Dr. Belinda (kakiyosēw) Daniels is from the community of pakitahwākan sākahikan – Sturgeon Lake First Nation, Saskatchewan. After completing her undergraduate studies in education, she began a journey in nēhiyawēwin (Cree) language recovery, inspired by having and raising her family. She is self-taught, and now teaches others how to teach and learn an Indigenous language as a second language learner, both as a faculty member with the University of Victoria and through a not-for-profit organization called nēhiyawak Language Experience, which she founded in 2004. Belinda is married and has four children and a new grandchild. kakiyosēw is grateful to be a visitor to the island of Victoria where she lives and works.
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I have not written down at great length what we did at the nēhiyawak Language Experience (nLE) summer immersion camp 2022 until now. It is mostly out of ‘busyness’ in the language revitalization work, and also the heaviness that comes with it too. As I think and write about these thoughts, I prepare miyākasikēwin (prayer and smudge) so that I can do this in the most humble of ways. This grassroots initiative has been my most gratifying work that gives me much joy and others too. The camp plays a major role in maintaining our land-identity and we are engaging in a long time, kiyās, practice, that is, living and being on the land and speaking Cree naturally.
As I am scrolling through my pictures, to bring my memory back to Sturgeon Lake, SK, (nLE) in July of 2022, I am flooded with emotion, sāhkitowin, because I am out on the land with family for a time being. I am also sorrowful at times, especially when I think of the tremendous loss we have all suffered as nēhiyawak on our own territories (such as, an enforced presence at Indian Residential Schools and the Indian Act). These images of camp always bring back heartfelt memories. This place, my home is where I truly belong. nimosōmpan, my late grandfather, used to say, I was born here (literally on the soil) and I will die here, a concept that I did not understand deeply until I learned to speak Cree. Although not fluent, I understand now what he meant. For I am from the land too.
It is this place, that land meets the nēhiyaw language that makes me me, niya. nēhiyaw ōma niya, nēhiyawak ōma kiyānaw. We are the exact body of people. I am kakiyosēw. My mother, grandmother, great grandmother come from these lands, lakes and territories. The names of my past ancestors are names like: wapi, naytowwanhow, mēyahimiwishēwēw, and pē-miyo maskwa, which mean ‘to really see’, ‘to spear while moving in motion’, ‘she/he who sits with a shawl’, and ‘good bear arriving’. Sturgeon Lake’s original nēhiyawēwin name is pakitawhwākan sākahikan, which translates to ‘net casting lake’. Our names and places are about ‘doings’ and ‘happenings’ that relate to action, action in BE-ing. My nēhiyaw name, kakiyosēw, which means she/he who is industrious and creative, it is about working. I live up to this name, the name given to me by my Uncle Joseph Naytowhow at our very first language gathering.
Planning for an annual gathering has become a ritual, a custom, a practice! It is a special occasion discussed and organized by many people and by non-human elements, like the weather. My home community of Sturgeon Lake is also involved. It is a physical place that many people live in and we are guests. We have this custom about our guests and the hospitality that goes with it. My home community makes everyone feel safe and welcomed. I am fortunate to have family committed to Cree language revitalization and they always make room for this annual camp. ‘tawāw’ is the word for welcome and there is room.
Prior to the camp event, I go and offer tobacco to the land. Tobacco is cultural exchange made between a mutual arrangement or agreement. cistēmāw is one of our significant grand spirits, and a sacred plant. It is used for many cultural practices that also involving praying and asking for guidance from the seen and unseen world. nipiy—water, wind, trees and animals are also a part of this asking of and for permission to come into their sacred spaces.
As we get closer to camp dates, the camp teachers collaborate on ideas, such as themes and lessons to be taught. We set up parameters of engagement and agreement amongst us as a group to ensure the highest level of cooperation, respect, and ethical engagement. Yet the freedom to do and to teach what we think is important. No one is more important than the other. That also includes the participants, we live and work within the circle. Our sharing circles inform our practice, it is a group consensus how we operate and move forward. Teaching and learning out on the land are very different in feeling, different ways of being and doing, than in the classroom.
Language stations based on themes are set up within our camp. This outdoor space is open. Usually portable gazebos offer protection from the sun and are several feet from one another. Each language class is about 40 min long, with a specific language method practiced by the teacher. Methods like accelerated second language acquisition, direct method, task-based techniques and sign language. Learners go through each of the stations, whether there are four or six language stations clockwise (depending on the number of teachers) throughout the day repeatedly. It is rigorous and mentally hard work focusing on listening, understanding and speaking Cree. Sometimes language learning ‘triggers’ trauma of the past. With resilience we plow through the pain and shame together as a whole, as a family. No-one backs down or ever quits. This is the fight of our life, our lives, and the generations depend on us. Choosing to be speakers, that is linked to our Nationhood.
By nightfall we are exhausted and ready to do it all over again the next day. It is what we have to do, if we want to save ourselves from colonialism. The most important aspect of language camp is that it is healing. Our words learned and then spoken come through our bellies, up our throats and roll off our mother tongue, this is medicine. Cree camp therapeutic and nourishing to our being and we re-connect to spirit. This is one solution in language revitalization.
The nēhiyawak Language Experience for me this year was a mind explosion… words and phrases clicked over and over again and made sense like never before… like kīsikāw, kīsik, miskīsk, kāsīkwē, sīkwan. All of these words are related from the sky to the land and our bodies. It was an exhilarating experience because I focused and stayed in the language anywhere from 4-7 hours daily. It is one of the most thrilling, lived experiences I’ve ever had at camp. For those small hours, my mind and body have become occupied and acquainted with the nēhiyaw spirit and I radiate. Staying in the language during classes and after is a challenge we all have, but I persist in nēhiyawēwin. It is a mindset.
Our morning sharing circles are both context and process in how we come to know. They are long but necessary. We listen, nitohta, we wake up extra early to participate and share our thoughts and learnings from the previous day, we speak nēhiyawēwin, including the children. Notes that I have captured include statements like: “I know and remember, I see myself improving”, “nikiskāyihtin kēyāpic nēhiyawēwin”, “I feel no armor here, my relatives are here”, “as I fall asleep, voices of the Cree language are firing off at night”, “we claim our families here, I used to admire people with big healthy families, I don’t anymore”, “ē kī mositiyān sāhkitowin ōta”, ”thank you for the Cree spoken and learned yesterday”, lastly from me, “nika kakwē kiskēmiso sāpo nēhiyawēwin—I (presently) try to know thyself through the Cree language”. There are plenty more of these statements and no one translates Cree into English anymore in our circles.
There is an awāsisak camp, with their own language teacher. The children have the option of being where they want to be and can do whatever they please. Sometimes they learn with their parents or among themselves, or just play within the area. There are other land-based activities too, later in the day, for kahkiyaw to take part in, such as: a matotisān ceremony, harvesting plant medicines, fishing, kayaking, swimming, and berry-picking, etc.
In six days… I soak up the language and stay present. It is time for my spirit to replenish. I live and breathe as a nēhiyaw for a time BE-ing. ah hāy
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