The Fight To Preserve
The Cree Language
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Delia Bull Waskewitch's ancestors visited her
in a dream. She and her husband had just driven six hours from their
home in Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan to the foothills
of the Rockies in Morley, Alberta. There, she had made offerings
of tobacco to the mountains and the sacred Bow River, and asked
for the grandfathers' help with a work problem.
Bull Waskewitch's job is to swim as hard as she can against
the tide of history. She's a pre-kindergarten teacher at Kihew Waciston,
the only Plains Cree immersion school in North America andsince
Cree is one of the surviving indigenous tongues spoken exclusively
on this continentin the world. As an instructor of an
ancient language new to the classroom, Bull Waskewitch is forging
her way with little of the support other teachers take for grantedtextbooks,
guidelines, institutional help.
That night in Morley, as she drifted off to sleep, a picture
formed in Bull Waskewitch's mind. She jumped out of bed, grabbed
a sheet of paper, and sketched what the grandfathers had shown her:
a square blazing with red, yellow, blue, and green. The four
corners, she understood, were four L-shaped symbols from the Cree
writing system: ? (mi); ? (me); ? (ma); ? (mo). The grandfathers
had given her a teaching template. Back in Onion Lake, Bull Waskewitch
began using her vision of the four coloured corners to help children
learn the sounds of the language spoken on the prairies before
the time of the treaties, when stories of wisahkecahk, the trickster,
were told through the winter nights.
The past 200 years have been one long funeral march for the
world's languages. No speakers remain of Russia's Akkala Saami
or Brazil's Xakriabá; Turkey's Mlahsô and
Guinea's Baga Kalem have vanished from the Earth. In Canada, from
the mid-seventeenth century until 1996when the last of
this country's residential schools was shutteredIndigenous
languages such as Blackfoot, Tuscarora, and Squamish were decimated
by church and state. Five-year-olds had glue poured on their tongues,
were beaten with straps, sticks, and fists, and taught that their
parents' words came from the Devil.
In the 1970s, colonized people worldwide began to demand their
languages back. In New Zealand, the Maori pioneered the "language
nest" approach, which matched children with older speakers. The
São Gabriel da Cachoeira municipality of Brazil's Upper Rio
Negro has declared Nheengatú, Tukano, and Baniwa official
languages alongside Portuguese. In the British Isles, there has
been a resurgence of Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish. And
despite the residential school system's best efforts to eliminate
Canada's Indigenous languages, this country retains a surprisingly
rich linguistic landscape. From Innu-aimun on the east coast
of Labrador to Gwich'in in Old Crow, Yukon, some 213,500 people
are carrying on conversations in more than sixty Indigenous languages.
The smallest linguistic communities are perilously small: in
2011, Gwich'in had only 370 mother-tongue speakers. Cree, however,
according to the most recent census, is the mother tongue of at
least 83,475 speakersthe highest number of any of Canada's
Indigenous languages. (Because of the difficulty in gathering
data on reserves, statisticians believe the numbers are probably
even higher.) Cree is one of only three tonguesalong with
Inuktitut and Ojibwaythat linguists agree have a fighting
chance of long-term survival.
The key to Cree's future may lie with Kihew Waciston's
approachimmersion for second-language learners. The majority
of the school's parents are unilingual English speakers in their
twenties and thirties whose own parents and grandparents, scarred
by their residential school experiences, didn't pass on their mother
tongue. For these young parents, the Cree language is a gift they
hope to give their children. Onion Lake straddles the Saskatchewan-Alberta
border about three hours northwest of Saskatoon, and the highway
runs out of pavement right at the foot of Kihew Waciston, a
long red-roofed building muralled with white teepees against a blue
sky. Onion Lake took over its own education system from the
federal government in 1981, and the band council started a makeshift
Cree-immersion preschool program in the early 2000s. Today, there
are four schools on the reserve. Kihew Wacistonmeaning "eagle's
nest," after the Maori modelgoes up to the fifth grade, employs
more than thirty teachers and staff, and houses the Gift of Language
and Culture, a curriculum development centre that provides free
Cree instruction templates to teachers throughout the province.
