Exhibition explores loss of language and identity steps from where it happened

Audrey Dreaver stands beside one of the pieces in her solo exhibition, depicting Prince Albert's Central School towering over the image of a young girl. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

When you walk into Audrey Dreaver’s solo exhibition at the Mann Art Gallery,  the first thing on your right is a clicker. 

Friday afternoon, mere hours before the show’s opening reception, it read “1472.”

Everyone who views the touring show is encouraged to click it once for the number of people in their family who can’t speak their mother tongue.

Loss of language and its impact on identity is the main theme of the exhibition, titled NO I do not speak Cree. It’s a project Dreaver, who was raised in Prince Albert, was inspired to start as she pursued her masters of Fine Art.

She knew she wanted to create something that explored social realism, a branch of the arts where creators aim to draw attention to real-world socio-political conditions of people and the power structures behind those conditions.

She ended up settling on the idea of her inability to speak Cree — though she’s tried to learn, several times — after an interaction with her friend’s mother.

She was staying with this friend in Regina, and when she walked in the door, the mother, who was beginning to deal with the impacts of dementia, asked that question: “Do you speak Cree?”

Dreaver felt tense up. She said no.

Her friend’s mother seemed disappointed. She leaned back into her chair and told a story about her time in residential school.

“I remember thinking that’s how my mom felt when she couldn’t speak Cree with somebody,” Dreaver said.

When her friend’s mother finished her story, she took a sip of her tea, turned to Dreaver and asked, again, “do you speak Cree?”

Again, Dreaver answered in the negative, and the loop continued.

“As she went through this loop, I started to realize things about myself. I was remembering how many times was asked that, and the issues that come with it. How many times my sons asked for words and I couldn’t help them,” Dreaver said.

She started cycling, in her head, through all of the times she had come to a ceremony or a cultural even,t and had to sit and listen as people spoke in Cree and she didn’t know what they were saying. Or times they were talking about her, and she knew it wasn’t good, but she didn’t understand the words.

“I started thinking about how I reacted, how I would react,” Dreaver said.

“Sometimes, when the question came, they were just curious, and it would end up in a conversation about how they didn’t speak Cree either. Sometimes fluent speakers would say it’s okay, you don’t need to be fluent in Cree to be Cree.

“Other times, Id say over 70 per cent of the time, if not more, it would be really negative. I’ve been shunned, ostracized, yelled at, lectured to — people have turned their chairs so their back was to me, turned their backs on me because I couldn’t speak the language.”

Dreaver realized that as she was asked that question, “Do you speak Cree?” she would tense up, not knowing what to expect.

Each of the pieces on the walls of the gallery explores one of these experiences. Most of the works are based on things Dreaver has seen or lived through.

As she worked on the body of work, though, she began speaking to others, non-Indigenous people who had also, at some point, lost their language.

“There are all sorts of issues associated with language loss, especially with Cree,” Dreaver said.

“But it’s important to note that we’re not the only ones. There’s another layer of that social realism, moving past it just being about me.”

Anyone who lives in a  colonized country but who didn’t speak the language of the majority has seen that language loss, she said.

“Anybody living in a country that had a colonial history as it was being established is living in a colonial state,” she explained.

“Losing your language is a perfect example of this.”

It’s something Dreaver got to see when she was able to show some of her work in Vienna, Austria. About 100 people turned out to an opening reception. When asked who lost a mother tongue, only one didn’t raise their hand.

‘They all understood and could relate to the work that was in that gallery. It’s an important issue to talk about.”

What it’s like to lose a language isn’t the only thing Dreaver explores in her show. She was also able to trace back to the catalyst, the moment she lost her language.

Dreaver is the sixth of seven children. Her parents spoke Cree to each other, and at times, to their children.

The Dreaver family attended Central School, located where the Gateway Mall now stands, mere steps from the Gallery. When Dreaver’s sister was five, she was strapped for speaking Cree in the classroom at the Central School.

“This was the time they decided not to speak Cree anymore. At the time, my sister was fluent in both Cree and English,” she said.

“By the time I came along … they were committed to speaking only English to the kids. The didn’t ever stop speaking Cree. They spoke Cree to each other all the time. They laughed and seemed happier when they were speaking Cree.

“Looking at what happened to my sister and how my parents ended up making their decision, it wasn’t one they would have made. They decided to stop speaking Cree to their children to make them feel safe in this school they had to send their kids to but couldn’t go in and watch to make sure nobody hit them.”

It isn’t lost on Dreaver that the exhibition exploring the loss of language is now displayed steps from where the incident that led to that language loss occurred.

A few pieces in the show even feature images of Central School, including the silhouette of the building, designed by looking at actual pictures of the institution, looming over a little girl.

“When I was doing, specifically that piece, I was wondering what it would be like to have it in P.A.,” she said.

“That would be the place it should go of all places because that’s where it started. It was in Prince Albert that this happened. To have it here, so close to where the school was, is fitting. It’s important. Of all the places this work might go, I think this is one place that is of most importance.”

That geographic closeness, Dreaver hopes, will remind people that this is something that happened here.

“When you talk about language loss or any kind of loss, you think that’s in another city. That’s not here,” she said.

“But it is here. It happened here. When we were growing up, you didn’t hear other languages in the school. We had only English.”