Lessons in Language: Madeline Kakakeway Introduces New Learners to Old Cree
“You need to learn your language. You need to understand it. That's a really important thing nowadays because who are we when we lose our language?” Madeline Kakakeway asks. She was raised on White Bear First Nations by her grandmother and is now a mother of nine children herself with 15 grandchildren of her own. She’s lived in her home territories for most of her life and is part of the adult language programs in her community, working with elders and fluent Cree speakers.
At one point, she worked at the White Bear Education Complex as an educational assistant, but went back to school to study business. She went back to work at the school again where elders were teaching the language to the children. Her work has mostly focused on children and the Cree language kept coming up for her, as she noticed the lack of fluent speakers in her community. “That kind of made me think ‘we need our language back’,” she recalls.
The importance of elders is something she speaks to as they are carriers of the old Cree language her nation speaks. “Elders are basically our libraries. They are living archives.. because they know all that stuff. They know how things were done long ago, especially in your own community,” she explains. The way her community does things and speaks their language is different and it’s something they are looking to protect in learning from the old ones where they live. With few remaining elders, the community is working hard to hang onto their language.
When she’s struggling with a translation in her language, Kakakeway reaches out to her extended family and neighbouring communities for advice. They might live hours away but often they are eager to help. In the same way, she learned to teach by watching her own teachers, following their example as she jumped in with both feet.
As she teaches the language, Kakakeway uses a phonetic approach and helps kids and adults learn one syllable at a time. She reinforces her lessons through repetition, games, a technique called Total Physical Response and other methods. As the kids began to pick up steam in their language lessons, parents would ask for translations of what their kids were saying, leading to the development of the adult language program. This would allow for more conversations at home in Cree with everyone on a language learning journey.
Learning languages can be tougher later in life so it’s a long process but they are working through it together, with basic introductions, animals, colours, numbers and more, building vocabulary and confidence. Pairing pictures with words helps learners grow their fluency and to keep the learning environment respectful, Kakakeway urges learners not to laugh at each other when they make mistakes.
As part of their lessons, they have built family trees in Cree and adapted resources to their own language with the help of their elders. Kakakeway suggests recording elders speaking the language if they are comfortable with being recorded. With adults becoming more fluent alongside their kids, language learning is gaining momentum and the classes are outgrowing the physical space of the classroom. “I want to see our children, and our young adults speaking their language,” she dreams aloud.
"I want to see our children, and our young adults speaking their language"
Her advice for students leaving their home community for work in school is, “Learn who you are before you leave, and where you come from.” She suggests looking for language and culture resources in the new community and elders to spend time with during tough times. With the fast pace of city life and academic demands, Kakakeway advocates for learning to focus and do your best. She recommends reaching out to people and programs to stay grounded.
If she could share a message with her younger self, it would be about making the most of her grandmother’s lessons. “Pay attention to what's being taught to you. Have an open mind and a lot of respect… I wish that I had more time with her,” she says. Listening to parents and grandparents is something she encourages youth to do so they can learn.
This language teacher, mother of nine and grandmother of fifteen knows that what it comes down to is that you need to learn your language and you need to understand it. Loss of language is a loss of identity and she’s working to connect members of her community young and old with the old Cree language. With the help of the elders, she’s nurturing a new generation of language learners and the impact is more than words can say.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.