The importance of language

Julianna Maggrah/The Northern Advocate First Nations University elders Florence Allen and Rose Bird spoke at a gathering held in Prince Albert in March.

Florence Allen, a resident elder at the northern campus of First Nations University, has gone on her own journey of rediscovering her language.

“When we were on the reserve, when they (my parents) were alone, they did ceremonies.” Allen says of her childhood before moving off reserve.

“Because at that time it was hidden, it was illegal. So, there were many gatherings and some were in my home. And one time there was a gathering in our home, and I knew I had to be a part of that circle. And my mother said, ‘go play with the other kids’, but my spirit knew that I had to be in that circle. So, I put my foot in that circle because my essence, my being, had to be a part of that circle. So, I put my leg in there.”

Allen goes on to say that elders told her that when the time is right, she would remember what was said in that circle, a saying that she claims she never really liked.

Later in her life, Allen says she used tobacco, a sacred herb, to ask Creator and the spirit world for her language back.

“I’ll be sitting there and that language is coming back to me.” Allen Said. “Words will come, sentences will come. At one time, we were gathering and I didn’t know, all I spoke was Cree, I didn’t know that until somebody says, ‘you speak Cree’… they said, “Well, you spoke everything in Cree.’”

Allen was one of the elders who spoke  at an Elder’s gathering held at the Prince Albert Inn on March 12 to honour Indigenous languages. Elders from Fond Du Lac to Piapot came together to tell stories in their native languages and talk about the importance of language.

The event was hosted by First nations University.

Allen explained that she lost her language as a young child in the residential school, but it is slowly coming back through memory.

“It’s part of our blood memory.” Allen said of her language.

“We know these things, but they’re asleep, they’re sleeping. So, we have to know how to wake them up.”

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the effects of residential schools have been very detrimental to Indigenous people of Canada. The goal of residential schools was to take Indigenous children and strip them of any cultural identity so they could be introduced into Euro-Canadian society.

Not only were Indigenous children not allowed to speak their language, practice their culture, they were abused in various ways daily, leaving these children with scars that have been passed down through generations.

There is much that could be said on the intergenerational effects of residential schools, as it is quite a broad subject, but one thing that Indigenous people are dealing with is a loss of culture, as cultural practices had nearly died.

Language is a large aspect of culture, but it has not been passed down as it used to before residential schools abused anyone who dared speak their native tongue and some languages are facing extinction, unless swift action is taken.

The idea that memories are apart of our DNA and are dormant isn’t just a belief. Recent studies have come out that DNA can hold memories up to 14 generations back. These studies were done on worms and mice and its debated on whether or not human DNA can hold memories, but if it can then it’s easy to see why Indigenous people report feelings of belonging when partaking in cultural activities and learning native language for the first time and why language and culture is important to the physical and mental wellbeing of Indigenous people.

“Our young people are in gangs, committing suicide, because they’ve lost their identity,” Allen says about the lack of language and culture among Indigenous youth.

“They’re calling for their identity. We have our western way we need to live, but we do not need to let go of our culture.”

Allen then speaks about a time when she was sick with cancer and ready to dance into the spirit world until she could smell her baby grandson on her blanket, she then felt herself being pulled out of the spirit world.

“Our healers come at any age,” Allen said. “That little one is a peace-maker and that’s the job that he chose to come to do.”

There is a belief among some Indigenous people that before a child is born their spirit chooses their mother and what their gift will be. Some choose to be healers, some choose to be storytellers, some choose to be warriors, but everyone has a gift that they chose and they have to realize or remember what their spirit chose for them throughout their life and if they don’t follow their path they can get sick or suffer from other ailments and if they begin to follow their path, they will get better.

“This is the gift that those grandfathers gave me.” Allen says of being a healer as well. “So, I work with medicine. When I work with people and I have people that are too sick… I sing to them… and this is how I’m learning my Anishinaabe language.”

Allen sings the Grandmothers Song* in her native language, which may be the only way the song has been passed down as there are no findings of an English version.

“We can’t just bring back the language,” says an elder in the audience. “We have to bring back our values, belief, and path of belonging. Because it all comes as one, as an identity, as who we are.”

Language and culture are intertwined, as is the Indigenous worldview. For example, there are words in the Cree language that are animate and words that are inanimate. A rock is animate in the Cree language, which means the Cree people saw rocks as living beings.

There are two different ways to say ‘wolf’ in the Denesuline language, one means ‘my grandfather’ and another way means ‘us’, which shows the belief that wolves can be spiritual leaders and be a vessel for the spirit of ancestors.

“A lot of young generation today, there’s a high level of suicides,” says the elder.

“They’re all questioning why, why is this happening? We don’t practice our ways of life, we don’t respect our ways of drum. Those are our identities, our guides. We’ve got to be proud of what we have, we’ve got to start lifting our drums up and walk proud of who we are.”

The elder says that because youth don’t speak their language, they can’t understand their elders as they are meant to.

“The child wants guidance,” the elder says. “But how can they do that, they can’t communicate with something they don’t understand. So, right now, it’s a very wimportant thing, we have to come back to our sacred circle.”

 The Sacred Circle, or the Medicine Wheel, is the circle commonly seen in Indigenous art that has four quadrants with four colours; white, yellow, red, and black (or blue). The meanings of the colours differ among different Indigenous culture, but the main similarity is that medicine wheels represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities.

An Indigenous community** in B.C has gone from the suicide capital of Canada with an average of 12 suicides per year (in a 1600 person population) to near zero suicides by showing youth their land, culture, language, restorative justice, and bringing families together.

 These are aspects that are similar to teachings of the sacred circle and could be indicative of Canada’s future of the teachings of the sacred circle are followed by the rest of the Country.

*Grandmothers Song can be heard on YouTube sung by Fawn Wood

** ‘Suicide Crisis SOLVED’ is a short audio documentary on YouTube by Saniska Media that explains the community in B.C that turned their crisis around.