How learning a First Nations language helps these 3 people connect with culture, family, community

Chance Paupanekis credits much of his well-being to learning his traditional language.

Paupanekis, who is from the Norway House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, is studying Ininimowin — a Cree language that has five major dialects, according to Indigenous Languages of Manitoba.

Language is more than just words in his culture, says Paupanekis — one of three people studying First Nations languages CBC talked with during National Indigenous History Month about the importance of that learning.

“What we’re told in the ceremonies is that it was gifted to us from the spirit world … and therefore it’s a spiritual language,” he said. 

“The spiritual teachings are embedded in the language.”

When he went to his first sweat lodge ceremony, called matotisan, he didn’t understand any of the songs or teachings.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting 100 per cent of the experience that I was supposed to be getting,” he said. “I felt extremely disconnected.”

He’s joining a growing number of people learning an Indigenous language.

According to Statistics Canada, the overall number of Indigenous people who could speak an Indigenous language including Inuktitut and Michif — grew by 3.1 per cent during the decade from 2006 to 2016. At that point, there were twice as many Indigenous children who could speak an Indigenous language than seniors.

Paupanekis realized he wanted to embrace the ceremonies of his culture, which also hold many traditional teachings he wanted to learn. He began learning the language so he could understand the words that were spoken, but that was only part of the experience he was longing for.

Paupanekis has been sober for two and a half years, which he said is because of the ceremonies.

“It’s preferred that when we go to our ceremonies, that we go to them with an open mind and we’re not intaking substances that can alter our state of mind. I quit drinking and I left that part of me in the past,” he said.

“I began a different journey of relearning my culture, relearning my language and my ceremonies.”

‘The sound of [my mother’s] voice’

When Amanda Fredlund came to Winnipeg from Behchokǫ̀ in the Northwest Territories, she brought her language, Tłı̨chǫ, with her. 

She’s working hard to become fluent in Tłı̨chǫ — a language from the Dene family that’s also known as Dogrib — but admits it’s a difficult process for many reasons.

She was exposed to the language as a child through her mother, who was learning Tłı̨chǫ herself. But her mother died in 2013, and Fredlund was never able to learn the language from her. 

She’s currently taking online classes and trying to speak it as much as she can. Hearing the language from native speakers in her classes brings her both happy and painful memories.

“I was very familiar with the sound of [my mother’s] voice — the way she pronounces words, her Dene accent,” said Fredlund. 

“When I’m sitting in some courses and I’m hearing these beautiful language speakers, it’s a very strong reminder of those memories I have [of her].”

Amanda Fredlund, originally from Behchokǫ̀ in the Northwest Territories, is studying Tłı̨chǫ, a language from the Dene family. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

Fredlund said there are times she’s unable to get through her classes because she’s still grieving the loss of her mother. But her grief is also what inspires her to keep learning.

She also finds comfort in being able to honour her mother through her language learning, as well as other strong women in her family that came before her.

“[My mother] is in the spirit world. She’s somewhere I hope to be one day. When I am fluent in my language, when I know how to speak and have those conversations, I look forward to sitting with her and speaking [in Tłı̨chǫ].”

Reclaiming Anishinaabemowin

Language is a big part of Sienna Gould’s life. Two generations of her family — her grandparents and her parents — had their language hidden from them. Now, she’s reclaiming it for her family and her community, Pinaymootang First Nation, in Manitoba’s Interlake.

“We didn’t have the culture, [but] we had the language. And I feel like that kept us connected,” she said.

She sings and speaks to her two-year-old son, Sulvie, in Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibway. She’s learning it herself, often one word at a time, but she sees her efforts having a big effect on the young children both in her family and her community.

The kids in the community want to learn the language, she said. They ask her questions and try to use the words they know in their conversations.

“Small words like that go a big way. When you just keep on it, it will eventually resonate with them.”

Sienna Gould, whose traditional name is Kiigamashidmiigizhiiikwe, wants to be an Anishinaabemowin teacher. She sees the positive impacts of learning languages from a young age with her nieces and nephews. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

Gould said growing up, she felt like she missed out on learning about her language and her culture. But the young people in the next generation of her community are not growing up the same way, and she’s getting herself ready to help them.

“I’m studying for teaching Indigenous languages, Anishinaabemowin and Ininimowin, and my goal is to be able to revitalize the language for our future generations to come,” Gould said.

Paupanekis also said he has become a language advocate. Ininimowin has become a powerful part of his spirituality, he said.

“When I started learning the teachings, I began to understand my spirituality, my spirit, and how my spirit connects to everything and everyone. Everything is interconnected,” he said.

“It gave me my spirit back. It woke my spirit up.”

Sienna Gould teaches Anishinaabemowin

Sienna Gould shares how to say hello and see you later in her language.

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