Woman gets creative through TikTok, using new ways to share an old language
Cree is believed to have begun as a dialect between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago
A Winnipegger is using the TIkTok social media platform to share her lessons about learning to speak Cree, and Sharissa Neault is finding a receptive international audience — and a new connection to family.
"We have a lot of young [Indigenous] people, specifically, who comment and say that they haven't heard their language in a long time or they've been wanting to learn their language and that it's nice to see it on TikTok," said Neault, a University of Winnipeg student originally from Fox Lake Cree Nation.
"I'm grateful that we get to give that back to them in a little way."
She began learning Cree about four years ago by speaking with her grandparents and elders and finding whatever written resources she could about a language that is believed to have begun as a dialect between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago.
In May 2020, she began making videos and posting them on a newly-created TikTok page for the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre Inc., where she works. Every so often, Neault is joined by Noah Malazdrewicz, a colleague and fellow university student who shares the Ojibway words he is learning.
"We started during the beginning of the pandemic, trying to find creative ways to reach out to the community while we were closed," Neault told CBC News on Wednesday, which is National Indigenous Languages Day.
Although the MICEC has since reopened, the videos have proven to be popular and, Neault admits, too fun to stop.
They also reach a wider audience than the centre — which promotes awareness and understanding of Indigenous culture — could ever reach on its own.
"The centre is only open from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, so it has a limited reach on the population," she said.
"[TikTok] allowed us to reach out to young people … not only in Winnipeg and in Manitoba, but from all over Canada. We even have followers in the U.S., so that's been really cool."
Neault said it was her time at the centre, with many opportunities to be immersed in the language, that sparked her Cree journey.
It has since opened up conversations with her family members, specifically her grandparents. Cree is their original language, but it was tangled up in trauma related to their residential school experience.
Indigenous languages were forbidden at the schools, and many students were punished it they tried to speak their language.
"When they came out of residential school, it was hard for them. I remember even when I started speaking to them, there was a little bit of hesitation before they completely opened up," Neault said.
Now, she routinely calls them to practise speaking and run some questions past them.
"I ask them questions about like, 'what does this mean? How do I say this?' And every time I visit, I understand a little bit more of what they're saying and I'm able to speak a little bit more," she said.
"That's been really nice. It's been really nice to see how excited they are that I'm learning the language. My granny recently got on Facebook, which has been so funny and she comments on all of my stuff in Cree, so that's really cute."
The Cree experience has also revealed a surprise about Neault's mom, who always said she didn't know the language.
"She's always said that my entire life, but when I started learning Cree, I actually invited her to a Cree language table that we held at the cultural centre," Neault said.
"We had a speaker who was telling a story in Cree and our job was to do our best to translate that story. My mom was whispering in my ear and like writing down almost the entire story."
Neault's mom discovered that while she can't necessarily speak the language, she understood it almost perfectly.
"From that point on, it's been kind of a learning journey that we've been on together," Neault said. "That was a big realization for us and that's been a big help."
As the journey continues, Neault would like to see more help for herself and those who follow in her footsteps.
"Our resources [for learning Cree] are lacking big time. I think I only have one book that I reference consistently," she said.
"So I wish for myself that I had more and more books, more workbooks, more dictionaries, more community dictionaries. I think that would be great. But something that I would really like to see is more Indigenous languages in the media."
She's been spending time watching Japanese and Korean TV and said it's amazing how much language can be picked up that way. Having shows in Cree would be ideal, Neault said.
"I guess we're kind of doing that in a small way with our TikToks and I'm grateful that we get to do that."
With files from Jessica Piché