Mother and daughter learn Cree together and share teaching techniques

A mother and daughter in northern Saskatchewan are learning and teaching Cree language skills together.

'Each day we would learn [a] word and then another once I got the first word in my head'

Sienna displays her tag at the Fredericton language conference she and her mother attended earlier this year. (Submitted by Celia Deschambeault )

This story is part of the CBC Indigenous project Original Voices that highlights a few of the many diverse Indigenous languages that exist across the country.

A mother and daughter in northern Saskatchewan are learning and teaching Cree language skills together.

Celia Deschambeault is the land, language, relationships and culture co-ordinator with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Meadow Lake, Sask.

Although Celia grew up in a Cree community she admits she lost what Cree language she knew during her time attending school. After taking language training last year, which included Accelerated Second Language Acquisition (ASLA), the mother of eight then began to re-learn Cree with her two daughters, her youngest children.

Eleven-year-old Sienna's comprehension and ability to retain the words delighted and motivated her mother.

"She's a very bright child and she just grasps everything so quick," said Celia.

"I was really surprised at how far she was picking it up; now we are talking in Cree."

Now Sienna is not only learning Swampy Cree, she is also learning the Plains Cree dialect.

"[The] first word I learned in Cree was 'maskwa' which is 'bear,'" said Sienna.

"I like [learning Cree] and it felt so easy for me. It was just the pictures and mom saying them over and over until I get it. Each day we would learn that word and then another once I got the first word in my head."

Sienna and Celia Deschambeault have been learning Cree together for the past year, now the two are able to hold conversations in the language. (Submitted by Celia Deschambeault )

The pair are now presenting their learning method and giving demonstrations at language conferences across the country, showcasing the ASLA method which uses both word association and learning with photos or commands.

The method was created by Neyoozet Greymorning in the mid-'90s. He developed the technique in the Arapaho language in northern Arizona, and the method has been used to help revitalize Indigenous languages in places such as Australia as well as here in Canada.

"I give full credit to Dr. Greymorning," said Celia.  

"With his method, you would teach a lot of oral skills first. With Sienna, I taught her all the oral language and then I started creating books and covering the same concepts that he covered."

Now that Sienna has a solid understanding of the Cree language she is also learning sign language from her Indigenous Studies teacher, Jana Ross.

"Sienna is very respectful and polite. She is so willing to learn the language and to share the language with everyone." said Ross.

Ross said she hopes that she is teaching Sienna something, because she may know more Cree than her teacher.

Sienna, 11, enjoyed her first airplane ride ever when she was invited to a language conference in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Celia Deschambealt )

"She's going to be fluent by the time she graduates high school, I'm sure." said Ross. 

"She and her mother are so inspiring and amazing the things they're doing now."

Sienna is now using what she learns with Ross in her presentations and is in the works of developing a puppet show with her younger sister.

Celia wants to see the ASLA method used in all language classes, saying that she is seeing firsthand the benefits of the learning with her own children. This week, the two have been invited to speak and demonstrate language learning in Red Deer, Alta. Sienna says it's something she enjoys doing.

"When I go to places with my mom, people tell me I'm a very good young starter, and they want me to do this more and teach other people," said Sienna. 

"And I want to keep learning this and teach kids, and I want to be a doctor."