Danni Okemaw remembers playing outside with her cousins when her mom asked her to stop and watch the television.
It was 2008 and Stephen Harper, then prime minister of Canada, was publicly apologizing on behalf of the Canadian government for its role in Indian residential schools – the first step for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to begin its work.
She also remembers being confused.
Okemaw’s father was a survivor of residential school and her mother of day school, but she wanted a deeper understanding of what the government’s apology meant for her and for her community.
“I tried to ask other people at school about it, but nobody could really explain it to me,” said Okemaw.
That marked the beginning of her pursuit to connect with her history.
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“It’s what ultimately pushed me to Native Studies at the University of Alberta, where I found a love for research, writing, reading and language,” said Okemaw.
Today, Okemaw is one of the student facilitators of the Indigenous Language Club – an Indigenous- and student-led grassroots group for U of A students to help each other learn languages like Cree, Ojibwe, Anishinaabe and more.
The club is supported by First Peoples’ House and Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization (see below).
But Okemaw’s journey to teaching language didn’t come until later in her life.
Though her parents are fluent in their own languages – her mother in Anishinaabemowin (a dialect from the Berens River First Nations in Manitoba) and her father in Swampy Cree (a dialect from God’s River First Nations in Manitoba) – they had their hands full raising a family while furthering their educations and pursuing their careers. The bits of Anishinaabemowin that her aunts and uncles spoke around her during her childhood gave her the basics, but she wasn’t fully immersed in the language her family spoke.
So when her friend Casi Callingbull invited her to come to language club to share what she knew of Anishinaabemowin, she was unsure.
“I felt like I had to be at a certain level to teach language,” said Okemaw. “But I quickly realized that if there was nobody else in the room that knew Anishinaabemowin, I was the expert there. So I started teaching.”
As she shared basic words and phrases with her peers, her own language skills grew alongside theirs. She brought in guest speakers, Elders and Knowledge Keepers to share their experiences with learning language to encourage her fellow students in their learning.
She said it was one of the guest speakers, Kateao Nehua-Jackson, Maori language keeper, who put her insecurities to rest.
“She told us it’s important to be uncomfortable when you’re learning,” said Okemaw. “Whether it’s asking your parents or grandparents to speak nothing but their language to you for a day or two, or being part of conversational language class where, for that hour, you don’t speak any English. It’s in that uncomfortable space that you learn.”
Six years later, Okemaw has nearly reached her goal to be fluent in her mother’s and father’s languages, as well as Plains Cree, the language of Treaty 6 territory on which the U of A resides. And she’s taken it upon herself to help her peers internalize Nehua-Jackson’s message as well.
“I want my impact in the club to be that people don’t feel ashamed that they’re learning or that they don’t know their language,” said Okemaw. “The fact that all of us take an hour or two out of our busy schedules every week to practise, and step into the realm of learning, growing and challenging ourselves, is important. It’s important to us as Indigenous people that we’re connecting with each other and that we are getting closer and closer to connecting with our languages.
“I want everyone to be proud of where they are in the process, whether they’re learning their first word or are almost fluent.”
The most recent guest at the club was Okemaw’s mother, Violet Okemaw, author, educator and knowledge keeper, who holds a PhD from the U of A, where she studied Indigenous knowledge systems, ways of life and connections to language. Violet’s pursuits are rooted in one question: “Why are our languages not validated or acknowledged through the whole education system?”
In her work, Violet looks at how Indigenous language is being taught in Canada and gathers the needed resources to incorporate these teachings in classrooms across the country.
“Language is my passion,” said Violet. “I am going to acknowledge and validate where I come from through my own language.”
At language club, her daughter has taken up the torch to help others do the same.
“Our ancestors, our land and our communities have gifted us with the language. And within the language, there’s so much knowledge and so many knowledge systems,” said Danni. “That’s what our ancestors have been fighting for. That’s why our languages went underground for a while. And it’s important for us to honour that. It’s important for us to keep on learning.”
Casi Callingbull, the friend and fellow facilitator who first invited Danni to the language club, agrees.
“My desire in this club, and my desire for everyone who joins this club, is to help facilitate a reconnect for those who have been disconnected from their culture,” said Callingbull. “We meet students halfway with community and academic support, so that students can re-engage and reconnect on their own terms. It’s about creating a safe and Indigenized space for Indigenous students to practise their spirituality and languages.”
Callingbull’s goal, once she finishes her after degree in secondary education, is to go back and teach on the reserve where she lived as a kid.
“I want to reconnect with my language so the children there will be able to do the same thing,” she said.
As Danni Okemaw looks to her future, the connections she has made through the club are the driving force behind her next steps.
“I’m planning to do my master’s next,” she said. “But my dream is to create a dance program that is taught solely in Indigenous languages.”
Danni spent most of her young life training as a dancer in ballet, contemporary and hip hop. Her trajectory was affected by an injury in 2015, but it hasn’t stopped her. Now, she is co-leading a dance program, Nimihitotan – which translates to “let’s dance” in Cree – that provides dance training to Indigenous children, teens and adults.
“I want to do a master’s that incorporates creating a program where I speak the language the entire time,” she said. “I’ll be counting down, introducing a step, giving corrections that way. That has never been done before.”
Her fellow language club facilitators are ready to help her dream become reality. Some are finishing their own master’s degrees and have advice on how to set up a new research board. Others have connections to Indigenous dancers and researchers across Canada.
“Indigenous Language Club has been so amazing for my personal goals,” said Danni. “But what’s most important is that we are participating in wahkohtowin – we are practising kinship – while engaging in our language. That’s the spirit of language and who we are.”
Learn more about the work happening through Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization. SILR is a five-year project funded by a $12-million grant to the University of Alberta from the BHP Foundation. It supports Indigenous nations and communities to successfully carry out their own language revitalization efforts through the coming generations as well as supporting ongoing initiatives at the university.
| By Kalyna Hennig Epp
Kalyna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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