Why I am reclaiming my mother's language before it's too late
My mother is the last generation in my family who speaks Oji-Cree fluently
This First Person article is the experience of Rochelle Bragg who is of mixed Oji-Cree and Swiss-German descent. It was originally published in March 2022 and won the 2023 RTDNA Central Region award for Opinion writing. September 30 is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
A few years ago I noticed a little handbook in my mother's living room titled Pocket Oji-Cree. I started flipping through it and felt a deep longing.
Anishininiimowin (Oji-Cree) is my mother's first language. My family's language is spoken in northern Ontario and parts of Manitoba.
But other than the few words she spoke to me as a child — "niwiihsin" meaning eat," "ekwa nipan" for go to bed, "pishan" for come here — I was unable to understand it. So I borrowed the book with high hopes of learning on my own.
Days, months and years passed, and the book sat patiently on my shelf, collecting dust. The necessity to speak Oji-Cree in my daily life was simply non-existent. I was not surrounded by family or friends that spoke it. Like many Indigenous languages, Oji-Cree is at risk of becoming lost.
The 2016 Census Aboriginal Community Portrait shows that only 16 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada speak an Indigenous language — a five per cent decline from 2006.
Over the last century, Indigenous languages have been gradually slipping away. This knowledge has always weighed heavily on me. Then a couple months ago, I saw that Nishnawbe Aski Nation was offering a six-week course on Oji-Cree language lessons. The course was free and open to anyone interested.
Until she was 11, my mother and her family lived a nomadic lifestyle moving between summer and winter camps in the bushes of northern Ontario.
Then, the government displaced her community onto a reservation. Their lives completely changed. As a young girl, my mom experienced many hardships and left home to attend high school hundreds of miles away.
Alone and afraid, she said learning in an English-language school was difficult. This challenge became too great and halfway through the school year, she dropped out and returned home to the reserve.
After marriage, my parents decided to live off the reserve. They said it was a difficult decision, but is common to many First Nations families pursuing education. My mother immersed herself in an English-speaking world. She worked hard, graduated high school, and later achieved her bachelor's and master's degrees.
But in doing so, she traded away her traditional way of life.
Learning in an institution that only supported English speakers and curriculum, she rarely spoke her traditional language.
LISTEN | Rochelle Bragg introduces herself in Oji-Cree.
She mostly spoke English around our family but would lovingly sprinkle Oji-Cree words into everyday conversation. Still, as time went on, speaking Oji-Cree in our home became increasingly difficult as she was the only fluent speaker.
When I was young, my family would travel to Muskrat Dam First Nation every couple years for Christmas or summer vacation. I would sit in rooms listening to the flutter of my relatives speaking in Oji-Cree. I could never have a full conversation with my Koomshoom, my grandfather, as he knew no English.
I remember the way he would chuckle my Oji-Cree name "Wabunn" into my ear as he hugged me. There were many times I would sit next to him in silence while he watched old Western movies on his TV even though he couldn't understand the words.
I remember sitting next to his hospital bed, holding his hand, stumbling over the word "Kisaakihin," which means "I love you," before he entered the Spirit world.
Learning Oji-Cree has been challenging and rewarding. Every Tuesday evening for six weeks, I joined a Zoom call on my laptop from my kitchen table while my children ran around me. The next hour and a half was spent reviewing, learning, speaking and writing Oji-Cree words. We were encouraged to participate and converse with our instructor. Hearing the language spoken and translated in real time was a new and exciting experience.
Having the words of my ancestors fill my home and find their way into the ears of my children is an irreplaceable gift.
LISTEN | Rochelle Bragg's mom Linda introduces herself in Oji-Cree.
My desire to learn Oji-Cree is ignited and I plan to continue learning. I understand the tragedy Indigenous people have faced in their loss of language and culture all on their own land. I understand how my mother's language got lost in the pursuit of education. I understand the opportunities and advantages she was giving us in doing so. I understand it is now my responsibility to learn her language.
I am embarking on this language journey for my people, for my children, for my Koomshoom, and mostly, for my mother.
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