Saving Michif

Canadian Legion magazine May-June 2011

Less than a thousand people speak Rita Flamand’s language, and she’s quite concerned. Indeed, most Canadians would not be able to list the 80-year-old Métis woman’s native tongue as a language, let alone recognize it for what it is: the now disappearing language of Michif.

“Ta laang'inaan kiyaamiko wii wanitin (Our language is fast disappearing),” offers Flamand who still resides in the small Manitoba Métis community where she was born. “Sapraañ chi kanaweyitamahk pur li taañ ki viyaeñ aportaañ li moond. (We need to preserve it for future generations.”

Michif is the language Flamand learned growing up in Camperville, located along the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, some 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. Today, Flamand and a handful of others are at the forefront of efforts to save the language. “I didn’t learn English until I was six years old when I was in school. [Up to then], we all spoke Michif.”

Most of the Michif speakers today are elderly—from 65 to well into their 80s. “We still speak it in this community amongst each other—my sisters, brothers and family—but the younger generation speak English.”

And that is where things will have to change if the language is going to survive.

For close to two centuries, the Métis have been a distinct culture in Canada and parts of the United States, including North Dakota. They are the descendents of French fur traders and Cree and Ojibwa women, a blend that crystallized into a unique culture by the early 1800s. By 1810 the Métis had established roles for themselves as buffalo hunters and providers to the North West Company. Called the “quintessential Canadian culture—European and First Nations” by one Métis woman in a 2010 CBC interview, the Métis are very proud of this heritage, but generally do not call themselves either one. They have their own music, stories, spirituality and language—even unique housing as found in and around the Saskatchewan towns of Duck Lake and Batoche, where older dwellings blend European exteriors with open-plan Plains Cree interiors.

Their language, which is thought to have been well-established by 1840, exemplifies the cultural mix: verbs and associated grammar come from the Cree and nouns generally from the French. But that does not mean Cree or French speakers can understand it; many speakers of Michif speak neither Cree nor French, and while at least three variations exist, Michif remains a separate language, one that still puzzles many linguists.

Peter Bakker, a Danish professor who undertook a landmark study of Michif for his doctoral thesis in the early 1990s, says it poses challenges for all theories of language and language contact. “In many respects, Michif is an impossible language,” he writes in his 1997 book A Language of Our Own, based on his thesis. “I know several professional linguists who contest its existence since it does not fit into their model of how a language, or a mixed language, should look.” Dubbing it an “intertwined language” he reckons it is of the utmost importance to preserve it.

To appreciate this concern, it is important to know that throughout human history languages have evolved, and that while the languages spoken by large, powerful groups have spread, the languages spoken by smaller groups have died. And when they die, they take with them knowledge about history, culture, the environment as well as the processes of human thinking.

A recent book by linguist K. David Harrison—in collaboration with National Geographic—emphasizes this point and estimates that more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century—one every 14 days. Linguists also recognize that words used to describe a particular cultural practice may not always translate into other languages.

Through its Enduring Voices Project, National Geographic identifies several hotspots around the world where languages are at risk, including the United States side of the Northwest Pacific Plateau region “where no children and few to no young adults speak the indigenous languages in the region.” It states that in the same region—near British Columbia’s urban centres—“many are abandoning their native languages for English.”

Michif is not singled out in the project, but it is clear from talking with Flamand and others that efforts to preserve it are an uphill struggle as more and more fluent speakers pass away. Indeed, there are very few who can say that Michif was the first language they learned. Oral fluencies of the language are in rapid decline, partly a legacy of the residential school era in Canada. Like all native First Nations languages, Michif was suppressed, even banned, in both residential and public schools. “We had a residential school here,” recalls Flamand. “I didn’t go to the residential school but we were taught by the priests and nuns from there in our own school. They didn’t want us to speak our language.”

While in her mid-60s, Flamand decided to learn the language in more depth. She enrolled in a Michif language course at Winnipeg’s Red River College, and was surprised to discover she was the “only Michif speaker there.”

Historically, Michif has been an oral language—for family, trade, and ceremonial use. When Flamand went to college, the only known serious effort that had been made to put it into written form was a dictionary developed by two Michif members of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. She thought a system based on that would be the best way to preserve it. “I was very interested in putting a writing system together for Michif. Our young people learn today by reading so I was very adamant that we set something on paper so the children can actually see it and remember it.”

She decided to develop a pronunciation guide, but first had to figure out where to start. “I knew my language was part Cree, but our Cree is Plains Cree. For instance, for the ‘sh’ sound of the Ojibwa language, the Cree use the ‘s’ sound and the Métis use the ‘sh’ sound. But a lot are similar.”

Dr. Bakker, meanwhile, was busy conducting research in Métis communities, and provided Flamand with expert assistance as she struggled with the written form. “He helped me a lot,” she recalls. “When he saw me developing the writing system he told me not to use the French and not to use the English writing systems, as they are messy languages. He told me that all the European languages are derived from Latin which has very small vowels and consonants. This language you have is coming from a new country, a new nation, a new people and a new language so the written form has to be new too.”

Flamand’s next step was to focus on how best to spread or share the written word of Michif. An avid user of computers and the internet, including the social network Facebook, she is convinced technology is the way to go. “We have so much technology now, and that’s how young people work and learn today.”

