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Creative Use of Cree Engages Learning at Mamawi Atosketan Native School

The Adventist school in rural Alberta, Canada, offers culturally-respectful learning environment for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

MANS students outside with tree limbs

MANS students get a hands-on Cree grammar lesson this past fall as they learn that trees are animate nouns while the leaves are inanimate nouns — an important distinction in Cree thought. 

Orange Shirt Day has special meaning on reserves. It’s not usually a happy celebration.* So many who suffered abuse in residential schools would rather forget the humiliation and pain that speaking Cree or any other First Nations language would incur. Only recently have many of the descendants of these survivors discovered that their grandparents suffered. So, especially on that day, Mamawi Atosketan Native School (MANS) teachers try to fill in some of the history gaps and go above and beyond their usual day-to-day incorporation of Cree language and culture.

This past fall, as grade 5 teacher Suzann Self thought about Orange Shirt Day, she got an idea that’s now become part of every school day. After reading the short book I Am Not a Number with her class, Self proposed an experiment: the class would simulate the banning experience on a small scale for an extended time. Few of Self’s students spoke any Cree; what if they banned two English words a week and “forced” everyone to use the Cree words?

The students were enthusiastic, and Self began researching Cree words to substitute. It was the beginning of a rewarding journey. Self discovered perspectives on the world she’d not realized until she investigated the Cree language.

“The language has so much depth,” says Self. “In Cree the word for ‘child’ translates as ‘on loan from the Creator.’ Isn’t that beautiful? And so meaningful!”

Students not only wanted to know more of their language but also became teachers themselves, correcting each other and Self when slips were made. As the tables turned and roles switched, Self was kindly corrected when she mispronounced a Cree word or slipped in an English word that had been banned. The language of her students came alive for all as they shared its meaning and the cultural ideas behind it.

On spelling tests, the bonus point words are the Cree words — an incentive to write as well as speak their language.

By being open to the experience of her students and their culture, both Self and her students are learning more in so many areas, including the priceless value of each child as a gift belonging to the Creator.

* September 30 is Orange Shirt Day. It is inspired by the story of residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad who, as a 6-year-old girl was gifted an orange shirt by her grandmother before being taken away to a British Columbia residential school. On the first day of class the orange shirt was confiscated and destroyed by her teacher. Orange Shirt Day acknowledges Webstad’s story as well as the colonial assimilation goals of residential schools and their lasting impact on Indigenous communities nationwide.

Established in 2013, the date was selected because it was the time of year when children were taken from their homes to residential schools, and, according to the Orange Shirt Day website, “because it sets the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.” Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity for communities to come together, listen, and remember those who did not make it home.

— Lynn McDowell is director of planned giving/philanthropy at the Alberta Conference; Mylen McDowell is a communications specialist living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This article originally appeared in the January 2021 Canadian Adventist Messenger.