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Being a Language Keeper and the Journey of Teaching Cree

To learn Cree, I had to teach them how to introduce themself in their mother tongue. I went from there to start what I call Beginners Cree. Being a language keeper is a big responsibility and duty to revive our language. 

Tansi…Kitatamiskatinawaw anoch ki kisikaw Kimberly Halcrow nitisinikason. Kinosèwi sÌpiy nitocÌn. Gillam, Manitoba niweekin. Kekach nÌyanomitanàw nitàtoskÌnan. Gillam School nitàtoskan. Ni kiskonimawak awasisak ininÌmowin Nursery to Grade Six.  

Hi, I greet you all and thank you all this day. My name is Kimberly Halcrow. I am originally from Norway House. I live in Gillam, Manitoba. I am 49 years old. I work at Gillam School, teaching Cree to children from Nursery to Grade Six.  

This is my 7th year as a Cree language teacher and my first year as a cultural liaison. I am also a Swampy Cree woman (muskego iskwew ininiw) who speaks the N dialect, also known as Swampy Cree. N dialect speakers range from Northern Ontario and throughout the interior of Manitoba into the mid-eastern part of Saskatchewan.  

I did not intend to become a Cree teacher. Initially, I went for a job interview to become an Educational Assistant and on my resume, I wrote that I ‘speak Cree.’ The school needed a Cree teacher and asked if I would consider this position instead. I do not have a formal teaching degree. I have my high school diploma and I’m a certified Educational Assistant. So, I got hired because I spoke Cree and was given the job right there and then. 

The woman interviewing me asked me: “When can I start?” “Start?” I was thinking to myself, “How do I start? Where do I start? What grades? And how will I get students engaged in the Cree language?” So many thoughts and questions went through my head. 

Firstly, teachers are an enormous influence and a major component of a student’s learning journey. A teacher’s hardest task is finding a way to get through to their students. Making a student feel safe, engaged, and excited about learning is so important. Engaging students in their learning journey will help ensure they retain the information and lessons longer.  

My mother tongue, culture and identity have opened doors for opportunities to teach the language. 

In high school, I took drama classes because, as a Native student, I was shy. So, taking drama has helped me become who I am now. Taking drama opened many doors for me, including when I got to leave the rez to travel to Europe to perform with Europeans. We did a cross-culture show with a group from Europe and the students in Winnipeg. I won an award from Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Awards in 1996 for artistic Performing Arts.  

I never expected I would also have the opportunity to be a Cree translator for the first season series called SKYMED. I also had a small role in the third episode. I played Sara, a 26-year-old teacher who only speaks Cree. Sara was in an ATV accident and was found unconscious. Sara asked where her son was, and he was there. Saying the Cree lines in the ATV scene and the plane and hospital scene was a happy ending to see my son at the end of the episode. I got hired again to do the second season of SKYMED. I read the script to know the content first of the scene and translate words and sentences. For example, “You’ll be okay” in Cree is “MONA NANTOW KA ISPANEEKOHN” – Nothing won’t happen to you. “Everything will be okay,” in Cree, “KAKINAW KEKON KITA MINOPANEEW” – things will work out good. So I have the word OKAY but different situations and content. 

At Gillam School, I teach nursery and kindergarten to grade 6. 

To hold their attention, especially the younger students, I use puppets. Just the laughter says it all, and they repeat after me. I go through the kinships/relations with the puppets, which in Cree is called Wakohtowin. From there, they learn the words and phrases of my mom, dad, sister, brother, baby brother, sister, grandmother, and grandfather. I remember Thomson Highway had a saying that one of the best methods for “Getting Native children to start learning the language is to make them sing it!” As a Cree language teacher, I like to incorporate singing songs in Cree because it is an excellent tool for kids as they love to sing, and you can see the language developing for them in different directions. 

Grades 1 and 2 get to learn a song called tansi,tansi tansi kina? (Hello, hello, how are you?….) It turns into dialogue and knowledge, such as who, I, and you, into sentences. I use visual aids, gestures and actions to help students to understand what is being said, and it is called TPR total physical responses. Grade 3 and 4’s students connect to familiar and basic situations in terms of language, like phrases and memorized expressions, cultural understanding, learning to respond and repeat and talk to each other, and listening skills to build the foundation for understanding the grammar of the language. For grades 5 and 6, we focus on cultural understanding, land base outings, special guests, and nature walks. They write more to produce sentences appropriate to particular situations and a complete introduction of themselves and their family. 

When covid started, teaching the Cree language became quite a journey in school and online (Zoom). I had to make a work package on paper at school, as I was unfamiliar with Zoom, creating these 140 packages for parents to pick up. But only one package every two weeks. I only got 10 out of the 140. The reason being they had other work packages for the other subjects. In their packages were links to YouTube videos with content on First Nations or other Indigenous concepts. I would ask students to answer questions, draw pictures, and practice their numbers in Cree. I would also include a letter before it went out to them with “Do what you can. Miss you. And Take care.”   

During the covid lockdown, I was asked to do online Zoom Cree classes with Indigenous Languages of Manitoba at the Winnipeg Library. This was for families wanting to learn Beginners Cree. Then ILM wanted me to do beginners Cree with adults across Canada. Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre also asked for me to join in an initiative on: 

  • How to introduce others to the language; 
  • Acquire a working vocabulary of common action words; 
  • Engage in easy conversation with simple questions and answers; 
  • Build and translate simple and complex sentences together; 
  • Practice singular and plural conjugations; and,   
  • Develop strategies to further our language learning. 
  • Introducing vocabulary, pronunciation and engaging in interactive activities. 
  • Building dialogues through group work and then sharing and reviewing. 

We learned a lot, had some laughs, and made new friends. Some days I do miss those times we had on Zoom.  

As a language teacher, my journey has been so rewarding. There is no wrong or right way to teach the language; it comes from my heart to teach. I leave with you. “Our language was stolen….it wasn’t lost. I can and will find a way to reclaim it by being a language keeper.” 


Kimberly Halcrow 

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