Ready or Not – Languages Are Vital to Sustaining the Indigenous Movement

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Languages, Opinion

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Someone I know recently described herself as experiencing an ‘emotional hangover’ after the mess of January 11th. This description immediately resonated with me. I’m sure many people are feeling the same.

Idle No More came in like a lion right around the winter holidays, and so I think many people were able to commit to it in a way that would not normally be possible. That was certainly my experience. When I’m not out trying to save the world one word at a time, I’m teaching at a school that is a two hour commute each way from my home. By the time I get my daughters home each week night and start supper, it’s already 6pm. Homework, music practice, baths, bedtime stories (a tradition I don’t plan to part with any time soon, despite the fact that our eldest daughters are both 10) and it’s 8pm. A few blessed hours to ourselves! To hang laundry to dry, prepare lunches for the next day, and try to keep up with whatever other housework needs doing. Lather, rinse and repeat.

What you don’t find a lot of in many of our lives, is free time. That’s true whether you’re a doctor, lawyer or an Indian chief. And before anyone accuses me of believing that stay at home moms and dads have it easy, let me just go on record as saying I’ve always felt that working outside the home was a heck of a lot less exhausting.

I’m not bringing all this up because I think you don’t know it. I’m reminding myself. Because that emotional hangover I mentioned earlier tends to include a lot of guilt. Guilt about what I’m not doing to help Idle No More gain traction. Guilt about the articles I should be writing to help banish pernicious myths, interviews I should be giving to keep Idle No More in the public eye and ear. I’m not a Catholic, but somehow guilt is one of my defining emotions.

However guilty I feel, I am nonetheless very aware of my limitations. I was forced to become aware of them because in the fall of 2010, I experienced my first case of burnout.

Burnout is a very strange thing. It isn’t something that is well defined for most of us, and often gets confused with just being tired, or being more prone to procrastination than usual. It took me a long time to realize I was burned out, and as a consequence, I continued to take on way too much at a time. Of course this snowballed to a point where I felt like I couldn’t actually function like a normal human being. The idea of sitting down to pay the bills was enough to send me hiding under the covers, never mind the much more important tasks I’d committed myself to completing. It took me over a year to ‘get back to normal’, but normal now includes an awareness that this could absolutely happen to me again if I’m not careful.

Being careful means recognizing those limitations I spoke about. For example, I don’t actually enjoy doing interviews. I feel a lot of pressure not to screw things up or say the wrong thing. Once I’m talking, it’s easy, but the anxiety is still there. So when I was getting calls for up to four interviews in a day, I had to set a limit. I ‘retired’ a few days ago and refused to take any more requests. I had to trust that other people were still out there, probably much more capable than I, to say what needs saying. Plus, it’s not like I can duck out of my class to chat with a reporter while my students sit there doodling.

I also can’t help organize actions here in Montreal. I just can’t. My weekdays are a black hole of routines that are absolutely necessary for the functioning of my family, and if I can manage to squeeze some spare time in there, it’s going to be so I can spend it with them.

Probably most distressing for me, is the fact that I can’t write as often as I’d like to. That’s really where my passion lies, and it’s so rare that I have the necessary time to sit down, do the research, and put something out there. My brain only seems to function properly in the morning, while the ‘free’ time I have is late in the evening. Thus, I have to wait for those rare days off to do what I wish I could do full time.

If we don’t want Idle No More to go out like a lamb, we all have to be aware of our limitations. More than this, however, it is absolutely vital that we find ways to contribute that do not drain us, or cause us to experience those emotional hangovers.

“For me, Idle No More is about a sustained indigenous movement that is rooted in our traditions and our aspirations as peoples.”

For me, it can never be just about protests or blockades or politics. Those things do not give me energy, they depress the hell out of me. Some of those things are necessary, but a root canal can be necessary too, and you don’t see people rushing out to get those!

