Manitoba) and her father in Swampy Cree (a First Nations dialect of God’s River in Manitoba) – they had their hands full. a family while pursuing their studies and pursuing their careers. The pieces of Anishinaabemowin that her aunts and uncles spoke around her as a child gave her the basics, but she was not fully immersed in the language her family spoke.
So when her friend Casi Callingbull invited her to come to the language club to share what she knew about Anishinaabemowin, she wasn’t sure.
“I felt like I had to be at a certain level to teach the language,” Okemaw said. “But I quickly realized that if there was no one else in the room who knew Anishinaabemowin, I was the expert there. So I started teaching. »
By sharing basic words and phrases with his peers, his own language skills developed alongside theirs. She brought in guest speakers, elders and knowledge keepers to share their language learning experiences to encourage her fellow students in their learning.
She said it was one of the guest speakers, Maori language guardian Kateao Nehua-Jackson, who put an end to her insecurities.
“She told us it’s important to be comfortable when you’re learning,” Okemaw said. “Whether it’s asking your parents or grandparents to only speak their language to you for a day or two, or being part of a conversational language class where, for that hour, you don’t speak English. It is in this uncomfortable space that you learn.
Six years later, Okemaw has nearly achieved her goal of being fluent in her mother’s and father’s languages, as well as Plains Cree, the language of the Treaty 6 territory on which the U of A resides. And she has took it upon herself to help her peers internalize Nehua-Jackson’s message as well.
“I want my impact at the club to be that people aren’t ashamed of learning or not knowing their language,” Okemaw said. “The fact that we all take an hour or two out of our busy schedules each week to practice and enter the realm of learning, growing and challenging, is important. It is important to us as Indigenous , that we connect with each other and that we get closer and closer to our languages.
“I want everyone to be proud of where they are in the process, whether they’re learning their first word or almost fluent.”
The most recent guest at the club was Okemaw’s mother, Violet Okemaw, author, educator and knowledge keeper, who holds a doctorate from the U of A, where she studied Indigenous knowledge systems, ways of life and links with language. Violet’s lawsuits are rooted in one question: “Why aren’t our languages validated or recognized throughout the education system?”
In her work, Violet examines how Indigenous language is taught in Canada and brings together the resources needed to integrate these teachings into classrooms across the country.
“Language is my passion,” Violet said. “I will recognize and validate where I come from through my own language.”
At the language club, her daughter took over to help others do the same.
“Our ancestors, our land and our communities gave us the language. And in language, there is so much knowledge and so many knowledge systems,” Danni said. “This is what our ancestors fought for. This is why our languages remained underground for some time. And it’s important for us to honor that. It’s important for us to keep learning.
Casi Callingbull, the friend and fellow facilitator who first invited Danni to the language club, agrees.
“My desire at this club, and my desire for anyone who joins this club, is to help facilitate a reconnection for those who have been disconnected from their culture,” Callingbull said. “We meet students halfway with community and academic support, so students can re-engage and reconnect on their own terms. It is about creating a safe and indigenized space for indigenous students to practice their spirituality and languages.
Callingbull’s goal, once she graduates from high school, is to return to teaching on the reservation where she lived as a child.
“I want to reconnect with my language so kids can do the same,” she said.
As Danni Okemaw looks to her future, the bonds she has forged at the club are driving her next steps.
“I plan to do my next master’s degree,” she says. “But my dream is to create a dance program taught only in Indigenous languages.
Danni has spent most of her young life training as a ballet, contemporary and hip hop dancer. Her trajectory was affected by an injury in 2015, but that didn’t stop her. Today, she co-directs a dance program, Nimihitotan – which translates to “let’s dance” in Cree – which provides dance training to Aboriginal children, youth and adults.
“I want to do a master’s degree that incorporates creating a curriculum where I speak the language all the time,” she said. “I will count down, introduce a stage, make corrections in this way. This has never been done before.
Her fellow language club facilitators are ready to help her dream come true. Some are completing their own masters and have advice on how to start a new research council. Others have ties to Aboriginal dancers and scholars across Canada.
“The Native Language Club has been so amazing for my personal goals,” said Danni. “But what’s most important is that we participate in wahkohtowin – we practice kinship – while engaging in our language. It is the spirit of the language and who we are.
Learn more about the work being done through Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization. SILR is a five-year project funded by a $12 million grant to the University of Alberta from the BHP Foundation. It helps Indigenous nations and communities carry out their own language revitalization efforts through generations to come, as well as supporting ongoing initiatives at the university.
| By Kalyna Hennig Epp
Kalyna is a reporter for the online magazine Folio at the University of Alberta. The University of Alberta is an editorial content provider partner of Troy Media.
The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are their own and do not inherently or expressly reflect the opinions of our publication.
© Troy Media
Troy Media is an editorial content provider for news outlets and its own hosted community media across Canada.