For decades, the Fort Fitzgerald-born Mary Cardinal has been teaching generations of youth how to speak Cree and, for the first time last week, publicly shared how she gained her knowledge.
One of two translators for the NWT Métis Nation’s (NWTMN) Cree Language Program, Cardinal spent the evening of Apr. 2 sharing stories about her life on the land learning Cree traditions over a plate of hot food at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre.
Cardinal has been integral in developing Cree language learning resources for both the language program and for the South Slave Divisional Education Council, lending her talents to the translation of over 100 novels, short stories, graphic novels and songs.
After telling the traditional tale of Wesakechak and his scabs in both Cree and English, Cardinal delved into her own personal history for the intimate audience.
Cardinal and her siblings were adopted by her grandparents as children, and as such, they grew up calling them mom and dad. Her grandfather was a sawmill worker and a trapper, while her grandmother took care of the household and served the community as a midwife, using natural medicines from the land.
Her family was based in Fort Fitzgerald, but Cardinal lived a nomadic lifestyle in the fall and early winter time, chasing muskrat, caribou and moose – her favourite – before setting up camp wherever they happened to be when night fell.
“My grandmother used to set up camp. Tents, stoves, everything she carried on her back,” she said. “People were so strong back in those days. I couldn’t do that now,” she said with a chuckle.
“Growing up in the bush was pretty good for me. We didn’t have stress at that time, not like nowadays. We had a lot of fun. We had no toys; we had to make our own toys. My mom used to sew us dolls out of scraps and paper.”
While living at home as a self-proclaimed tomboy, choosing to hunt and trap with the men in her family, Cardinal learned to speak Cree, as it was the language most often used in her household. Her parents could speak some English, but chose to keep their heritage alive.
“I like helping with these stories because they give me a lot to think about. They bring up memories of my past,” Cardinal said.
Cardinal continues to live a traditional lifestyle, going out on the land when she can and encouraging others to speak their own traditional languages. She also enjoys passing down her knowledge to her children and her grandchildren.
“I think there’s too much English talking at home and not enough Cree and even if people know it they don’t want to talk it, I don’t know why,” she said. “Maybe they feel like they’re embarrassed sometimes, some people say that. If somebody wants to change, they want to talk their language, I think they should continue because it’s going to be lost in the long run.”
Contributing to a cause
Kyle Napier, one of the evening’s organizers and Cree language coordinator for NWTMN, is heading several projects with Cardinal’s help. In addition to a Cree calendar set to come out within the next month, he has organized the production of a Cree album, a compilation of music featuring local artist Veronica Johnny, A Tribe Called Red, Iskwew Singers and many more, for which Cardinal has helped with track translations. The final product would be ready for release on Aboriginal Day, June 21.
Napier also noted that local filmmaker Carla Ulrich has been busy cataloguing local stories with Fort Smith elders, Cardinal included. Once the stories are compiled, they are translated into Cree and used as learning resources for both future and current generations.
“What we’ve seen up until 2012, the Cree language in the South Slave almost had a decline in speakers, down to about 220,” Napier said. “As of our last report, we’ve seen 330 speakers. We’re seeing that the community does care that we’re bringing back the languages, and what it takes is having us all come together, people speaking it in their homes, in the schools, to their families and keeping that intergenerational conversation going.”