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“Languages Contain Worlds Inside Them”

Two Cree Writers in Conversation About the Freedom to Read and Language Revitalization

by Dominique Bernier-Cormier

The freedom of expression includes the freedom to read, speak and learn your own language. Through violent assimilation policies dating back to the 19th century, the Canadian government systematically denied Indigenous peoples this right. As a result, Indigenous languages are endangered today.

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, acting on the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, promised to enact an Indigenous Languages Act to ensure the preservation, protection and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages. In November 2018, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (a national organization representing Inuit in Canada) and the Métis Nation were still working together to develop this legislation.

But for Cree writers Jessica Johns and Selina Boan, Trudeau’s actions don’t support his promise to help revitalize Indigenous languages. For example, his decision to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline, despite opposition from Coast Salish First Nations (notably the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations) in British Columbia, whose land the planned pipeline expansion would affect or be built on, contradicts his promise because language, sovereignty and land are related concerns for Indigenous communities.

To explore the relationship between the freedom to read and language revitalization, we asked Johns and Boan to share their thoughts about learning, writing and living the Cree language.

Jessica Johns is Nehiyaw (Cree) and a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. She is the poetry editor of PRISM international, a Room magazine collective member and a co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series.

Selina Boan’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Room, CV2 and The New Quarterly. She won the gold medal for poetry from the National Magazine Awards in 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize. She is working on a collection of poems that explore her Cree and European heritage.

Both writers live, work and learn on the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples in southwestern British Columbia.

Q: What does the freedom to read mean to you, as writers, editors and members of your communities?

photo of Jessica Johns
Jessica Johns

Johns: For me, the idea of freedom to read feels like an oxymoron. In Canada, Indigenous peoples have been intentionally and systematically denied that right and freedom. That concept is fraught.

Boan: I agree. It brings to mind the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in relation to the Indian Act. In the Indian Act, we are not considered human. There is an imbalance between the ideas of freedom that are represented in the Charter and the Indian Act. The concept of freedom to read doesn’t accurately capture the dynamic between Indigenous languages and Canada. There is a history in this country of privileging one type of knowing and one type of “reading.”

Johns: There has to be meaningful conversation about what freedom to read means for Indigenous folks. It needs to be a reciprocal conversation where what this concept means to us is considered, not just taken into account and moulded into Canada’s existing system. Our systems have to exist independently, which I think is a scary thing for a lot of settler folks to conceptualize. For one, it’s important to recognize that language learning goes beyond what we speak. It’s how we relate to each other; it’s our community and relationship to the land. It’s bigger than this, and it needs more thought and attention than has so far been given.

Q: You’re both learning the Cree language. What has that process been like?

Johns: My mom is Cree, and I grew up in a household where words were used sparingly and not in full sentences. My siblings and I learned what little we know from hearing my mom, aunties and kokum (grandmother) talk. My siblings and I were put in Cree lessons when we were little. It was an informal class made up of Elders in Peace River. It wasn’t through our school system; it was started by these Elders for their communities.

My dad is white but was raised by a Métis man, whom I call Papa. My aunties, my dad’s half-sisters, are Métis and will use Creenglish (a mixture of Cree and English), but I’ve never heard Papa speak Cree. Very recently, my auntie told me that Papa would speak Cree with his mom. After she died, he stopped speaking it altogether.

My great-auntie Doreen is a school principal who teaches Cree, and it’s a huge gift that I can talk with her during my language-learning journey. She also recommended some great texts, but the process of learning is still really hard.

Selina Boan

Boan: My experience is very different. I grew up on the lands of the Cowichan people with my mother and stepdad, who are both settlers. I didn’t have any connection to the Cree language or to that side of my family until I was older. On my father’s side, my nimosom (grandfather) is from Flying Dust First Nation while my nohkum (grandmother) is from Waterhen First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. Not growing up with a connection to that part of me was challenging. Language learning became a way for me to begin exploring that part of my identity.