The new education system's philosophy can be summed up by a
school billboard that shows a man standing with his feet apart,
a vertical black line cleaving him into two halves. One half wears
a grey suit and clutches a rolled-up diplomawhat administrators
call the "keeping up with the Joneses" side. The other half, clothed
in moccasins and fringed animal hide, holds an eagle featherthe
spiritual side. Kihew Waciston's teachers are native Cree
speakers, many of whom graduated from the University of Saskatchewan's
longstanding Indian Teacher Education Program. The school's emphasis
on "land-based education" means that while students learn math,
science, and language arts, they also learn to build campfires,
pluck geese, harvest and dry sweetgrass, and snare rabbits. Enrolment
sits at about 200, and demand has been growing every year.
On a recent morning, five studentsfour girls and
a boy, all about four years oldsat on a circular mat printed
with images of beavers, whales, ducks, and wolves. Bull Waskewitch,
wearing a black-and-yellow sports jacket, stood in front of a Smart
Board. "Kikway oma?" she asked, pointing to a picture. "Horse,"
volunteered a girl with a long ponytail sprouting from the top of
her head. "Nehiyawe," Bull Waskewitch chided ("Say it in Cree").
She motioned to the little boy to press the audio icon that accompanied
the horse picture. "Misatim," the Smart Board said. It spoke in
a child's voice; Bull Waskewitch had made the recordings herself
with the kids earlier in the year.
The class played a sort of Simon Says, touching their nosesniskiwanand
eyesmiskisik. Bull Waskewitch brought out her guitar. She
changed the Smart Board image and began singing a song of greeting
to the weather. "Tanisi isiwepan, tanisi isiwepan?" she sang, to
a tune reminiscent of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She asked
a little girl in a pink shirt and Hello Kitty socks to approach
the Smart Board and show the class the day's weather. The girl selected
a picture of a woman in the snow. "Mispon-ayaw?" Bull Waskewitch
asked. It was springtime, and prairie dust floated through the dirt
parking lot outside the classroom window. "Are you sure? Maybe tahkayaw,
'it is cold?'" The girl decided on yotin"it is windy"and
the class sang hello to windy weather. Later, while they put on
their coats to go home for lunch, the Hello Kitty girl sang softly
to herselftanisi isiwepan, tanisi isiwepan?.?.?.
Linguists have a saying: the younger the speakers, the healthier
the language. Set in a landscape of ochre fields dotted with
horses, where the early spring scrub blooms with yellow buffalo
beans and prairie vetch, Onion Lake is home to an on-reserve
population of some 3,200; 40 percent are mother-tongue Cree speakers.
But these speakers are aging, and as older generations pass on,
the balance of the community's linguistic life tips toward
English. Buffalo were once so thick on these plains that hunters
feared being trampled in their tents; today, Bison Transport trucks
thunder past. The nation's determination to create young speakers
of a critically endangered language has turned Onion Lake into
a testing ground for a high-stakes pedagogical mission. Schools
were once the instrument of Cree's suppression; could they
become the means of restoring its future?
THE EARLIEST resources on record for the transmission
of Cree were aimed at Europeans. Even after generations of colonial
presence, seventeenth-century French traders were still expected
to learn their suppliers' languages, not the other way around. The
central region of the continent took longer for Europeans to penetrate
than the coastal areas, and the first Cree-French dictionary was
compiled by an Oblate father, Père Albert Lacombe, in
1874. "One could say that Cree is for the North-West what French
is for civilized nations," wrote Lacombe. "With this idiom,
if needed, one can make oneself understood by any tribe in this
According to European accounts, Cree was an exclusively oral
language until the 1840s, when the Methodist missionary James Evans,
drawing on scripts for Sanskrit, Hebrew, Cherokee, and Pitman
shorthand, invented the syllabic writing system. By the 1850s, European
observers were surprised to find the Cree people almost perfectly
literate in syllabics, surpassing the English and French literacy
of settlers. However, Cree elders have their own history of the
provenance of the syllabic writing system. I heard this account,
out on the land, from a Cree storyteller, in exchange for a gift
of tobacco. One challenge in the transmission of Cree knowledge
is the injunction against writing sacred stories down, but I will
give you a hint: it does not involve Reverend Evans.
Lacombe's dictionary focused on the Plains Cree dialect. However,
the Cree language comprises a dialect continuum, with communities
of speakers all the way from Labrador to the Rockies. The Cree for
"Cree" isn't "Cree"East Cree speakers call their language
înûayimuwin or îyiyiuyimuwin, while Plains Cree
speakers call their language nehiyawewinand dialects are often
mutually unintelligible. (Today, Quebec's dialects are considered
the healthiest, as they are spoken on a daily basis by the youngest
speakers, while speakers of the prairie dialects are the most numerous.)
