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Community-driven project keeps unique dialect alive (7 photos)

'There’s a real hunger out there to want to learn it', says project manager

A community-driven project spanning almost a decade aims to keep a unique dialect of the Cree language alive.

Moose Factory’s Community Language Project, which started in 2012, is trying to revitalize and save the "L" dialect of the Moose Cree people.

The project’s manager Geraldine Govender said throughout the years the Cree language was lost because of colonization, residential schools and government policies.

“We have fewer and fewer speakers as our elders pass away. Our language is unique. Our dialect is unique, it’s only spoken in Moose Factory,” Govender said. “It’s important for us that our dialect survives.”

With the help of more than 20 contributing speakers, a total of four editions of the Moose Cree dictionary have been released.

The first edition, published in 2014 with 1,000 copies, had over 6,000 Cree to English entries.

The second edition released in 2015 contained over 9,000 words. There were 1,000 copies of the dictionary printed.

The original goal was to have a dictionary with 15,000 words, according to Govender. The goal was surpassed in 2019 when the third edition was published with 50 illustrations and more than 24,000 Cree to English entries and over 3,000 English to Cree entries.

There were 2,000 copies of the third edition printed.

The fourth edition is online and was launched last December. Govender said they are working on adding audio files with pronunciations to the website.

Several children’s books and pedagogical grammar have also been released as part of the project.

The Moose Cree dictionary is collectively owned by the community of Moose Factory. Community members can receive the dictionary and other language resources free of charge. For non-members, the book can be ordered online or purchased in stores like Coles.

For the past eight years, the project has been funded solely by the community. Finding government funding for the project hasn’t been easy, according to Govender.

She was hired by Moose Cree First Nation in May 2006 to start the language department and look for funds for the project.

“I very quickly found there were no funds for the language or cultural programs for First Nations,” she said. “I was never able to find funding that would cover the core costs of running the program like salaries, office. There were funds available for short-term projects but those didn’t include costs for actually bringing on someone to do the work.”

The biggest cost was printing expenses, Govender said. For the first two editions, organizers used a Sprint Media shop from Montreal. Because the third edition was bigger and had to be published in hardcover, it was done by a printing company that specializes in dictionaries out of Winnipeg.

“The cost of the freight was quite a bit for 2,000 copies because each book is so heavy,” Govender said.

She estimated about $260,000 has been spent on fees for the lexicographer and language contributors as well as design and printing costs for three editions from 2012 until 2019.

After the Indigenous Languages Act came out, she applied for funding but wasn’t successful.

“At this point, I’m fine to just go ahead with what we have to continue the work we’re doing,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of community pride to be able to say, ‘We did this ourselves.’ It’s totally community-driven, community-owned. At some point, I won’t hesitate to do a proposal if I needed extra money.”

Having a website provides access to an up-to-date dictionary, allows for audio files and saves money on printing costs.

“Eight years ago, there was no stable internet in Moose Factory and now there is,” said the project's editor Kevin Brousseau. “Once the internet became stable, we figured this would make the dictionary much more accessible.”

Since the website is relatively new, there isn't information or data available on the site usage statistics yet, they said.

In his work, Brousseau interviews expert speakers from Moose Factory. Before the pandemic started, interviews were conducted both in-person and over the phone.

Brousseau said he finds it’s easier to do interviews over the phone because contributors are able to relax in their homes and it’s more of a “friendly phone call.”

“We either have conversations in Cree, I collect the words as they speak, we record them and analyze the texts once we’ve typed out what they said. Or we analyze literature from the language that has been written over the past 150 years,” Brousseau said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Brousseau has a list of random topics that he discusses with the speakers to make sure the dictionary is as comprehensive as possible.

By talking to multiple speakers, he ensures the information and words are consistent.

“You have a whole set of words that are related by the way they’re built. Components inside a particular word may find themselves inside another 500 words, so that component needs to be translated the exact same way if those 500 words were to have a consistent type of explanation,” said Brousseau.

Words that aren’t used or accepted by the community aren’t included in the dictionary. That includes recently invented words, such as the computer, because there’s no standard accepted word for that in Cree communities. Brousseau explained that unless the word is being used by speakers on a consistent basis, it won’t appear in the dictionary.

Over the years, there have been over 20 contributing speakers. Currently, Brousseau works with a team of one to five elders. Since the start of the project, some of the contributors have died.

“Sometimes, an elderly person may be the last person who knew some stories about certain topics or was very knowledgeable with one particular aspect of the culture. And we lose that elder, we lose an opportunity to record the words with that particular part of the culture,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the language isn’t spoken by that many people in a fluent way anymore. Every time, one of them passes away, it’s like a treasure of our nation that we’ve lost."

The dictionary is a corpus, which is a collection of transcribed stories, conversations and works of literature. It includes examples of natural, conversational language that is received through interviews as well as examples of written language.

With limited financial and human resources, having volunteers willing to type out texts and create the corpus is important, Brousseau said.

"There aren't tons of people trained to do this type of work that speak both Cree and English like I do. That makes it very difficult to find people that can help out," he said adding they can't "go around" hiring a lot of people because there's not a lot of funding.

Govender said it would be “ideal” for her to have one person who is computer literate and knows syllabics, Roman orthography and linguistics instead of having to rely on a number of people to help with the project.

Transferring about 3,500 recordings from an unofficial trial website, the Moose Cree Talking Dictionary, to the new website could also be time-consuming, Govender said.

Once the audio files are added to the new site, Govender said she wants to include different conjugations in the dictionary. Instead of having an example in the third-person singular present tense, like “He does”, Govender said she wants to have examples with different tenses and forms like “I am going to walk” or “Are you doing this tomorrow?”

Brousseau and Govender said there’s been a renewed, growing interest in learning the language.

In Kapuskasing, a group called ILR Moose Cree has been teaching free virtual Cree lessons using the dictionary, the grammar book and children’s books published by Moose Cree’s language department.

“There are very few resources for this dialect,” said the group’s co-founder Ricki-Lynn Achilles. “We have been using the dictionary as one of our greatest tools for this. We use it for pretty much everything that we do: developing resources, worksheets and lessons.”

The weekly evening lessons, which are open to anyone, attract between eight to 12 people per class. Most of the students are young adults in their 20s and 30s with a few people in their 40s and 50s, according to Achilles.

“Our classes would not have been possible without all of these resources that were set out before us. We owe a great deal of thanks to all of the people who have worked on the dictionary and the grammar book and every other resource that’s out there,” she said.

Now that the language has been recorded in print and digital, the goal is to have people speak it, Govender said.

“There’s a concern that we’re losing more and more speakers. Having been able to capture our language in print, it’s a big achievement,” Govender said. “I think people recognize that and are happy about that.”

For Brousseau, the goal is to continue expanding the dictionary, constantly revising and improving it. Without the community backing the project, it wouldn’t have happened, he said.

“We’re fortunate to have a community who are dedicated to have this continue. It’s really important to have the support of the community, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Future plans also include releasing an app for the dictionary for people without access to the Internet, offering Zoom conversational language circles and, most importantly, for people to start practising and using the language.

“I would like to see, before I retire, at least 10-15 people become fluent using all these different resources we have,” Govender said. “There’s a real hunger out there to want to learn it.”

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva

About the Author: Dariya Baiguzhiyeva

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering diversity issues for TimminsToday. The LJI is funded by the Government of Canada
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