A day in the life at Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion School

Posted on April 21st, 2010 in: 1

The school day begins before 9 a.m. as busses rumble into the unpaved parking lot of Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion School at Onion Lake First Nation, five hours northwest of Saskatoon.

It’s a sunny day and the outside walls of the building are bright with painted murals of teepees, an eagle and sky as blue as the one above.

In the front hall, Principal Sandy Chocan greets the children: ‘Tansi?’ The children yell: ‘Namoya, nantaw.’

At school, everything has a new name: Not leaf, but nÎpiy; Not book, but masinahikan.

For the 100 students at Kihew Waciston, there is no reason to believe Cree isn’t a vibrant spoken language. The staff members speak it to each other and Cree signs accompany English signs as French would in other schools. The language – both written and oral – permeates the building.

Bryanna Carter, 5, is here for another day of kindergarten. Bryanna likes coming to school. She likes speaking Cree and the teachers and staff do too. They have been working hard to revive a language they believe is slowly disappearing.

Growing up we were always into speaking Cree. We were able to converse in Cree almost 100 per cent of the time. Now there are very few elders that are actually fluent speakers.”  – Sandy Chocan, principal

More than half of aboriginal seniors could speak an aboriginal language, compared to one in five aboriginal children under age 14, according to the 2006 census. Many are worried that unless children learn and speak Cree, the language will die.

But Chocan and the rest of the staff are at Kihew Waciston because they hope that Cree – the most widely spoken indigenous language in Canada with 80,000 speakers – can survive.

Morning Smudge

At 9:30 a.m. the children gather in the gymnasium for the morning prayer. They form a large circle with teachers sitting behind them. The school’s resident elder Leonard Fox waits holding a braid of sweet grass in one hand. It is a faded green. Once all the children have assembled he begins to speak in Cree, giving thanks that everyone is seeing each other again today. Then he lights the sweet grass braid until smoke curls from the end. Bryanna waves the smoke over her arms, head, and face.

The ritual of smudge helps to calm and centre the children, says Chocan. It is a spiritual exercise and at this school, the spiritual elements of Cree are part of every day.  Parents want their children to learn not just their language, he says, but their history and ceremonies.

As Fox finishes the smudge, he walks around the circle, shaking each child’s hand. The children file out, quieter than before.

Kihew Waciston – meaning eagle’s nest – is the only school of four on the reserve teaching immersion Cree. All the teachers and most of the staff are fluent. The school is modelled on the concept of a “language nest” a term coined by the Maori people in New Zealand when they began immersion programs in the 1980s. The idea is to create language hubs where children hear the language being reinforced all around them, says Chocan.

But compared to the English nursery to Grade 4 primary school with 350 students, Kihew Waciston – which will start Grade 5 next year – only has 100 children.

Bryanna’s grandmother Irene Carter says support for the program declined for a while and parents were putting their children back in the English stream. While the program is growing again, some parents removed their children for good.

One mom, Maxine Waskowitch, says her 15-year-old daughter Karisse was in the program from nursery to Grade 3 and had trouble re-adjusting to the English stream after Grade 3 – the highest level offered in immersion at the time.

“The transition was really hard for her and she was having a hard time.”

She says they spoke a lot of Cree at home – which meant her children were being taught English only at school in their transition year. She says her 10-year-old son, Kovain, panicked a little when they began preparing him for the English program in Grade 4. He didn’t want to move to the English school.

She didn’t put her 5-year-old Koral in the Cree nursery this year, she says, because of the trouble her other children had re-integrating in the English stream in a different school.

But other parents, like Lionel Waskewitch, another fluent Cree speaker, says he is happy his three children are in the immersion program. The children don’t speak Cree fluently yet, but Waskewitch says he has been speaking more Cree to them since they began the program.

“I’m really proud my kids are at this school,” he says. “They don’t just teach Cree, they teach values and traditions and all the things that evolve from that, and they do it in a spiritual setting.”

The most important things the children learn in the program are the spiritual and cultural teachings, he says. When visiting the school, he sees the teachers speaking Cree to the students from the time they enter the building until the time they leave.

The best outcome can be that they’re speaking fluently when they’re older.  A lot of the kids these days, they don’t speak a word of Cree.”

