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Cree classes teach language from the inside out

BY BRENT WITTMEIER, EDMONTON JOURNAL

EDMONTON - Reuben Quinn sees the world through an eight-sided star.

The 54-year-old Saddle Lake Cree man begins every Cree language class with the Nehiyaw Cahkipehikanah, the so-called star chart, a symmetrical arrangement of 44 syllabics that along with 14 consonants, comprise the Cree language.

“It’s lateral in concept,” said Quinn, a project co-ordinator with the Edmonton-based Centre for Race and Culture. “The philosophy behind teaching the star chart is heuristics, organic learning, experiential learning.”

There are other places in Edmonton to learn Cree, but Quinn’s 19-week classes at St. Alphonsus School — located at 11624 81st St. — are the only ones built around the star chart, dropping traditional grammar for a non-linear approach.

Over four hours each week, students rehearse basic constructions, inflections and forms. Conversation points like salutations and kinship ties are also covered. So students can sound like native speakers, proper articulation is emphasized.

On Monday afternoon, students listened to Quinn conjugate the Cree verb for walking — pi moh te — and how a stressed syllable can alter a sentence.

For Janice Willier, a aboriginal co-ordinator with Alberta Health Services, the class immediately takes her back to her Cree-speaking parents.

“It’s sound, it’s home,” she said. Like many families feeling residual shame from residential schools, her parents never taught Willier the language.

While she can understand it, she’s trying to learn to speak it, along with her two sons, ages 5 and 8, who are learning Cree at Prince Charles School.

Quinn grew up on the Saddle Lake Cree First Nation, roughly 160 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, where he learned Cree at home. When he was five, he was sent to the Blue Quills residential school in St. Paul, where he learned English.

In 1970, Blue Quills became the first residential school handed over to aboriginal administrators. As a junior high student, Quinn witnessed the restoration of Cree in the classroom. A group of elders from Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake introduced the star chart to students.

It was around that time that Quinn had surgery to correct a congenital hearing problem that had left him nearly deaf. He credits his linguistic abilities to having to listen carefully in near-silence, which also protected his earliest words.

“I had retained the articulation,” Quinn said. “However, I had not developed the language, so I was still at a very elementary level of speaking the language.”

Quinn built on that foundation in the decades that followed, taking Cree wherever he worked, including the Edmonton Institution, the Edmonton Young Offender Centre and public and private schools.

This is the second year Quinn will teach through the Centre for Race and Culture, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing racism and discrimination. Classes cost $50, funded primarily through the department of Canadian Heritage, and are aimed at aboriginal students, but sections on Mondays and Wednesday afternoons and evenings are open to anyone interested.

Quinn doesn’t put much stock in estimates of 120,000 Cree speakers in Canada. He notices missing syllables and subtleties, the finer points that make a language a living thing. Cree was once a complex language comprised of hundreds of thousands of words. Increasingly eclipsed by English, the authoritative Cree-English dictionary has only roughly 15,000 words.

The star chart is more than Quinn’s teaching tool, it’s a world of symbolic connections. Four symbols arrayed on each of the “grandfather” directions — north, south, east and west — symbolize body, mind, emotions and spirit. The “grandmother” directions, seven syllabics along the diagonal sections, can be seen as the seven holes in the head. Good and evil can be sensed by the ears, eyes, nostrils, but the mouth is the gift of the Creator, the place where we can choose what to speak.

“It’s definitely a beginning,” Quinn said. “The star chart is a good foundation, a solid foundation.”

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