An Urban Aboriginal Fact of Life: ‘MimiCree’ pt. 2

Blue Quills College
Blue Quills College

Our languages are our birthright, and, in my opinion, ought to have been at the core of any reconciliation efforts: as many have rightly said before, we didn’t ‘lose’ our languages, they were murdered, part of a pre-meditated, highly orchestrated campaign of linguicide.

To me, therefore, it would only be right, just and honourable that the state apparatus which worked so hard then to destroy Indigenous languages should now invest a proportionate amount of resources in their revitalization.

But Indigenous peoples won’t exactly be holding their breath for that day to come; they’re too busy doing their best with what they have, pursuing methodologies and pedagogies that speak to who they are and what they want. One institution working to do that is Blue Quills First Nations College, site of my quest so many years ago to learn one of the many languages others worked to drive into extinction. A quest I tried to document in my journal MimiCree, which I’m republishing here on MEDIA INDIGENA. In this second installment, I try to further situate myself as a brand-spankin’-new, out of place student at Blue Quills.

*  *  *

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Continuing with my theme of self-location, I told you last entry that I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s where my mother eventually ended up years after leaving northern Saskatchewan. Apart from a few months in junior high, I spent 99% of my formative years in that city, right up until 22, when I finally left to go to uni in Ottawa. This gave me a very urban Indian upbringing, with all the baggage (and benefits) that carries.

Nowadays, Winnipeg is ‘full’ of Indians: at a price, some would say, to who we are as Indians, whatever kind we may be (Cree, Dakota, Ojibway, etc.). I suppose I have paid a price, culturally speaking, and it makes me wonder — often defensively — what business I have going around identifying as a Nehiyaw. Usually, though, most if not all of the arguments claiming I’m not draw on fundamentally EuroCanadian ways of thinking. In other words, non-Indigenous definitions of indigenous people, and there’s no way I’m ever going to identify myself according to that.

But as far as where that locates me, I know that I didn’t have the chance to hear the language as often as many of those on-reserve do. My turf was English, and Cree was not a ready option. I don’t blame anyone for that; it’s just a fact of my life.

And so, as a city-Indian-without-apologies, substantive opportunities to learn and reinforce my language are less than abundant. Take my word for it: for its approach to Cree, Blue Quills College is damn-near unique. A few universities offer the chance to write and read Cree a few hours a week, but that’s not what works for me. I crave sound, not script. Yes, text is an invaluable linguistic medium and repository, possessing a magic all its own, but, in the case of Nehiyawewin, I’ve come to appreciate how it’s the speaking and hearing of the language that count most for me. It’s what BQ believes too, and that’s why I’m here, thousands of kilometres away from my home, a million miles away from all my comfort zones. My textbooks and teachers keep telling me, “This is the hardest thing you’ll ever attempt,” and boy, I believe it.

Take my first day. It was intense. Even though I am staying with a family of speakers very committed to the language, even though I know I am here for great reasons, personal and otherwise, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the edge of some kind of abyss. Terrified at the overwhelming unfamiliarity of my surroundings, by thoughts of what I was leaving behind (or headed toward) in utter uncertainty, I felt five years old. Seriously.

The only person I knew here — Roberta, the very same friend I mentioned last entry — had just arrived, but with no phone to reach her on. I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land, left all by my lonesome to find my bearings. What had I got myself into?

Someone reading this might want to know *how* I got myself into this? Well, I don’t recall exactly when, but at some point this past spring, that old friend of mine Roberta mentioned she was seriously considering moving to Alberta to take Cree in this really awesome-sounding program. After my own research into it, I realized two things: a) that the program’s approach was indeed awesome; and b) newly unemployed, I had this huge open window of opportunity to do anything I wanted with my life anywhere I wanted to do it.

After going back and forth on it, I decided I had nothing to lose except 3 months of my time and $3000 (the first term tuition), plus two rents (a room here and one back home in a shared housing co-op). From cowardly beginnings can come noble deeds, itwew (he said).

Oops: a slight tangent. Next time, I promise more introspection on just who the heck I think I am taking this language of my ancestors.


near Saddle Lake First Nation

[ image: Blue Quills, from Wayward Healer ]

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