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On several occasions Dan Musqua has told me an ancient and times less teaching: "Our purpose for existence is to learn." That statement guided my approach to teaching EINL 225, an Indian language arts class, to a large group of Cree-speaking students at the SIFC, Northern Extensions in Prince Albert this summer.
When Cathy Nelson, the program coordinator, first approached me, I pondered the immensity of the job of teaching an oral and written communications course in a two-week period. I reviewed my learning experience in co teaching it with Anne Cook in Red Earth last year. I remembered the teachings of Dan Musqua, Alex Wolfe, Bill Ermine and other Elders who have tutored me, and who are among the many great thinkers and keepers of traditional knowledge of our times. I thought about my friends (the few that I have) Willie Ermine and D.W. Deschambault, who have studied and written about our age-old traditions of teaching and learning. And, of course, I knew Dr. Dan Musqua, who is also among the SIFC faculty, would come and give me a hand in class. With all this help I could do it, I concluded.
It all happened very fast. After days of extensive reading and course planning, I entered the first class with course outline, books and readings in hand. Cathy introduced me to the class and we were off and running. As it turned out the students became my teachers just as much as I was theirs. That two-week period was literally an intellectual boot camp for us. I lectured and toiled over reading and marking their papers. They struggled, I'm sure, to make sense of me and the work that was before them, and read and wrote deep into the night to complete their assignment projects. They came to class each day to sit for six hours of lectures and participate in seminars. And through all that, their attendance was perfect.
Everyday the students dealt with subject matter to which they could directly relate. First we explored the historical effects of colonialism on languages and cultures. Then we examined the nature of knowledge from an Aboriginal perspective and the methods used for learning and teaching that knowledge (tough one). We struggled to see how these were all connected, and how language is connected to thinking, knowledge and culture. Meanwhile, outside the sun shone brightly and the green trees and grass danced in the wind.
Cathy, Willie and Esther Sanderson, the Dean of SIFC Northern Campus, and I marveled at their conviction. We wondered together what drove these students to commit to such intensive learning in hot summer months when they could be taking it easy and enjoying the leisures of summer life.
I quickly realized from our discussions that these students are coming to the call of a greater work that they have to do in their communities- to help save the Cree language and culture! It's like we're all realizing this at the same time. First we realized that we were all hoodwinked into believing that our First Nation languages were obsolete and a hindrance to our success in the modern world. Then we were told that our culture was no good. To top it off we were told that we had no history and that our storytellers were unreliable sources of knowledge. Our minds were getting really colonized there for awhile.
Fortunately in the last few years, First Nations and institutions such as SIFC have taken massive action to address the effects of colonization and have set up teacher training programs to rescue and restore our languages and cultures. The two-year First Nations Language Instructor Certificate Program is one such discipline that SIFC and the Prince Albert Grand Council have established for students to learn Cree language arts. Besides being offered in Prince Albert in the summer, certificate programs are also underway in Cree and Dene communities such as Red Earth and Black Lake in the winter.
The program in Prince Albert is quickly gaining popularity as it is attracting students from other northern First Nation communities in which Cree is still widely spoken among the young and old. Even though the program is being offered here only in the summer months, it does not seem to deter these students.
So what is the big attraction, really? I believe that the mission of this certificate program and of its students is to prepare for
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This also means that the Elders- the keepers of the classical Cree language- will again assume their role as teachers and advisors in our oral traditions of learning. It's a massive undertaking, but the beauty of it is that it is not just the pipe dream of a few anymore. This program is the first real move into the area of bilingual education, the next generation `pentium' in First Nation education. These students are on the cutting edge of this movement.