Use it or lose it: Cree community takes action on language preservation

Wemindji's language coordinator says that for years, she felt as if she was 'fighting a monster alone.' But that's changed in recent months, with a resurgence in interest in preserving and promoting the Cree language.

In recent months, community passed resolution encouraging Cree language, held first-ever language symposium

Theresa Kakabat-Georgekish is Wemindji's new Cree Language Coordinator. She also moderates a Facebook group called Maintaining our Language. (Theresa Kakabat-Georgekish)

For years, Theresa Kakabat-Georgekish felt as though she was "fighting a monster" alone. 

The monster? Loss of language in her James Bay community of Wemindji.

"I didn't have that support from parents and leaders from our community," said Kakabat-Georgekish, who was a Cree language teacher for 20 years before becoming the acting Cree Language Coordinator in Wemindji, located more than 1,400 km north of Montreal.

However, in recent months, Kakabat-Georgekish says something has changed. In August, the local Band council passed a resolution calling on all local government departments and entities to use Cree as their language of communication. 

The resolution also asks local health and education officials to ensure Cree language is taught and used, particularly with working with youth. 

The community of Wemindji held its first ever Cree Language Symposium on September 12, 2018. (April Dawn Georgekish-Gull)

That was followed this past week with the community holding its first ever language symposium, bringing together teachers, educators and local officials to talk about how encourage more people to speak Cree. Kakabat-Georgekish herself is going door to door, conducting a survey to find out about language use and Cree literacy courses are being offered in the community. 

"Everyone is coming together working toward the same goal, just to maintain our language," said Kakabat-Georgekish, adding she is "very happy and emotional" about recent developments.

'We are going to do what we can'

The members' resolution, passed at the Wemindji Annual General Assembly on Aug. 15, mandates local chief and council "ensure that all entities of the Cree Nation of Wemindji and Tawich Development Corporation [a local development corporation] use Cree language as their source of communication on a daily basis at their workplace as well as at home." 

The resolution does not oblige the use of the Cree language in the workings of the local government, but instead is focusing on raising public awareness and encouraging people to use more Cree. 

A letter is also being sent to stakeholders in local government departments and businesses. 

When I speak Cree I laugh more. It's a fun language to speak.- Chief Christina Gilpin

"We are going to do what we can. We are going to raise awareness," said Wemindji chief, Christina Gilpin.

"Even myself, when I talk to kids, I speak to them in Cree, whereas before I would speak to them they way they would speak to me," she sad. "Now, I'm going to make more of effort to talk to them in Cree and if I have to, I will translate." 

Officials in the community of Wemindji are trying to convince people to speak more Cree with materials like this language poster. (Cree Nation of Wemindji)

Gilpin says she's also committed to looking at ways to encourage and support parents, as well as incorporating language supports into community programming. 

In March, stakeholders from across the Cree Nation got together for the Eeyou Istchee Language Engagement Session. which brought together more than a hundred people with experience in language development and preservation and is the start of concerted efforts to strengthen the Cree language.

Gilpin would also like to see more regional efforts to preserve and strengthen the Cree language. 

"When I speak Cree I laugh more. It's a fun language to speak," she said. 

"I hope it's maintained and [that] we speak it. I want that to be able to continue."