Canada is a country with a rich cultural heritage made possible by citizens from every corner of the world. Language is the essence of culture. It is how we define ourselves.
But until about two decades ago, the study of Canada’s Indigenous languages in the development of our nation was rarely featured. Musée Heritage Museum is filling in some knowledge gaps by displaying two language exhibits. They are Cree: The People’s Language and Beyond Words: Dictionaries and Indigenous Languages. Developed by the Canadian Language Museum, the exhibition explores how language works.
Beyond Words: Dictionaries and Indigenous Languages highlights the relationship between Indigenous languages and dictionaries' evolution over several centuries. It examines word lists and dictionaries developed for exploration, colonization, conversation and for purposes of assimilation. In addition, it looks to online platforms such as websites, podcasts, videos and apps developed by Indigenous communities to hand down Elders’ knowledge to today’s youth.
A companion exhibit titled Cree: The People’s Language introduces Cree, the most widely spoken Canadian Indigenous language. Six colourful panels present maps, photos and information, including the syllabic writing system, word formation and the future of Cree. There are also audio clips of Cree.
Erected at one end of the main exhibition hall is a traditional teepee that touches the ceiling more than five metres above. The teepee's flaps are open, and visitors are invited inside to listen to Cree recordings.
“It’s an important exhibit to see because the Cree language is so important to our shared culture and shared history. I think people will get a lot out of it if you’re not familiar with it, and if you speak Cree, it will be a good refresher,” said Martin Bierens, Musée Heritage Museum's curator.
Bierens joined the museum team in October 2023, after a six-month stint as curator at Lac La Biche Museum. Raised in Lacombe, Bierens received a degree in anthropology from the University of Alberta and a master's degree in museum studies from the University of Toronto.
“I see myself building and bringing in incredible exhibits and bringing in community experts to tell stories by those who have lived it,” said Bierens. “I love telling those stories that make you realize no matter how times have changed, we are still connected to people that lived 1,000 years ago.”
The first speaker Bierens has invited is Dan Cardinal, vice-president of Otipemisiwak Métis Government, formerly known as Métis Nation of Alberta. A man dedicated to teaching the Cree language to his students, Cardinal first learned Cree from his mother. Although he spoke Cree, Cardinal only learned to read and write syllabics while taking Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
“In the English alphabet, you have 26 letters. When you write Cree, there are 15 syllabics. And you cannot translate Cree word-for-word to English. You need to know the context,” said Cardinal.
Teaching Cree has become his passion, and he has strong opinions about the future of his language.
“We Indigenous people lost our language. It is our responsibility to maintain the language. It’s not the responsibility of anybody else. A lot of Indigenous people don’t speak the traditional language. Yet, it’s very descriptive and spiritual.”
Cardinal will give two free talks on the importance of Indigenous languages. He will provide a demonstration of oral and written Cree, followed by a Q & A session. The talks take place at the museum on Saturday, Jan. 20 and Saturday, Feb. 17. Both events are at 11 a.m.