Incorporating Cree beliefs in two urban schools

Posted on April 21st, 2010 in: 1


In Belinda Daniels’ Cree bilingual kindergarten class at St. Frances Elementary School in Saskatoon, it is circle time.

“Âstam!” Daniels says. The kids drift over and gather on a rug in one corner of the class. One of the boys shuts off the lights. Daniels removes her necklace and earrings before reaching behind her for a bag of sweet grass for the smudge. She says a prayer in English, and then in Cree. She takes some dried grass from a plastic bag and lights it over a small black frying pan until it smoulders. She holds the pan in front of each child, aged 4 and 5, and they wash the smoke over the arms, head, and shoulders.

The smoke lingers in the classroom, permeating clothing. The smudge ceremony is one of the spiritual elements of the bilingual Cree program, which is offered at this urban school in Saskatoon from kindergarten to Grade 2. The program began in 2007.  St. Frances is one of only two schools in Saskatoon that offers a Cree bilingual program. Confederation Park, located on the west side of the city, offers five years of Cree bilingual instruction pre-kindergarten to Grade 3.

A bilingual program differs from immersion by the amount of Cree spoken in the classroom. Here, English and Cree might be spoken about the same amount. In Cree immersion classrooms like the ones at Onion Lake Cree Nation, Cree is spoken up to 90 per cent of the time, even though the children going into the programs have roughly the same speaking and comprehension ability.

Jenny Munroe, known to the students as Kohkum Jenny – meaning Grandma Jenny – is the elder and educational assistant for the two Cree bilingual classrooms at St. Frances. She doesn’t speak the ‘y’ dialect that they teach here. She learned the ‘th’ dialect growing up in northern Saskatchewan. Despite Munroe’s different accent and different vocabulary, she is still able to help the kids learn new words and phrases. Today they go over the seasons, one-syllable words, addition, and the alphabet.

“They love it,” Munroe says. “Most of their grannies speak Cree to them. The kids are so proud. My grandson was taking Cree lessons at St. Mary’s … He was so excited to come and talk Cree to me.”

There are three Cree dialects spoken in Saskatchewan – Swampy Cree (‘n’ dialect), Plains Cree (‘y’ dialect), and Woods Cree (‘th’ dialect). A Plains Cree speaker would use a ‘y’ sound where a Woods Cree speaker would use a ‘th’, Munroe explains. There are 10 Cree dialects spoken across the country, mostly in the prairies, Ontario, and Quebec, according to Statistics Canada. The most common Cree dialect in Saskatchewan is Plains Cree, which is taught at Onion Lake and in Saskatoon’s two bilingual programs.

The class is preparing for kindergarten graduation today. Munroe is helping a boy build his paper hat for the graduation ceremony later in the month.

The class is filled with furs, woven baskets, reeds in a vase and a teepee frame.

On the walls are the children’s paintings and colourful laminated posters highlighting the weather, body parts, date and seasons in Cree. The teacher speaks to the children mostly in English in kindergarten but in the Grade 1 and 2 class, the teacher speaks Cree a lot more.

The bilingual program is different from other schools that offer Cree classes, because the teachers use Cree while teaching most subjects – except English – in Cree. Other elementary schools like St. Mary’s, Vincent Massey and Caroline Robins offer some Cree and cultural activities, but no daily Cree instruction.

The Grade 1-2 split class at St. Frances is in one of the portables, but is equally decorated with laminated posters for letters, numbers, syllables and vocabulary. This afternoon the students practice numbers in Cree. They arrange red circles over a 1 or 13 on their bingo sheets as the teacher says “peyak” or “nistosap.”

The teacher then splits the class in half and writes numerals on the board. The children put up their hands and say the number in Cree. It’s a contest and it’s clear both sides want to win.

At this age, the children can’t carry on a conversation in Cree. Outside the classroom in the school halls, the children don’t speak much Cree to each other. That’s partly because the school isn’t just for the Cree program – English-stream students from kindergarten to Grade 8 outnumber the bilingual students by 114. While the 36 children in the bilingual program won’t have to switch schools after Grade 3, it means they aren’t as likely as the students at the Onion Lake Immersion school to hear the teachers, staff and the principals speaking the language, since most of them are not Cree.

Principal Jenise Vangool says the effect goes both ways and all 150 students at St. Frances benefit from the Cree language and culture program. Staff and students not directly involved in the program are learning about the history, traditions, and language in the Cree program.

It is nearing Christmas and the 15 children in Grade 1 and 2 sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town – in Cree. Then their teacher picks up a metre stick and points to a large grid near the window. The grid is made up of laminated squares each with one syllable written on it. These syllables correspond to the Cree syllabic alphabet, but the children will learn to read and write in standard roman orthography.

The curriculum for the Cree bilingual programs is very similar to the English-stream classrooms – only in Cree. The children still learn the numbers, alphabet, and how to read at the same age as their English-stream counterparts.

Daniels says cultural activities during and outside of school hours help the children see the language in use, but most of the children don’t hear the language at home, unless their grandparents come to visit. She says many children visit their family’s reserve, but visits can vary from several times a month to a few times a year.