The Europeans' attitude toward Indigenous languages mirrored
their attitude toward Indigenous people: both were pronounced nearly
dead as soon as Europeans stopped needing them to survive.
A romantic nostalgia quickly began to permeate European scholarship
on Indigenous cultures, and the documentation of their languages
was considered an exercise in preserving historical artifacts.
The dictionaries and grammar books compiled by non-Indigenous linguists,
with the guidance of elders, tended to reside in urban universities,
where they did more to advance academic careers than to stem language
loss in communities.
It was in the 1970s that the first generation of Indigenous
scholar-activists began to shift the conversation from language
documentation to language revitalization. Although reserves were
starting to take control of their own education systems, English
was still seen as the language of the classroom. Some elementary
and high schools began teaching Cree as a subject for a few hours
a week, and teachers improvised a patchwork of materials. In eastern
Canada, immersion programs for languages like Kanien'keha and Mi'kmaq
came into existence, but the differences between indigenous languages
are vast, and communication between communities sporadic. In 2003,
the Gift of Language and Culture was founded with the help
of two other nearby reserves and Saskatchewan's largest tribal council.
Onion Lake began developing flash cards, games, and vocabulary
sets for its own teachers and distributing its materials for free
to any Cree teacher off the reserve who wanted to use them.
Since that time, the demand for Cree classes in Saskatchewan's
cities has created a historic reversal: there are now more posts
for Cree teachers than there are fluent instructors to fill them.
Belinda Daniels, who recently received the Canadian Teachers' Federation
2015 Outstanding Aboriginal Educator Award, differs from Onion Lake's
teachers in that she's a second-language learner herself. Brought
up by her grandparents in Sturgeon Lake, another Saskatchewan
reserve, Daniels didn't learn Cree as a child. "They wanted to protect
me," she says of her grandparents' reluctance to share the language
Suffering an identity crisis in her late twenties, Daniels felt
a strong pull back to the language of her ancestors. She enrolled
in university classes, took trips back to visit her grandparents,
and travelled to Montana to work with Stephen Greymorning,
a linguistic anthropologist who developed an accelerated second-language
teaching methodology for his own Arapaho language. When Daniels
began teaching Cree in Saskatoon, there were minimal resources available.
"I basically used my grandparents; I used my friends who spoke Cree.
I learned how to sing songs in Cree."
Today, there's an explosion in Cree teaching tools. Should you
need a vocabulary set that tells you how to order at Tim
Hortonsor cim-otanthere's a Quizlet site for you. (A
double-double is a niswaw-niswaw.) The YouTube channel want2speakcree
features audio clips of common phrases such as "How are you?" (tanisi)
and "I am from Edmonton" (amiskwaciwaskahikanihk ohci niya).
Sites such as the Cree Literacy Network, First Language Speaking
Project Inc., and Maskwacis Cultural College offer vocabulary
sets for days of the week, kinship terms, colour names, animal names,
and numbers, while audio on the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas allows
users to compare the word for "mittens" in Buffalo Lake's Métis
Cree (astisak) with Whapmagoostui's East Cree (astisich).
Then there are the apps. In 2013, Nehiyawetan Productions, a
company also responsible for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network
children's show Tansi! Nehiyawetan, released an app for iPhone
and iPad called My Cree, which its website promises is "like learning
Cree from your auntie!" In the same year, an online dictionary
developed by Ermineskin Cree Nation's education authority released
an Android app. The Algonquian Linguistic Atlas recently received
funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
for a five-year project to provide dictionary apps for twelve languages
for phones, iPads, and tablets. In 2005, its inaugural year, the
atlas' Cree dictionary component received about 5,000 queries; it
now receives about 55,000 queries every year.
While the movement to share resources online can help learners,
the digital world may be accelerating a controversial phenomenon:
standardization. In a language with so many dialects, geography
has worked to create the kind of diversity we see in the plant world,
with tiny pockets of delicate distinctions. But when people bring
together learners from across the country, major dialects tend to
crush minor ones. Similarly, the web is friendlier to the Roman
alphabet than to Cree syllabics, reflecting a wider trend away
from the old writing. "I cried," Bull Waskewitch told me, of a meeting
a few years ago in which Kihew Waciston administrators broke
the news that they would be moving away from syllabics. "It was
really heartbreaking for me." The problem was that parents didn't
know the traditional symbols; people eager to help their children
with homework didn't want to contend with what, ironically, felt
like a foreign writing system.
