Learning languages together

Arts, Culture & Heritage

Photo: Language of Our Ancestors program participants.
Courtesy of Empowering Indigenous Youth in Governance and Leadership (EIYGL).
Language of Our Ancestors builds community while revitalizing Cree and Ojibway languages.

Community building is at the heart of a new youth-led initiative to revitalize Indigenous languages.

“Language is such a big part of our culture and it really connects us to each other – our families, our communities, our people in general,” says Chelsey Meade, one of the project coordinators of Language of Our Ancestors.

Language of Our Ancestors is a nine-month program coordinated by Meade and Jared Bone. Classes provide participants with an understanding of Cree and Ojibway language fundamentals through classroom instruction and practical creative assignments, culminating in a two-day cultural language immersion camp.

“A lot of the time, fluent language speakers come to the city without having an outlet to speak their own language, so that’s one of the aspects we wanted to really create,” Meade says.

Meade and Bone cited the importance of language revitalization, community building, and increasing their own understandings of Indigenous languages as motivation for their participation.

“A big thing about learning a language is not only just having the classes to teach, but also a community to go back and speak with,” Bone says.

Bone feels a responsibility to learn not only for himself, but to be able to pass down the Ojibway language to future generations.

“It’s a connection to the past. It’s something that my ancestors have been speaking for thousands of years,” Bone says. “That’s who I am. It’s important to have that self-identity.”

Meade grew up with relatives who spoke Cree, but as she moved to a non-Cree community, and later to Winnipeg, she lost her understanding of the language.

“It wasn’t until I started growing older and learned about the colonial impact on my own family that I started feeling less guilty and more interested in learning [the language],” Meade says.

Meade notes the community learning aspect of the classes creates the foundation for a welcoming and respectful environment.

“We really want to create a safe space for learning languages,” Meade says. “A lot of times, people feel the shame of not knowing it, or embarrassment of not being able to pronounce it… All in all, it’s about respecting one another and being able to express ourselves in a respectful way with each other.”

“Language is such a big part of our culture and it really connects us to each other – our families, our communities, our people in general.”

Chelsey Meade, Language of Our Ancestors Coordinator

Classes can include group activities (such as bannock-making), guest speakers or conversations between participants about their language practice outside of class.

“It’s fun to talk about these things in the classroom – just going out, getting out of your shell and speaking to people you know,” Bone says. “There’s always a funny story afterwards.”

Participants of the program are also connecting through social media to build on their skills outside of the classroom.

“We post Ojibway words of the day and little fun weekly challenges on our Facebook group,” Meade says. “We want to keep participants involved not only for two hours a week. We want to immerse them in any way we can.”

Language of Our Ancestors is offered through Empowering Indigenous Youth in Governance and Leadership (EIYGL), a Winnipeg-based national charity led by Indigenous youth.

“There are always young Indigenous people from coast to coast who have ideas of leadership or governance, and they’re looking for mentorship,” says Melanie Dean, Executive Director of EIYGL. “They’re looking for opportunities to learn and expand their networks.”

Established in 2006, EIYGL works closely with the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute (ILDI) to provide additional resources, along with professional development, mentorship and networking. The more young people volunteer with EIYGL, the more access they get to mentorship opportunities, working with ILDI’s facilitators who deliver governance training and executive training.

Language of Our Ancestors classes usually take place at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre at 119 Sutherland Avenue, with Cree language classes on Wednesday evenings and Ojibway language classes on Thursday evenings. Everyone is welcome to take part, and drop-in participants are always welcome to join in on any class.

Learn more: ildii.ca/courses/language-of-our-ancestors

Recipient: Empowering Indigenous Youth in Governance and Leadership (EIYGL)
Program: Language of Our Ancestors
Grant: $50,000 drawn from the Arnold William and Natalie Riedle Memorial Fund, the Florence Brownridge Educational Fund, and from the hundreds of Community Funds held at The Foundation including the Herbert and Mary Sanger Fund; the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund; and the Delmore and Emily Crewson Family Fund

This story is featured in the Fall 2019 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

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