– Lionel Waskewitch, parent

In these classes, teachers face more than the usual hurdles. Each day they must find a way to engage the students in a language most of them rarely hear at home.

In Bryanna’s kindergarten class, the children are listening to their teacher ask vocabulary questions in Cree. The children here still speak English to one another – but it’s clear they’re willing to show what they know in the language.

Bryanna leaps out of her seat each time a question is asked.

“Teacher, I know!”

Then she says the word in Cree.

Research shows it’s at this young age that beginning to learn Cree is most important, Chocan says.

In his office he takes a phone call – mixing English words into his Cree. It’s this hybrid version of Cree and English, he says, that may exist in 100 years.

Even though many people at Onion Lake have at least a basic knowledge of Cree, he says when a person is not fluent, the language of a group inevitably reverts to English.

The immersion program is part of an effort to bolster Cree in the entire community.

Bryanna explains that being in immersion does not necessarily mean speaking Cree all the time.

“When someone comes in, I have to say Tansi, namoya, nantaw, but only when the teacher is there.”

Bryanna says she and her friends don’t speak Cree to each other – mainly because most of them don’t know how.

“Only Raylene does, but she doesn’t want to talk in Cree. At home she can talk in English. Here in Cree.”

In her kindergarten classroom, the walls are covered with posters of Cree words and phrases. One triangle shows the four food groups with Cree labelling. Along the ceiling are the numbers to 100 written in numerals and spelled out using the syllabic alphabet.

With only six children in the class today, the teacher calls on every student.

Chocan says there are very few fluent Cree-speaking children at the school – he estimates fewer than 10 students could carry on a full conversation before arriving at Kihew Waciston.

The children who do speak fluently become role models for the others though, he says, and he finds other students want to speak more Cree as a result.

The Lost Generation

Bryanna climbs into the back seat of her dad’s red sedan to head home.

It’s only a 10-minute drive for her. But for many children, the bus ride home can take up to an hour.

She lives with her dad, grandmother and grandfather in a bungalow at Onion Lake. Her mother – who is not Cree – lives in Calgary.

At home she greets her two dogs. They are spotted mutts – like many of the “rez dogs” that roam freely on the reserve, but the Carter family adopted these dogs.

In the backyard, the hounds loop in tight circles and leap at Bryanna’s hand as she holds dog biscuits just out of reach. She giggles and tells them not to jump. They wag their tails and leap again.

Andy Carter, Bryanna’s dad, says he didn’t have a chance to learn Cree in school when he was younger, and his parents spoke to him in English growing up.

He is part of the generation who were not taught the language at home or at school. Their growing up was coloured by the idea that speaking only English would be the best way to succeed.

“That’s what we were made to think was superior,” says Irene Carter, who sits at her dining room table. On the walls are photos of Bryanna when she was a baby, and a Cree syllabics charts.

It’s a legacy that stems partially from residential school policies to assimilate First Nations people by preventing the children from speaking their mother tongue, says Keren Rice, linguistic professor at the University of Toronto.

“If you’ve been told this is a really bad thing and been punished for it, it’s pretty tough to then decide that it’s the right thing to do.”

More than 100,000 aboriginal elders who attended boarding school when they were young can attest to the fact they lost much of their language and traditions. When those former residential school students had their own children they were unable or unwilling to teach them Cree, Irene Carter says.

It’s often the generation after the one that attended residential school that is getting excited about re-learning the language, Rice says.

Irene Carter and her brothers and sisters all attended residential school for some time. She’s raising her granddaughter with the hope that Bryanna will grow up and speak the language fluently.

“When we converse, we converse in Cree.”

Andy Carter wants his daughter Bryanna to learn Cree.

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Languages under threat

About half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are endangered or dying.

Experts consider a language endangered when one third of children no longer learn it.

The language of childhood
“Of the languages that are spoken in the world, the most significant for our early emotional and cognitive development is that through which we first learn to name our personal universe and by means of which we begin to achieve a common understanding with our parents and the broader community or friends and school. It is the language of childhood, of intimate family experience and of our early social relations.”
- UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.

Tallies of some languages in peril:
- Europe: 50
- Siberia: 40
- Africa: 800
- Mexico: 14
- South America: 350
- Canada: 53

Source: UNESCO
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