Of teaching and learning Cree


Mixed feelings about the way Cree courses are taught at FNUniv

Iryn Tushabe

Cree, like other First Nations languages, is an endangered language – that much is clear. According to one former First Nations University (FNUniv) student, the University’s teaching system is a big part of the problem.

Last year, Eisel Mazaard, 34, took four courses in Cree at FNUniv in the space of 12 months, and emerged not being able to speak a complete sentence in the language.

“If you had a program teaching a language and none of the students learned how to say “where’s the bathroom,” I would say that’s a disaster,”’ he said.

According to Mazaard, Cree courses are not designed to teach students to speak the language. Rather, they are structured so that students can pass written exams. For Mazaard, this is a problem because he, unlike most students “who took the Cree class for an easy A+,” wants to speak the language fluently. 

“The first surprise was that I was the only one in my class trying to learn the Language. The classes are not majority Cree people. The vast majority of the students are white people who have no interest in speaking the language after the final exam,” observed Mazaard.

A few weeks into his first course, Mazaard requested some speaking exercises from his professor or if the professor could read a story to the class in Cree. Both never happened.

Arok Wolvengrey, an Associate Professor with Algonquian Language Studies and Linguistics at FNUniv has met with Mazaard and understands his concerns. However, Wolvengrey, and other professors found their hands tied by university regulations.

According to Wolvengrey, the University requires that 75 per cent of all material in language classes be recorded in such a way that they can be reassessed in exams. 

“Since I started learning about our history and the language, my life has become so much better. Growing up, I used to be ashamed to be Native but not anymore.” – Kristy Auger

“For the language classes, what do you do for that kind of requirement if …75 per cent of the material has to be reassessed? Well, you have writing, and so a lot of our introductory courses had, for the longest time, a large proportion geared simply toward learning the written form of the language,” said Wolvengrey.

There are other classes designed for students who want to learn the speaking aspect of First Nations languages like Cree, but those classes require one to have a basic understanding of the language. For someone like Mazaard ,who had no foundational knowledge of Cree, it was next to impossible to learn conversational Cree at FNUniv. 

Kristy Auger is a first year student at FNUniv. She is learning Cree and enjoying the experience so much, that she is already speaking the language quite well.

Unlike Mazaard, however, Auger is Cree, and her Cree speaking relatives are a phone call away when she needs a little help with the language. Before she left her home in Fort St. Johns, B.C. to study the language at FNUniv, she spent a year with her eighty-two-year-old grandmother who can only communicate in Cree.

“Before I even took the class … I would be able to say basic phrases like ‘hello, how are you?’ I could say that even before I started Cree 100, so in that sense, I did have an advantage,’” said Auger.

One of the main reasons why Auger finds herself so compelled to learn her native language is because much of her culture is so intertwined with the language.

“There are certain ceremonies that I wouldn't be able to learn if I’m not fluent in the language, because you have to be able to pray in the language. That’s just the way it is, and so its essential for carrying on the culture,” she explained.

Auger is concerned that if her language becomes extinct, so will her culture.    

“Since I started learning about our history and the language, my life has become so much better. Growing up, I used to be ashamed to be Native, but not anymore,” she said, happily.

Interestingly, Mazaard’s reason for learning Cree is not far different from Auger’s. He planned to embark on a project documenting Cree oral history, but since he didn’t learn the language, he feels bereft of the most important tool to tackle the project.

Photo courtesy ymcaacademy.org

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