1. Home
  2. Society
  3. Indigenous

Calgary organization offers Blackfoot and Cree language classes, unlocking pathway to identity

Lessons meant to help preserve Indigenous languages and traditions

Elder Pablo Russel, left, teaches a class on conversational Blackfoot, and Damitra Smokeyday, right, is the cultural services connector for Miskanawah.

Elder Pablo Russel, left, teaches a class on conversational Blackfoot, and Damitra Smokeyday, right, is the cultural services connector for Miskanawah.

Photo: Submitted by Myra La France

RCI

A Calgary organization is providing an opportunity for more people to learn how to speak Blackfoot and Cree, unlocking the chance for participants to learn about Indigenous culture in a deeper way. 

Miskanawah (new window), which means 'pathways' in Cree, is offering four- and six-week long courses (new window) for beginners as well as those looking to learn conversational skills. 

Elder Pablo Russel, who is teaching the class on conversational Blackfoot, said grasping the language is the first step to a more meaningful understanding of other Indigenous traditions. 

They could learn how to pray by listening to elders pray in their language, and they can understand the ceremonies and the rituals, he said. 

The classes are publicly available but can be especially significant for Blackfoot and Cree people whose identities have been torn from them by Canada's history of purposefully dismantling Indigenous cultures. 

A lot of the First Nations people, they were denied their language, you know, and that was during boarding school, said Elder Russel. 

So there was a couple of generations [where] the parents, you know, traumatized, they don't teach their children how to speak Blackfoot or Cree. 

This is the Sunridge location of the Miskanawah Community Services Association. It offers services at two sites in Calgary.

This is the Sunridge location of the Miskanawah Community Services Association. It offers services at two sites in Calgary.

Photo: CBC/Jo Horwood

Damitra Smokeyday, the cultural services connector for Miskanawah, said that as elders age, there is an added sense of gravity to ensuring their language skills are passed along. 

The importance of retaining these languages also extends past the knowledge of an individual, after being highlighted as a national priority by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (new window)

One of the 94 Calls to Action states that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them, said Smokeyday. 

It's just very important to restore and to regain something that was taken from us.

Language that 'comes from the heart'

Along with the language itself, participants in the courses will also learn about cultural traditions, customs and etiquette. 

A native Blackfoot speaker, Elder Russel said times have changed, allowing Indigenous people to be proud of their heritage and to learn a language that provides the pathway to understanding rituals and prayers, as well as communicating with other Blackfoot and Cree speakers. 

He said he is happy to share the language that he grew up with. 

When you speak your own language, it kind of comes from the heart, you know. [It's a] more honest way of speaking, and then when you speak a foreign language like English, it was coming from the head.

Miskanawah accepts up to 15 students in their classes, which are offered multiple times throughout the year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Horwood (new window) · CBC News

Jo Horwood is a CBC News video journalist based in Calgary. She spent her internship at CBC News Network in Toronto and previously worked at CityNews Calgary while wrapping up her broadcast media studies degree at Mount Royal University. If you want to shine a light on a story you think is important, contact her. Jo.Horwood@cbc.ca

Headlines