Confederation Park School’s five-year Cree bilingual program had about 60 students enrolled in the program in 2009. While the program has grown as more grade levels are added, at least 30 children have left the program since it began in 2005. Cort Dogniez, First Nations and Métis education co-ordinator for Saskatoon Public Schools, says having free transportation for students in the program was one concern parents voiced to him. Other parents still feared their children would miss out on English-language teaching.

One Mom whose step-son was in the Confederation Park kindergarten last year, said she wanted more support from the school, since she grew up learning some Cree but of a different dialect.

“I think the school should offer some language classes for adults who have kids in Cree kindergarten so they can learn a bit too,” she says. “In the city it’s kind of difficult for parents to learn.”

Not being a fluent Cree speaker herself, she found it difficult to support her son. She also found her son wasn’t learning other things like the alphabet.

“They don’t teach that much (Cree), but they teach the basics,” she says. “You go to these other reserves up north and there’s kids speaking Cree like crazy. You can’t understand because they’re speaking so fast.”

Originally from La Ronge, three hours north of Saskatoon, she wants her children in the program so that they can understand their grandparents and great-grandparents and be able to carry on conversations.

Despite some problems, she says the city programs are getting better. She says she would like the Cree bilingual program to go to Grade 12. Right now, it’s just one class a day for high school students who take Cree.

She says she was surprised when the adults she met in the city didn’t know about the syllabic alphabet or that there were Cree dialects other than their own.

“Coming from a reserve, that was pretty weird to see.”

As the urban aboriginal population grows, the school systems are responding to changing demographics. According to the 2006 Census, Saskatoon had the largest per-capita population of First Nations people in all of Canada representing nine per cent of the total population, or some 21,000 people.

The First Nations population is projected to increase faster than the rest of the urban population, according to the past two censuses, which will mean more First Nations children growing up in urban neighbourhoods and attending urban schools.

In Saskatoon, that means not just Cree children, but other aboriginal people too. Dogniez says Métis, Lakota, Dene and Saulteaux people have participated in the Cree bilingual program as well as non-First Nations.

“I guess the idea was that better a language than no language, and better yet some culture, even if it’s not our culture,” he says.

It may seem ironic that the Cree bilingual, bi-cultural program is developing in a Catholic school, where all the teachers must be Catholic. But Vangool says Cree spiritual teachings fit with the spiritual mandate of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools.

“One of our mission statements is that we celebrate the gospel values, being a Catholic school. We’ve tied in now the teepee teachings,” she says. “The three main ones are love, hope, and community and that’s the same as our gospel values.”

Saskatoon Public Schools, however, guarantee no religious activities during school hours. At Confederation Park – a public school on the other side of the city – the school board has renovated a room that used to hold a pool to become an externally-ventilated smudge room. The big carpeted room is big enough for 60 children. This is where teachers can take students to smudge, a First Nations tradition.

Dogniez says they are finding ways around the limits of the public school system – allowing First Nations spiritual activities like prayer, feasts, sweat ceremonies, and smudges before school, at lunch hour, and after school.

With band-controlled education on reserves, spiritual and cultural content can be determined by each school. In the city’s public and Catholic systems where Cree bilingual programs are taught alongside English language streams, Cree programs generally must conform to system-wide rules.

The Confederation Park program is a partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council, the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc., and Saskatoon Public Schools, which Dogniez says changes the game.

“There has to be allowances made in partnerships, and one of those allowances is you can’t separate culture and spirituality, he says. “You can’t go to a feast without prayer. You can’t go to a powwow without prayer.”

Trying to teach Cree in the city is difficult, Dogniez says, when students are not hearing the language outside of school. One of their goals is to create a language-rich program so children will be in situations outside the classroom where they will hear the language.

“The kids need to see that as a living language, a language that’s useful and relevant and important,” he says. “It can’t be that they start in September and they don’t see anyone else use it but their teacher until Christmas when they go back to the reserve.”

“That’s not good enough.”

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By the numbers

Roughly 22,000 aboriginal people live in Saskatoon, a city of 220,000

The aboriginal population in cities like Saskatoon is growing.

More than half of aboriginal people now live in urban areas.

About half the people living on reserve reported knowing an aboriginal language, compared to 12 per cent of aboriginal people living off-reserve and in urban areas.

Source: 2006 Census


The Cree syllabic alphabet was devised by Reverend James Evans in 1840. Each symbol represents one syllable (a combination of vowel and consonant). The language suits the consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel structure of the Cree language and shortens long words.

Evans used the alphabet he created to produce hymnals and prayer books.

Older Cree speakers learned syllabics in mission schools, and nowadays the alphabet is taught in reserve schools. It is widely known among Cree in Canada.

Nine symbols representing consonants (m, p, k, n, y, s, ch, r, o) are rotated. Each new rotation represents the consonant in addition to a vowel (a, i, e, o) for a total of 36 syllabic characters.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

The syllabic alphabet

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