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Jean Okimasis

Women of Distinction promotes Cree language

by Alison Sebastion

Eagle Feather News - June 2000

Jean OkimasisJean Okimasis is striving to promote and preserve the Cree language. Her efforts were recently acknowledged. Okimasis won the prestigious Saskatchewan YWCA Woman of the Distinction Award in the Arts and Culture category.

In her acceptance speech, Jean's passion for the Cree language was clear. Speaking in both Cree and English, Jean said: "I am grateful tonight that you honour not me, but my language, the Cree language, because it carries my culture and reflects the culture of my people." Jean believes that it is essential to preserve the Cree language.

"Cree is the native language that is spoken most in this country. From Quebec to Alberta and in some regions of B.C., statistics reveal that Cree is the one language that is spoken the most in the home."

She goes on to say that Cree is deemed so important that speakers of the language are teaching it to people at the Department of Indian Affairs.

Arok Wolvengrey, Jean's husband, says he is also her biggest fan. He nominated her for the award. "She has never received any recognition for all the work that she's done," he points out. He says that she did not want to be nominated.

Wolvengrey had to convince her that there would be no harm done if she was nominated. He told her that if she won the award, it would bring great recognition to the Cree language. It was this that finally convinced Jean to co-sign the nomination papers.

Jean grew up on the White Bear Indian Reserve near Carlyle. Her father was Cree and Dakota. Her mother was Cree. Jean's understanding of the Cree language developed at a young age. Her native tongue is Cree.

Jean graduated from high school in Lebret. It wasn't until her daughter was nine years old that Jean decided to go back to school. In 1981, she received he BA in psychology.

Jean was invited to teach Cree at the University of Regina. Cree was part of the Indian Studies program. At that time, there was no separate language program, even though classes were huge and the need for a separate department was apparent.

A challenge she faced in teaching of the Cree language was a text that Jean said made her feel uncomfortable. The book was called "Cree: An Intensive Language Course" by Mary Edwards. The book contained derogatory phrases and Jean felt that it was not a suitable text to use to teach the Cree language. Jean, along with fellow instructor Solomon Ratt, created their own text that is widely used all over western Canada in Cree classes.

Jean says Cree is not just a language. "It's a part of your culture. It comes out in your speech word and word order." She explains that there is no difference between "she", "he" and "it" in the third person singular, as there is in most languages. She says that this may be because of the Cree world view that we are all equal in the eyes of our creator. For instance, there is no difference between an animal, rock or human.

Asked if she thinks that Cree is a dying language, Jean's eyes light up in determination. "It has declined. I think that we are in a renaissance period where people are recognizing that we better do something about this." Jean has certainly done her share to promote and preserve the Cree language.

She is a part of the CLRC, which is the Cree Language Retention Committee. She also writes for a Cree newsletter that is called "Let's keep speaking Cree." In 1992-1993, Jean developed the Saskatchewan Education Teaching Language Curriculum guide. In 1985 she was the first department head of the SIFC Language Department.

On top of that, in the past year two of her books were nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Awards in the categories of First Nations publishing and education.

The importance of Jean's work is emphasized by a recent report showing that First Nations languages are in danger. The report says all but a few Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada are teetering on the brink of extinction.

"Canada is on the verge of losing precious jewels of its cultural heritage," according to Ron Ignace, chair of the Assembly of First Nations' Chief Committee on Aboriginal Languages, who was quoted in The Globe and Mail on May 13.

"These languages representing vast resevoirs of intellectual knowledge stretching back thousands of years. The English language is an infant relative to our language. In my view, the loss of these languages in our country will rival the great ecological disasters of the world, such as the destruction of the rain forest. It has that potential."

Links: (click on X in top right corner of outside link to return to photo gallery)

2000 Women of Distinction Awards Dinner

Canadian Linguistic Association--Committee on Aboriginal Languages

Association canadien de linguistique--Comité sur les langues autochtones

Saskatchewan Book Awards--Award Nominees by Year--1999 Nominees-First Peoples Publishing

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