DESPITE THE PROGRESS linguists, educators, and activists have
made, Kihew Waciston still struggles to meet its ambitious goals.
Ralph Morin is the school's principal, and his office is a mix of
austere professionalism and kids' craft-making; when I visited,
a Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy award fraternized on a shelf
with a shopping bag erupting with tinsel. Morin explained one of
the central linguistic features that can bemuse an English-speaking
five-year-old encountering Cree for the first time. "That's 'a chair'
in English, right?" Morin pointed to his office chair. "But if I
said tehtapiwintehta is 'on top'apiwin is 'where
you sit.' So 'you're sitting on top'that's what that means:
you describe the function of the object."
In other words, Cree words are as complex as English sentences.
Unlike English, which is a noun-based language, Cree is organized
around verb-based descriptive phrases. Cree places an emphasis on
relationshipsrather than floating alone as separate units
of meaning, the words for people, animals, and objects are embedded
with narratives about how these things interact with each other
and the environment. Cree speakers stress that the language carries
a visceral experience of the traditional worldview. It's one thing
to be the possessor of a nose; it's quite another to have a
mikota short form of "I will take in." The word reminds the
speaker that she is literally the air she breathes.
These complex nuances make for a steep learning curve. On her
influential blog, the Cree teacher and activist Chelsea Vowel discusses
the difficulty of developing Cree language materials that progress
past basic vocabulary. "It is absolutely vital," Vowel writes, "that
we do more than recognize this reoccurring problem. And I really
do mean reoccurring. I have resources from the '70s that essentially
mirror apps that are being put out right now."
Vowel talked about a four-level scale of proficiency called
"Travels with Charlie"Tarzan is the lowest level, Charlie
Rose the highest. I asked Onion Lake's assistant director of education,
Terry Clarke, where he thought the school's graduating studentskids
coming out of grade five and entering the English-language school
across the reservefell on the scale. "Presently?" he asked.
"Over the course of time, we want to get to Level 4. But we're not
there yet. We're a long ways from there. We've been at this for
many years, and we're probably between a Level 1 and a Level 2,
to be honest with you."
In communities where school is the only place a child regularly
speaks the language, it's difficult for learners to reach Charlie
Rose. And in the gas station, the grocery store, and the Horseshoe
Café (Onion Lake's lone restaurant), I heard conversations
that would be familiar to immigrant families across Canada: older
people speaking in the heritage language, and younger people responding
Kihew Waciston's grade-four classroom is just down the hall
from where Delia Bull Waskewitch teaches her pre-kindergarten.
On the day I visited, the kind-eyed teacher, Ruby Thomas, told
a long story that I gathered was about a local elder and a bear,
and the students were full of questions and commentsthey clearly
understood. However, when not running vocabulary drills, the grade
fours spoke in English both to their teacher and to each other.
To illustrate her anecdote, Thomas brought out a plastic shopping
bag and, reaching inside, pulled out an oddly flat stuffed animal.
"Kikway oma?" she asked. "Hiderug," a pink-and-blue sweatshirted
girl said. "Nehiyawe," Thomas gently remonstrated, but there's no
punishment here for speaking the wrong language. The girl shrugged.
The toy bearskin rug was a hit, however, and Thomas allowed the
class a few minutes to lie with their heads on it, stroking the
dark fur. "My uncle shot a bear near our house," a girl said in
English. "Shot one?" a boy asked. "Don't kill any more bears. We're
killing Trébear's family," another boy put in mournfully.
Trébeara cheerful boy in grey track pantslaughed
along with the rest.
Teachers and administrators at Kihew Waciston want to make the
school as supportive and welcoming an environment as they can. But
the monumental scale of the undertakingto invent lesson plans,
research different pedagogical tactics, devise a way of measuring
student progress, and create a culturally meaningful curriculum
in a language on the brink of extinctioncreates a heavy burden
for a small community to carry alone.
