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Poke from the future, protect the Cree past

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  • Rob Schmidt
    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/Poke+from+future+protect+Cree+past/2963755/story.html Poke from the future, protect the Cree past Ernest Hester is using
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 29, 2010
      http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/Poke+from+future+protect+Cree+past/2963755/story.html

      Poke from the future, protect the Cree past

      Ernest Hester is using Facebook to help preserve his traditional language

      By Zev Singer, The Ottawa Citizen April 29, 2010

      Ernest Hester is trying to preserve the East Cree language, one Facebook posting at a time.

      The Carleton University student, worried about the future of his language, which has about 13,000 speakers, decided a few months ago
      to start a Cree Facebook group.

      For a small language to have any chance of survival, the key, obviously, is enthusiasm from young people.

      Young people like Facebook. So far, more than 400 members have joined the group.

      "I began to feel that my language was becoming irrelevant in today's modern world," Hester, 29, said in a telephone interview from
      Waskaganish, a Cree community in northern Quebec where he grew up and where he is spending the summer. "And so I thought ... the
      best way to promote it again is by using Facebook."

      One challenge Hester and his "friends" have is that traditional Cree doesn't have its own words for technology, but overcoming that
      challenge can be fun.

      The word they use for "Internet" is a good example. "Kwashigan" means "shaking tent ceremony," a traditional practice in which a
      spiritual leader would commune with a spirit who would answer questions on the weather or what the hunt would be. Since it was a way
      of reaching out into the beyond for useful information, "kwashigan" has become a perfect description for the Internet.

      If Hester's efforts pay off, a lot of other communities could take note. The world has about 6,500 languages, roughly half of which
      are endangered.

      The effort to preserve Cree is one at which Carleton linguistics professor Marie-Odile Junker has been toiling at for almost two
      decades. A good deal of her work has focused on creating online resources for teaching Cree, and just last month she won a Killam
      Research Fellowship, worth $140,000 over two years, to pursue work in the area. She plans to create online topical dictionaries in
      Cree and Innu, another Algonquin language, not to be confused with Inuktitut. The dictionaries will seek to compile words by subject
      areas.

      Junker, born in France and with no aboriginal ancestry, says maintaining smaller languages is like preserving biodiversity on the
      planet. Different languages mean different ways of thinking. In Cree, for example, about 80 per cent of words are verbs, compared to
      14 per cent in English and 11 per cent in French.

      "There is no (Cree) word for 'rain,' " Junker said. "There is only a verb that says, 'It is raining.' "

      Speaking the action-oriented language will involve a different type of thought process and a different human cognitive potential.

      "That's the kind of richness that I think is something that we really don't want to lose," Junker said.

      Hester says the Cree Facebook page will not provide a rescue for his language overnight. While young Cree people are interested in
      the Facebook group, relatively few of them are typing in Cree fonts or even sending messages completely in Cree. "Creenglish" is
      always a threat.

      So while the social media have great potential -- he has tweeted in Cree a few times, too -- he says they are just one piece of the
      puzzle.

      He says he dreams of one day seeing his language protected by legislation like Bill 101, which protects French in Quebec.

      In the meantime, he'll keep working to sway other young Cree, who want to be on Facebook one way or other.

      "Why can't we do it in our own language?" he asked.

      C Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
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