Why I Reclaim My Mother’s Tongue Before It’s Too Late

This first-person article is the experience of Rochelle Bragg who is of mixed Oji-Cree and Swiss-German descent. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

Read the chronicle in Oji-Cree here.

ᐊᔭᒥᐦᑐᐣ ᐃᐍ ᑎᐸᒋᒧᐘᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫᐏᐣ ᐊᓂᔑᓂᓂᒧᐏᓂᐠ ᐅᒪ᙮

A few years ago I noticed a little manual in my mom’s living room titled Pocket Oji-Cry. I started flipping through it and felt a deep desire.

Anishininiimowin (Oji-Cree) is my mother’s first language. My family language is spoken in northern Ontario and parts of Manitoba.

But apart from the few words she said to me when I was a child -“niwihsin“meaning to eat,” “ekwa nipan“to go to bed”pishanto come here – I couldn’t figure it out. So I borrowed the book with high hopes of learning for myself.

Days, months and years passed, and the book sat patiently on my shelf, gathering dust. The need to speak Oji-Cree in my daily life was simply non-existent. I was not surrounded by family or friends who spoke it. Like many native languages, Oji-Cree is in danger of being lost.

the Portrait of the Aboriginal community from the 2016 Census shows that only 16% of Aboriginal people in Canada speak an Aboriginal language, a decrease of 5% from 2006.

Over the past century, indigenous languages ​​have gradually disappeared. This knowledge has always weighed on me. Then, a few months ago, I saw that the Nishnawbe Aski Nation was offering a six-week Oji-Cree language course. The course was free and open to anyone interested.

Rochelle Bragg, 6, (left) is pictured with her mother Linda and sister Lynnette in Otterburne, Man. (Rochelle Bragg)

Until the age of 11, my mother and her family lived a nomadic lifestyle moving between summer and winter camps in the bushes of Northern Ontario.

Then the government moved his community to a reserve. Their life has completely changed. As a young girl, my mother experienced many difficulties and left home to attend high school hundreds of miles away.

Alone and scared, she says learning in an English-speaking school was difficult. This challenge became too great and in the middle of the school year she gave up and returned home to the reservation.

After the wedding, my parents decided to live off the reserve. They said it was a difficult decision, but one common to many First Nations families pursuing an education. My mother immersed herself in an English-speaking world. She worked hard, graduated from high school, and went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

But in doing so, she renounced her traditional way of life.

Studying at an institution that only supported English speakers and the school curriculum, she rarely spoke her traditional language.

LISTEN | Rochelle Bragg’s mother, Linda, introduces herself in Oji-Cree.

0:12Rochelle Bragg’s mother, Linda, speaks Oji-Cree

Rochelle Bragg’s mother, Linda, introduces herself in her native language, Oji-Cree. 0:12

She spoke mostly English around our family, but lovingly sprinkled Oji-Cree words into everyday conversations. Yet over time, speaking Oji-Cree in our house became increasingly difficult as she was the only fluent speaker.

Rochelle Bragg, second from right, is pictured next to her Kookum Esther Beardy, ‘Big Kookum’ Juliet Duncan, her mother Linda and sister Lynnette during one of their visits to Muskrat Dam First Nation in 1992 . (Rochelle Bragg)

When I was young, my family traveled to Muskrat Dam First Nation every two years for Christmas or summer vacation. I sat in rooms listening to the beating voices of my loved ones speaking in Oji-Cree. I could never have a full conversation with my damnmy grandfather, because he didn’t know English.

I remember how he chuckled my Oji-shouting name “Wabunn” into my ear as he hugged me. There were several times when I sat next to him in silence while he watched old Western movies on his TV even though he didn’t understand the words.

I remember sitting next to his hospital bed, holding his hand, stumbling over the word “In the race,which means “I love you”, before he entered the Spirit world.

Rochelle Bragg’s Koomshoom, Jake Beardy, is pictured with his great-grandson Emerson in 2015. (Rochelle Bragg)

Learning Oji-Cree has been challenging and rewarding. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, I joined a Zoom call on my laptop from my kitchen table while my kids ran around me. The next hour and a half was spent reviewing, learning, speaking and writing Oji-Cree words. We were encouraged to participate and converse with our instructor. Hearing the language spoken and translated in real time was a new and exciting experience.

From right to left, Rochelle Bragg stands with her family, including her father, mother, two sons and husband. (Rochelle Bragg)

To have the words of my ancestors fill my home and end up in the ears of my children is an irreplaceable gift.

LISTEN | Rochelle Bragg presents herself in Oji-Cree.

0:19Rochelle Bragg speaks Oji-Cree

Rochelle Bragg is learning Oji-Cree, her mother’s native language. 0:19

My desire to learn Oji-Cree is inflamed and I intend to continue learning. I understand the tragedy that Indigenous peoples have experienced in losing their language and culture in their own land. I understand how my mother’s language got lost in the pursuit of education. I understand the opportunities and benefits she gave us by doing so. I understand that it is now my responsibility to learn his language.

I am embarking on this linguistic journey for my people, for my children, for my damnand above all, for my mother.

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