In 1996, after an exhaustive research-gathering process of consultation
across the country, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
made the following recommendation: that the federal government create
"an Aboriginal Languages Foundation to document, study and conserve
Aboriginal languages and to help Aboriginal people arrest and reverse
the loss of languages that has already occurred." But no such federal
body was formed. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
made a similar recommendation, calling on the federal government
to pass an Aboriginal languages act that would ensure
sufficient funding for language preservation and revitalization.
It remains to be seen how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government
will respond. At the moment, however, it is up to each small
community of speakers to navigate a maze of federal, provincial,
and local grants for which they can apply to develop conservation
projects on their own.
"There's no help," Morin said simply. According to Clarke, Onion
Lake receives about $8,500 from Indigenous and Northern Affairs
Canada in education funding per student every year. Schools in Saskatchewan's
provincial system receive about $10,829 per student, although their
ministry of education stresses that there is considerable regional
variation. (A federal representative wasn't able to give specific
figures for Onion Lake's funding, but said Saskatchewan's reserves
receive an average of $12,202 per student, per year.)
Morin and Clarke both argue that the provincial funding model
allocates more resources for French-immersion schools to pay for
the higher costs they incur (in an agreement signed in 2014, Saskatchewan
will receive $6.7 million per year until 2018 to fund French immersion
and core instruction programs). At the federal level, the combined
annual budget for all Indigenous language programs is $9.1 million,
whereas in 201415, funding for the promotion of English and
French was $348.2 million. In Nunavut, where Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun
are official languages, programs for the province's francophone
minority receive about $4,000 per person every year; Inuit-language
programs receive about $44 per person. In Onion Lake, Clarke
said, the band contributes its own money to fund Cree textbooks,
curriculum development, assessment tools, and teacher training.
Although capital buildings are supposed to be built by INAC, the
band paid for the school's construction.
Financially, Onion Lake is luckier than most reserves. As a
nearby billboard puts it: Welcome to Black Gold Country. In 1994,
when the band council and the federal government negotiated a treaty
land entitlement claim, Onion Lake received about $30 million as
settlement. The band used that money to buy a mineral-rich tract
of land just north of the reserve and formed Onion Lake Energy,
which partnered with BlackPearl Resources Inc. in 2009. In the third
quarter of 2015, BlackPearl reported an average daily yield of more
than 7,000 barrels of oil from the more than 300 wells on reserve
land. Some of the oil trucks that speed past on the highway belong
to Onion Lake's Askiy Apoy Hauling, and the band also runs its own
pipeline company, Beretta Pipeline Construction LP.
As a result, Onion Lake is relatively wealthy. Gift of
Language distributes its materials for free to any school that wants
to teach Cree, and the school often gets visitors from speakers
of other languages as well; delegations have come from reserves
in Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba. "Onion Lake is the model,"
says Belinda Daniels, who often uses the Gift of Language materials
in her courses. Other nations can try to repurpose the centre's
lesson plans and vocabulary exercises. But in the absence of a federal
mandate for protecting Indigenous languages, immersion programs
are restricted to the few bands that can afford to pay for them.
WHY ARE Indigenous communities willing to pour so much
time, energy, and scarce resources into what may seem like an ill-fated
battle? "I realized that just as the Jews could not become a living
nation except by returning to their ancient homelandso
also they could not become a living nation except by returning
to the language of their ancestors," wrote Hebrew revivalist
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda around 1918 in an unfinished autobiography. During
Ben-Yehuda's childhood, Hebrew had no mother-tongue speakers. Today
it is the first language of about 50 percent of Israeli adults.
As with the rebirth of Hebrew, the resurgence of Indigenous
languages is an assertion of political identity. Sociolinguists
have long emphasized the link between language and an emerging sense
of nationhood (think Quebec separatism). At a meeting between Onion
Lake's school administrators and elders, a discussion arose of Quebec's
Bill 101, which, among other things, legislates the use of French
for signage and for greeting customers in businesses. "Maybe we
should do that," I heard someone say. While Indigenous people who
signed the original treaties with European powers believed they
were establishing a nation-to-nation relationship, the Indian
Act relegated them to wards of the state. Twenty-first-century movements
such as Idle No More are now insisting that Canada honour Indigenous
sovereignty. Activists would even like to see Cree receive official
Onion Lake was a signatory to Treaty Six in 1876, an agreement
whereby Plains Cree people agreed to share the land with Queen Victoria
in exchange for agricultural implements, medical care, and,
crucially, education. It would be impossible to overstate the
treaty's place in the national consciousness of Onion Lake. One
of Thomas' exercises this year was to have her students sign a copy
of the treaty, placing their names where their great-great-great-grandparents'
leader, Seekaskootch, placed his. Walk the hallways of Kihew Waciston,
and you'll see a series of framed passages from the treaty decreeing,
in the royal fanfare of turn-of-the-century handwriting, Queen Victoria's
eternal pledge to the treaty nations.
