Classes reawakening Indigenous languages in southwestern Manitoba

Waywayseecappo First Nation member Julia Brandon says she’s on a mission to help others in southwestern Manitoba “find their spiritual selves” by rediscovering their language.

She teaches Anishinaabe as part of a program for Sixties Scoop survivors at the Friendship Centre in the city of Brandon, Man., with the goal of helping them reclaim and strengthen their Indigenous identities and culture.

The Anishinaabe, Cree, Dakota and Michif classes will run weekly until the end of June. 

Many people are hesitant to speak their language after the trauma of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, says the Anishinaabe teacher.

“It’s sad for me to know that our people don’t want to learn the language or they don’t just don’t wanna use their … creator-given, God-given language because of the systems.”

An Indigenous woman holds flash cards with Anishinaabe words.
Brandon holds Anishinaabe flash cards during a class on Thursday, Nov. 10. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Brandon herself is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop — a decades-long period during which thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and placed with non-Indigenous families.

She learned Anishinaabe as a child, but for many years lost the language after being placed in a residential school and the Maples Orphanage in Brandon.

Bingo cards sit on a desk with a language book and cup of coffee.
Anishinaabe bingo cards used as part of the class. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She returned to Waywayseecappo, in western Manitoba, in 1994, where she once again began to speak her language, seeking out elders to strengthen her Anishinaabe.

“I just was drawn to them because they talked the language … [that] I wanted to find myself.”

It took time for Brandon to gain the confidence to speak the language out loud, she said, but she became more comfortable with encouragement from her parents.

Teaching Anishinaabe to others was a natural progression.

Two women tie yellow medicine tobacco pouches.
Students Rae Merasty, left, and Rachelle Wilk tie a tobacco offerings for Aginjibagwesi, a gold finch who helps with language learning. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Her classroom is a safe place free of judgment, where people are bound by the shared goal of strengthening their language, she said.

It’s also an opportunity to value Anishinaabe — something that’s uncommon in an English-dominated society, said Brandon.

Decolonizing the classroom, reclaiming identity

Diana Morrisseau is a Cree language teacher participating in the program, who is originally from Mosakahiken Cree Nation, close to The Pas in northwestern Manitoba.

Cree “was the language that was spoken when I was in the womb, and it was the language being taught when I was learning to talk,” she said. 

A woman wearing an ribbon skirt smiles while teaching in front of a white board with Cree words.
Cree language teacher Diana Morrisseau works with students during a class on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

For many students, the classes serve to reawaken their knowledge of Cree, she said.

“People say they’ve lost the language. To me, it’s not lost. It’s gone to sleep,” said Morrisseau. “When you hear other people talk, you … make that reconnection.”

Her goal is to create a relaxed learning environment, which she describes as moving away from a colonial model.

“We’re trying to get away from that … colonization piece,” Morrisseau said. “Decolonizing it, you get a more human experience with the language. You converse with the people and you build your connections.”

A hand holds a pen writing down words in a note book.
A student takes notes on Cree words. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Even if the learning is just one word each session, she considers the classes a success.

And as people build their language skills, they can go out and become teachers in their communities, becoming part of what she says is a movement toward language revitalization.

“They’re taking initiative … promoting and trying to revitalize languages that have been lost.”

Strengthening language for future generations

Julia Stoneman is the co-ordinator for the Brandon Friendship Centre’s Reclaim and Reconnect program, an extension of its familiy healing program for Sixties Scoop survivors. The program works to strengthen the culture, identity and language of survivors, while also helping them heal from the grief and loss they have experienced.

Stoneman grew up in northern Manitoba understanding Cree, but her memories of the language began to fade after living in Brandon for 15 years.

Now, “I hear those words that remind me of back home,” Stoneman said.

“Our culture and our teachings are within our language. So there’s always going to be that aspect of the culture I’m missing when I don’t know my language.… We’re trying to bring that worldview and that back to us.”

A woman smiles at a little girl playing with a puppet.
Amaya Cook, 3, and her mom, Rebecca Brandon, attend an Anishinaabe class. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Having intergenerational inclusion in the classes was critical, she said, because many people lost their language when they were forced to attend residential schools or taken in the Sixties Scoop as children.

When everyone sits together, from children to elders, they’re part of reclaiming community and Indigenous ways of learning, said Stoneman.

“The children are the ones who are going to learn and continue this on.… We want to make sure that we’re breaking the cycles early,” she said. “They get to see their elders and their family healing and coming together.”

A teacher works with a classroom full of young people to elders.
Julia Brandon teaches students Anishinaabe. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Sandy Bay First Nation student Krystine Mousseau never had the opportunity to learn Anishinaabe, but would hear it growing up. 

She plans on coming back to classes with her daughters to reclaim the language for her family. 

“I wanted to learn my language,” she said. “I’m just grateful.”

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