The publication of several books borne of a scholarly collaboration between her and Dr. Bakker, and another Métis elder, Norman Fleury, who has been just as prominent in the drive to save the language, has also helped immensely. One book is a two-volume set, La Lawng: Michif Peekishkwewin: The Heritage Language of the Canadian Métis, complete with a book of practice lessons.

Fleury, who traces his Métis heritage back several generations, says Michif was the first language he learned—handed down from his grandmother, and his mother who died at age 108. “I heard it in my mother’s womb,” he explains before making the point that the language’s preservation needs to be done properly so “it won’t give people a misconception. We have to tell the people we are a distinct society, a distinct nation, with a distinct language.”

He notes that they have historians, speakers and cultural experts, but always seem to encounter problems with people and governments understanding the distinctions.

Flamand and Fleury are well in agreement on the written form the language should take. “Professor Bakker suggested the double vowel system, it gives it better credibility and connection with the aboriginal way of speaking. So that’s how I am converting. Rita was one of the first in that field,” explains Fleury, who has published his first dictionary and has a CD in Michif that’s titled Learn Michif by Listening.

While Fleury enthusiastically agrees on the need for the written Michif, he is adamant that the spoken word survive equally. “I think you have to speak it, not only read and write it,” he says, suggesting that efforts should be made to keep the dialogue going as part of school curriculum. “You’ve got to have the oral literature through CDs and DVDs, and some of that is being done through the Gabriel Dumont Institute [Saskatoon] and the Louis Riel Institute [Winnipeg]. Louise Gordon and I are working on children’s books and now we are going to be working on developing DVDs.”

He says they are also working on something called a “phrase-a-lator” for translation purposes. “It works with pictures associated with phrases. For example, you show a picture of a dog and it says chien.” With Dr. Bakker’s continuing assistance, that is being expanded, and Fleury reckons that once people are aware of these teaching aids, they can be used to get a feel for the language and to standardize it. “There are so many descriptive words so if you are going to invent a teaching tool we have to standardize the language.”

Still, one of the biggest challenges in preserving any language at risk is finding a way to spread it. “We’ve had national Michif conferences by each of the Métis nations but they are expensive and not everyone can make it,” says Fleury. More recent approaches involve taking the language to the people instead. “You need the technicians and people like me, and the input of some of the linguists—but really you have to go directly into the communities.”

Those efforts are being made. Funded by the federal government through the Aboriginal Languages Initiative of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Fleury and three other native speakers are teaching Michif language courses in six southwestern Manitoba communities this spring. A prerequisite for the government funding, he says, was making sure elders could be found who still spoke Michif and were willing to teach it—a requirement that will be difficult to meet in a generation or so. The multi-generational interest in these courses is seen as a positive development, but it is also understood that few of those completing the courses will ever achieve the native fluency of these elders.

The availability of continuous funding is another challenge. “The Manitoba Métis Federation accessed $19,000 for this [language] program,” says Fleury. “So we only have enough money for six communities. But this is how we are trying to keep it alive—where we see that the language is still predominant in some communities. In larger centres it could become part of the school curriculum where they have predominantly Métis students.” Helping that along is the book and CD Michif Conversational Lessons for Beginners, developed by Winnipeg’s Métis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre with Flamand.

Fleury is confident the need is out there and that people want to learn it. “The communities with a lot of aboriginals would like to have Michif taught in schools. Even where Cree is one of the main languages, they would like to see Michif.” But, he feels, more funding is needed to set up more programs.

The federal government, which provided funding for the community language courses, is on side. “Canada is committed to supporting the revitalization and preservation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages,” states Tim Warmington, Media Relations Adviser for Canadian Heritage, the federal lead for Aboriginal language programming. “Canadian Heritage’s Aboriginal Languages Initiative supports community-based projects that contribute to the preservation and revitalization of First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages. Aboriginal organizations that undertake Michif language revitalization and preservation projects can apply to the initiative for funding.”

Warmington notes that the entire Canadian Heritage funding envelope for Métis language programs is $500,000 annually.

Some of the federal funding supported a 2006 initiative by the Métis Nation British Columbia and Métis Youth British Columbia, started by B.C. website entrepreneur Jeff Ward. A website devoted to learning Michif is called and it is based on the work of Fleury, Bakker and several others.

The GDI has also benefitted from the federal Aboriginal Languages Initiative, supporting a community-based program that is developing Michif language resources in the three main variations of the language. The focus is on ensuring that the Michif language and beyond—which means culture and world views as well—are passed on to future generations. The projects target all age groups and draw on the knowledge and guidance of available Métis elders and Michif speakers. GDI hopes to ensure survival of the languages by revitalizing them and increasing the number of speakers. Several books, CDs and DVDs have been produced under the program.

Preserving Michif maintains more than just the language. “The [Métis] worldview of culture is clearly tied to the Michif language and how we use it,” explains Karon Shmon, GDI’s Publishing Director. “There are some words unique to the culture, the way of expressing yourself is unique in the language, and it is part of our historical preservation.”

So there is promise that Michif may never disappear. The supply of fluent elders may dry up, but both Fleury and Flamand sense survival: people want it. “Lii Michif maachi wanishkaawak dañ leu Ter (The Métis are waking up all over their land),” says Flamand. “Biyenvineu mii paraantii! (Welcome my relatives!)”

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