Thus I’ve had to really consider what I can contribute to a sustained movement that would lift me up and keep me going, and I hope that everyone involved in Idle No More does a bit of that thinking too. I think we have to identify needs in our lives, and then use our talents to fill them as best we can. One of the needs I have long felt is for a way to use and share my language with my children, and with others.

lacombe_874_2lI guess I was waiting for someone else to come along with the perfect Cree program. Maybe something online, slick and interesting and all ready for us to use. Maybe I was waiting for a lot of free time to plan it out myself so that that everything would be ready to go before we started. Or maybe I was just being idle.

So yesterday I invited some friends over to talk about getting a Cree language nest going here in Montreal. We ate bannock and drank tea and talked and joked and gossiped and here and there thought about the logistics. We’re going to start this whole thing next Sunday, ready or not, and I’ll be honest when I say I don’t feel ready. What I do feel is pretty certain it’s going to be okay.

Because we need this. If there’s one real thing that unifies native peoples here in what a bunch of folks have gotten used to calling Canada, it’s that we believe our languages are important. More than important. Vital. Superlatively intensely unimaginably incredibly necessary.

When I speak my language, it makes me happy. When I can speak my language with someone else, I feel energized. When I speak my language with my children, I feel fricking epic. I could sit and talk about the Cree language for hours. For days! Here is something that we have to do, something that will make our lives better, something that will sustain Idle No More. Even more importantly, here is something that will give us energy to keep going. Into the next weeks, months and yes, years.

In a language nest, we will be able to think about how we raise our children, and what we want for them and ourselves. We will collaborate on bringing more of our culture into our everyday lives. We will support one another, inspire one another, and challenge one another to improve in so many ways. We will make this foreign, urban landscape more habitable for ourselves and for others, because I am absolutely certain that once we gain experience in this, others will join us. Either to learn Cree or to learn their own languages. We will not burn out and be forced to turn away from this movement.

Anger might motivate us to speak out against injustice, but I really believe that only love can make us do the work necessary to create real change. I want to bring my most positive self to Idle No More so I do not drain others or myself. Somehow we will find ways to link our language nest into the wider movement. We will share the task of blogging about our experiences, our breakthroughs, our flops, our growth. Together perhaps all of us involved in these programs in various communities will create a national, indigenous lead and indigenous provided strategy for language and culture revitalization. The Maori started out in garages and living rooms. Who knows where we can go, if we just get up and start moving?

Who knows where we can go, if we just get up and start moving.


Follow Chelsea on Twitter: @apihtawikosisan

Chelsea Vowel is the author of âpihtawikosisân.  She is Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She currently lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her passions are: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. She holds a BEd, an LLB and teaches indigenous youth.


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  1. Emil BELL
    January 15, 2013

    Go for it!

  2. shannon
    January 15, 2013

    great timing, there’s a beautiful new practical book out, by leanne hinton.

  3. Bridget Courchene
    January 15, 2013

    Yes, language is a huge part of identity. And identity is a huge part of this movement. We’re all suddenly able to say This Is Who We Are.

    I have ferreted out all the Cree books and stories I have collected over the years and I’m teaching myself a little bit every day. I want the kids to learn too, so I took Christmas present tags and labeled things around the house so my kids can see the Cree words. :) It’s a tiny step but I’m gonna keep taking those tiny steps.

  4. Julie
    January 17, 2013

    The F.N. history, languages and cultures, are the most important cultures in all of Canada.

    I am not F.N. person. My family do have F.N. friends, and have had for decades. Over 50 years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a very, very old F.N. great, Grandmother. I was absolutely fascinated with her stories. I sat with her every chance I got. I absolutely loved her, she was so wise with her with her simple logic, that made perfect sense. I still often think of her. I was so sad when she passed away. I had convinced her, to be my Grandmother too.

    You must always keep your culture and languages, and hand them down to your next generations. This country is yours. We are the intruders. Your history, is the only true Canadian history.

  5. Bee Grandison
    January 20, 2013

    Si’aamhl wilin CHelsea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keep on doing the good work you are doing!!!!!!!!

    From another who is just as passionate about keeping our languages alive!!!!!!!!!!!!


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