Cree language teachers reflect on generations of learning

Darian Agecoutay never expected to find himself standing in front of a classroom teaching Cree.

Aim is 'to teach the younger generation so we have the chance to save our languages,' says Darian Agecoutay

For Darian Agecoutay, left, and Solomon Ratt, right, language reclamation is a critically important aspect of reconciliation. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC; Matthew Howard/CBC)

Darian Agecoutay never expected to find himself standing in front of a classroom teaching Cree.

He did not learn the language as a child — his family did not speak Cree, and the school he attended at Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan did not offer Cree classes until Grade 12. 

But when Agecoutay enrolled at Saskatchewan's First Nations University of Canada in 2016, he was inspired to delve into his own language and culture. 

"When I first started, my initial program advisor was picking my classes for me and she was saying 'oh, you could take French, you could take German, you could even take Japanese,'" he said.

"But I [said], 'why don't I just take my own language, Cree? It's right here.'"

And after that first class, Agecoutay said, "everything just started clicking."

"I started understanding the different concepts within language, and especially how our own language is so different from others, like English or French," he said.

"When you learn how to speak it or learn the mechanisms of the language, it becomes very interesting."

'The chance to save our languages'

Agecoutay soon realized he wanted to fight against language loss in Indigenous communities, where many of the children who were taken to residential schools became adults who did not speak their language at home. 

"I want us to be able to revitalize our languages, to reclaim our languages, to be able to speak within our own communities using our languages," said Agecoutay. "And to teach the younger generation so we have the chance to save our languages."

Agecoutay is a recent graduate of First Nations University of Canada. He now works as a teaching assistant and leads introductory Cree language classes. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

For him, language preservation is a critically important aspect of reconciliation — though the word "reconciliation" itself can be a difficult one to translate.

While Agecoutay says wâhkôwîcihiwêwin (ᐋᐧᐦᑰᐄᐧᒋᐦᐃᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ) has become the standard Cree translation for reconciliation, he has also considered whether kwayaskâtisiwin (ᑲᐧᔭᐢᑳᑎᓯᐃᐧᐣ) — "setting things straight" — or âpwênimâkêwin (ᐋᐯᐧᓂᒫᑫᐃᐧᐣ) — "bringing the truth of things" — might be more appropriate terms.

It was a combination of these ideas and more that led Agecoutay to become a teaching assistant for introductory Cree classes, which he sees as one of his first steps on a lifelong journey. 

"This is only the beginning, I feel, of my teaching career," he said. "I know I'm going to be teaching language and I want to teach language for the rest of my life."

Agecoutay says the new generation of language teachers stands in a "middle ground" between history and future — honouring the legacy of those who taught them while figuring out how the language can evolve to describe a changing world. 

For Solomon Ratt, who has been teaching Cree at First Nations University since the 1980s, watching former students like Agecoutay take up the mantle to become teachers themselves has been inspiring.

Classroom tools lead to lifelong language learning

Ratt's first language is Cree, and before he was taken away to residential school when he was six years old, he had never heard a word of English. 

"Just think of a six-year-old boy going to an English-speaking world, and what he faced," Ratt said. "What's he going to do? English everywhere is what he hears."

Ratt has been teaching Cree at First Nations University of Canada since the 1980s. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

Ratt and his classmates could only speak Cree "on the sly," when no one was listening.

So when he became a language teacher at FNU, he originally tried to teach his students in the same way English had been taught to him. 

"In 1988 ... I went to class and I started talking in Cree," he said. "And I spent the whole period in Cree on that first day of class, and I went back to my office. And a half hour later, the student services people called me — 'Solomon, what are you doing in class?'"

After one day of Cree immersion, nearly half the students had withdrawn from the course. 

Since then, Ratt says, he has taken more of a blended approach.

"If we were in a Cree-speaking world, immersion would be good," he said. "But in our world right now, where we are surrounded by English, the best we can do is to teach the Cree language with as many tools as we can provide for our students so they can do their own studies." 

Ratt said Agecoutay is one of those students who have taken those tools from Cree classes and made them his own. 

Learn your language, learn your culture, learn your traditions.- Darian Agecoutay

And while Agecoutay is now leading introductory classes, he says he still has a long way to go before he is totally fluent in the language.

"I'm still learning every day," he said. 

But he hopes other Indigenous people will have the chance to take on some of the same projects that inspire him.

"Learn your language, learn your culture, learn your traditions," he said. "Find out who you are, because that's how you're going to reconcile for yourself and be able to move forward. 

"Then, you can start to see a greater vision for what those future generations are going to be."