Judeo-Christian civilization long considered Hebrew to be humankind's
original tongue, and traditional Cree storytellers also
teach that their language was a universal speech given intact to
the first people as a gift from the Creator. As a result, the sacred
nature of the language can't be disentangled from its lexical components.
As Belinda Daniels told me, "It's really the bone marrow of our
Language instruction, therefore, takes on a significance beyond
simply memorizing vowel sounds. "I honestly believe Indigenous
languages will help alleviate the lawlessness in our communities,"
Daniels said. "It'll help us remember the old ways of how we
governed ourselves. It will help us fix the things that are so broken."
Indeed, studies support the link between Indigenous-language
retention and well-being. In 2007, a study found that suicide rates
among the young were well below the provincial averages in communities
where most of the population had a conversational fluency in
the heritage language. And according to a 2013 analysis of the First
Nations Regional Health Survey, suicidal thoughts and attempts were
lower among adults with intermediate or advanced proficiency in
their language. Bringing Indigenous languages into schools also
helps improve academic outcomes, and parents who feel more
positive about their children's school environments are more likely
to become involved. Maybe best of all, Indigenous children who speak
their heritage language seem to enjoy school more.
When I asked Morin how the Kihew Waciston children benefited
from an immersive Cree environment, he noted that the studentscompared
to those at other schools where he's workedare better
behaved. "I haven't seen one child here this year for behaviour,"
he said. "Whether it's for teasing, whether it's for fightingnot
As Canada re-envisions its relationship with Indigenous people,
Kihew Waciston offers an example of how schools can use traditional
knowledge to improve their students' lives. The next generation
of Indigenous children is inheriting the hardest conditions of any
group in the country. Many of the adults I spoke with in Onion Lake
were raising children from extended family networks whose own parents
were unable to care for them. Many had lost children of their own.
One key virtue discussed in Kihew Waciston's morning assemblies
is kihceyihtamowin taking pride in what is loaned to you from
the Creator and assuming your spiritual and physical responsibilities.
The names that children learn to give themselves at Kihew Waciston,
Morin says, remind them of their role in their families: for older
brothers, "nistes is equivalent to 'brother,' but nistes really
means 'the heart that walks ahead of me.'" Nimis, for older sister,
means "the one that will pour knowledge that she gains."
On my last day in Onion Lake, one of the elders invited me to
a sweat lodge for school administrators being held in the meadow
in front of his house. On the drive over, the director of education,
Fred Dillon, told me that, at a sweat, you can sometimes feel the
bear spirit's breath on your face. The eagle's wings may brush your
cheek, and the grandmother's rattles fly around the lodge. From
his rear-view mirror, several white ribbons dangled next to
a dream catcher made of sweetgrass and eagle feathers. Every year,
Dillon makes an offering to the horse spirit and has a new
set of ribbons blessed. In the old days, these ribbons would have
been tied into his horse's mane today, trucks are the new
horses. And, as the region's elders said as Treaty 6 was signed,
education will be the new buffalo. As we drive by, Dillon points
out where the Anglican residential school once stood; now it's Seekaskootch
Car Repairs & Gas Bar. On the site of the old Roman Catholic
school, there's nothing but tall grass.
The details of the sweat lodge, like the sacred stories, are
not to be written downespecially by a moniyaskwew like me.
But it is permitted to say that during the ceremony, I listened
to the crash of water sizzling against rock and picked out in the
singing the word nohtawiy"my father." Colleagues teased each
other between rounds, chatting about the upcoming high-school graduation,
at which Dillon's youngest daughter would receive her diploma;
she'd be heading off to university in the fall. In the tent's darkness,
the air thick with sweetgrass, school administrators sang alone
and in unison, to the bear spirit and the eagle spirit. They sang
to the Creator, to the north, the south, the east, and the west.
And they prayed for their students.
Linda Besner will publish a new book of poetry, Feel Happier
in Nine Seconds, in 2017.
Julie Flett is an award-winning Cree-Métis author and