Reclaiming Cree language lands teacher on shortlist for $1M award

Belinda Daniels' dedication in passing on the Cree language recently landed her on the short list for a Global Teacher Prize, worth $1 million. But Daniels did not grow up speaking her mother tongue.
Saskatoon Cree teacher Belinda Daniels is on the short list for a global award worth $1 million, for her dedication in passing on the language. (Belinda Daniels/Submitted to CBC)
Belinda Daniels didn't grow up speaking her Cree language, an absence that always made her feel unnatural.

"I was raised by my grandparents and at the time my grandparents only spoke Cree to each other," explained the 42-year-old from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, Sask.

"They did not want me to speak Cree because they did not want me to go through the same type of harm, punishment [and] ridicule they suffered from in regards to residential schools."

Now Daniels teaches Cree, or Nehiyâwewin, at a Saskatoon high school, as well as at the university level.

The Global Teacher Prize is awarded annually to an "exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession." (Varkey Gems Foundation)
Her efforts have put her on the short list for a global award worth $1 million for her dedication in passing on the language.

The Global Teacher Prize is given to an "exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession," according to the Varkey Foundation website. She is one of 50 teachers and the only Canadian to make the short list from 8,000 nominees all over the world. The winner will be announced in March in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Reclaiming her traditional language

​Daniels was first inspired to reclaim her language when she worked as an administrative assistant at a high school where everyone spoke Cree.

"Initially, I wanted to be part of the conversation, the happenings in front of me. I've always felt a little bit excluded," she recalled.

Daniels signed up for some Cree courses at a university and said while her grandparents were taken aback by her determination, they were happy and surprised that they were offering classes at university. 

Once on the language learning path, Daniels began asking her grandparents deeper questions about how the Cree language captures a different world view. 

"I remember imagining my future and telling my grandparents this is what I was going to do when I grew up and this is what I'm going to have. My mooshum [grandfather] said 'ah Belinda, don't even talk about a future that you don't even know of." Daniels explained that it is considered bad luck to talk about the future.

"He goes, 'We don't know our future, only Creator does.' So, it's up to us to live in the moment and to be present every day."

Daniels said knowing the language even extends to how you view relationships with animals and nature. 

"All of of those things are alive and they're animate. This is where you get that connection towards our environment, towards our climate, towards nature and this is where you develop this huge respect for mother earth and that can only come from the language."

Language 'connection to who you are'

Daniels wasn't satisfied with simply learning the language. She wanted to pass it on to others.

She's been teaching Cree for the past 15 years. She even created a Nehiyaw Language Camp for new learners 11 years ago. 

"I want to give that same passion, that same exuberance, that same pride for identity. I want to give that to my students and to my children." 

She said cultural identity and language creates self-esteem and pride. 

"When you have that connection to who you are and that connection to the land, it just gives you much more of an appreciation of where you come from."

This is the place Daniels said she comes from when teaching Cree, or Nehiyâwewin.

"Listen first. Listen for a long time. When you're listening for a long time, you'll develop an understanding of what is being said," she explained.

"If you're going to bring the pencil and the paper and the textbook into the classroom, well then, you may as well say goodbye to that language."

Daniels said it is no different than when babies are learning how to speak English, that parents coddle children in language, use repetition and teach small words at a time.

"They never brought you a pen or a pencil and paper and said 'this is how you say mommy and this is how you spell daddy.' We have to go back to that type of learning and you never see a parent laugh at their child when they are trying to speak. We need to get back to that."