Language is universally accepted as part of one’s culture and this is especially true for Cree First Nations, according to Jeff Wastesicoot, a language consultant, or keeper of the language, from Saddle Lake.
He took part in the Nipisihkopahk Secondary School youth and elders’ gathering last week. The event started Sunday, June 19 and went on until Wednesday, June to 22 with elders and cultural experts speaking with youths about the Cree culture.
“Our language is actually very spiritual,” said Wastesicoot. “We tend to translate differently to what it’s articulated in the English language.”
While English generally has references to objects with a literal meaning to something, Cree takes more into account concepts in referring to happenings. To help illustrate the difference, Wastesicoot said when settlers first met the Indigenous peoples and their celebrations, a literal word was used to describe them.
Using the word “pipe” is not enough to describe the pipe ceremony as it does not have the same meaning in Cree. “Pipe is a Latin term with a tube with a hole in it basically,” he explained.
“There really is spiritual meaning to that language,” he added.
In Cree it also means, “being dependant on the spirit.”
Another example Wastesicoot used was the word “sundance.” At the time, settlers noticed First Nations people dancing in the sun for days. While the settlers were able to see what was happening they didn’t understand the meaning of the dance.
He gave numerous examples such as sweetgrass and sweat lodge, again observed in a literal sense. “In our language…it has nothing to do with perspiring,” said Wastesicoot of the sweat lodge.
“It talks about the cleansing of the spirit, the mind, body and the physicalness (sic) of it.”
Understanding the Cree language is to understand the spiritual nature of the culture that goes with it, explained Wastesicoot.
He suggests the true identify of First Nations people is getting lost in the shuffle of labels like Aboriginal, Indians and even Cree, which is derived from the word “Kristineaux,” a name used by French fur traders.
The true name is Nêhiyawak “the people that draw their strength from the four directions.” Wastesicoot added that even the terms east, west, north and south do not have the same meaning as indicated in a compass. One example for north is it is described as a place where home is.
The list continues and for Wastesicoot, making the spiritual connection between the language and the culture is paramount. He believes the Cree language is uprooted and getting that back will take some time and understanding the history and decolonizing are important parts of the process.
“We have to declare to the world who we are,” he said.
He calls the Cree language an identity, a culture that informs all protocols and ceremonies. He suggests support of the Cree language and culture should come with capital investments to ensure they live on.
“It’s based out of the recommendations that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report,” said Wastesicoot.
Once the First Nations speak up on their true identity, Wastesicoot suggests that is when their independence can be known.
This is starting to happen.
Ceremonies that were outlawed only a short time ago are coming back. Singing, powwows, hitting the drum and sweetgrass ceremonies are becoming more accepted.