We are nisto (3) classes into our nêhiyawêwin class here in Montrealihk, and lemme tell ya…the enthusiasm and energy in this classroom is really something to behold! I’m used to standing up and teaching for and entire day, so three hours is not a big deal for me, but let’s not fool ourselves! Three hours is a looooong time to try to stay interested in any subject, and yet we’ve all managed to keep our spirits high and our endless tea flowing. Last class was the first time I needed to refill the 40 cup hot water urn. We like our maskihkiwâpoy over here!

Dialogues and pairs at SmartBoard.

Last class we delved into personal and inclusive (emphatic pronouns) as well as food-based animate and inanimate nouns. We shared stories about how we are trying to incorporate Cree into our everyday lives. With the help of manipulatives on the SmartBoard, many students felt that the concepts discussed sunk in a little deeper than they would have otherwise. That was after all the point of the thing, and I think the SmartBoard is going to become really central to our learning now that we’ve made it out of the linguistic gate, so to speak, and are now headed into conjugations and construction of longer sentences and phrases. Being able to physically move things around and see what they do when put into different positions is really important for visual and tactile learners, which many of us seem to be.

Something I am really happy about too is the way that learners are bringing in their prior knowledge as well as incorporating specific dialects that they have been exposed to through relatives. We use a wide variety of materials, not all of which use standardized Cree writing or even the Plains Cree dialect. This exposure to differing vocabulary, pronunciation and dialect is really important because our goal is to communicate, not just amass grammar rules. Learners each choose whether they want to pronounce the Cree ‘c’ as a ‘ch’ or ‘ts’, and some have even started incorporating Woods (TH) Cree or northern Plains Cree (î instead of ê) in preparation for bringing the language back home in the form they heard it from others.

I really enjoyed breaking down a food-themed vocabulary list with the students. The purpose was to start memorizing animate versus inanimate nouns, because although some nouns seem intuitively one or the other, there are many times when you are left scratching your head. The same is true of languages with gender. Why should one thing be masculine and the other feminine? Sometimes we just have to memorize these things, or find little mental tricks to remind us. More interesting than animacy, in my opinion, is the way you can often break Cree words down to smaller pieces that help you remember the word.

Practicing inclusive (me too!) pronouns.

Two of my favourite Cree nouns to say are tohtôsâpoy (milk) and tohtôsâpôpimiy (butter). If you break these words down you basically get this:

  • tohtôsâpoy: tohtôs (breast) + âpoy (liquid suffix) = breast liquid
  • tohtôsâpôpimiy: tohtôs (breast) + âpoy (liquid suffix shortened a bit) + pimiy (grease) = grease made from breast liquid

Mmmmm, sort of makes you want to go Vegan, hey? Or maybe not, whatever floats your boat.

The point is, you can do this a lot in Cree, and when you can see that the parts of the word are made up of other parts that make sense, two things happen:

  1. you remember the words better
  2. if you come across new, unfamiliar words with some of those same parts, you can start puzzling the meaning of the word out

It seems to me that Cree is a lot more flexible than English in a lot of ways. Cree words tend to be very descriptive of the qualities or characteristics of things and of actions. So if you have a basic vocabulary and you need to describe a thing or a specific type of action, you can construct words that make sense, even if they aren’t the “proper” or “well known” words. I’m not suggesting that learners go out and start inventing words willy nilly, but there is an individual autonomy built into the language that is available for learners to access and that will allow them to be understood even if they say things a little different than what one is used to hearing. You can do that only to a certain extent in English, and I think because of that, there is less value in understanding the break down of English words compared to breaking Cree words down for a more fulsome understanding.

Kookum and Mooshum puppets!

Getting back to the idea of using a variety of materials, I downloaded the new Maskwacis Cree app last night, and it provides some absolutely fantastic resources for learners. Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema, in Alberta) uses its own written system rather than the standardized Cree from Saskatchewan, and while some spellings are similar, some are very different. Some of the vocabulary is different too, but close enough that even beginner learners should be able to recognize similarities. More importantly however, you get to hear different voices pronouncing the words and there are fun games to practice the vocabulary!

It boggles my mind actually, that we have access to these kinds of things ‘on the go’ now, compared to what was available even just a few years ago! Another Cree language app is “My Cree“. These kinds of things really help reinforce what we’re covering in class!

I’m saving the best for last, however. This week, students had to create a presentation that would incorporate two positive (do it) commands and two negative (don’t do it) commands. Without exception, every presentation was put together with a flare of personal style and sense of humour that had all of us grinning ear to ear! Here are some videos from those presentations. Enjoy!

P.S. Winners were drawn from the 197 people who generously contributed to the Cree Classroom campaign, and here are the results!

Winner of the Kanata mukluks from Manitobah Mukluks was Rebekah Coulter from Georgia, USA.

Winner of the Kanata moccasins from Manitobah Mukluks was Claire Litton of Montreal, Quebec!

Many thanks again to everyone who contributed and helped to make this entire project a reality!

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