I made the commitment to start learning about three years ago, and it has been incredibly challenging, partly because it’s hard trying to do this kind of learning alone. Language does not exist in a vacuum. Languages contain worlds inside them. It’s important for everyone, especially settlers or visitors, to pay respect to the nation or community whose lands they are on.

Language is a strong symbol of nationhood. When we talk about assimilation, the Indian Act, residential school—what do you attack first when you are trying to destroy a nation or a culture? Language. There is an intense history of colonial violence around language; it was literally beaten out of us. The act of speaking or even just knowing a couple words can be a powerful act of resistance.

Q: What insights have you gained from your language-learning journey?

Boan: Jess, you have a poem, “Nehiyaw Iskwewak,” that got me thinking about ceremony and what it looks like for different people. I’ve begun to think about language learning as a form of ceremony, a form of honouring my ancestors and where I come from.

Johns: When I use Cree in my writing, I am using it as a tool for learning more than anything else. It allows me to engage with the language and repeat it to myself.

Boan: I love that. You have a poem, “Advice for the City Bred Cree,” where you repeat words you’re learning. The first time I heard it, I nearly cried. The act of repeating words and holding them close really resonated with me.

I’m curious about how one demonstrates the act of learning in a text or work of art. I’m trying to figure out how to best communicate mistakes. The act of learning can be shadowed by shame or embarrassment, and it’s really powerful to say, It’s OK, we’re going to make mistakes.

Johns: Louise Bernice Halfe is a great example of a Cree poet who treats her poems as living, breathing things. She has gone back into her work and added more Cree words and fixed possible mistakes she made based on her language learning. So often, Indigenous peoples get the label of “expert” placed on them. Because of all the violence done to us, we’re still learning a lot about ourselves. There’s also the deep shame of feeling that you should already know something, but you don’t, again, because of colonial violences.

Boan: I’ve also gone back and changed things, realizing that I used the wrong word. Nêhiyawêwin is the y-dialect of Cree, and there are tons of different dialects and ways of pronouncing words that can vary between communities. I wrote a poem about the Cree seasons, and in it there are two ways of saying break-up (the season when the ice melts) in two different dialects. I’d made a mistake in the dialects and wanted to communicate that mistake.

Johns: I want to touch on the idea of shame again. It makes language learning that much more difficult. It’s important to remember that even though shame is ever present, it should not, and does not, belong to us. It belongs to the Canadian state that has committed ongoing, systemic colonial violences against us. I’ve felt better and felt myself move through the world better when I’ve tried to put that shame aside to learn in the ways I know and with the resources I have. Language learning is your own journey, and it’s OK to be wherever you are at.

Boan: I love that. Learning is a vulnerable thing, and it’s OK to have those moments of vulnerability. I feel embarrassed a lot because I don’t have the accent of someone whose first language is Cree. I stumble a lot. Someone pointed out to me that my voice would get really quiet when I said “Nêhiyawêwin.” I didn’t even notice I’d been embodying and practising that shame out loud. So now, I try to speak loudly and with pride, even if I’m not pronouncing the words perfectly. I let others know that I am learning.

Further Reading

Jessica Johns and Selina Boan share the books and websites that they use for language learning and writing. They also recommend creative works by Indigenous writers.

Language-Learning Resources

Critical Resources

  • Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies and Education: Mapping the Long View edited by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang
  • Indigenous Literatures, Social Justice, and the Decolonial Library by Daniel Heath Justice: a webinar at  choice360.org/librarianship/webinars/indigenous-literatures
  • Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel

Creative Works

  • The Break and River Woman by Katherena Vermette
  • Burning in This Midnight Dream by Louise Bernice Halfe
  • Full-Metal Indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
  • Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
  • Slash and Whispering in Shadows by Jeannette Armstrong
  • This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Jessica Johns: photo by Curtis Leblanc. Selina Boan: photo by Rachel Jansen.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2019.