When Marcella Williams’ grandmother was angry at Marcella’s mother, she’d let loose a string of words Marcella didn’t understand. It was only as an adult, when she started learning Mi’kmaw from fluent speakers in other provinces, that she realized her grandmother had been calling her mother thick-headed, or stubborn. And, it was only when she started going to gatherings and heard Mi’kmaw songs that she realized that some of her early childhood campfire songs were traditional Mi’kmaw songs. She didn’t know because nobody in her family identified the words or the songs as Mi’kmaw.
That’s the long reach of colonialism: it forced generations of Indigenous communities in Newfoundland and Labrador (and around the world) to hide their culture for survival (if they could) to avoid discrimination. As a result, languages began falling away, one by one. Marcella says her great-grandmother would have spoken Mi’kmaw fluently. Her grandmother spoke phrases and words that Marcella remembers hearing as a child, but didn’t understand.
Today, Mi’kmaw communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are in the midst of a cultural revival. They are looking at what they were, and what that means for the future. Language, says Marcella, is front and centre in this journey.
Marcella Williams and Shane Snook are learning Mi’kmaw – and teaching others in turn. Together, they are an important part of an Indigenous cultural renewal in Newfoundland and Labrador that is placing language at its centre.
I talked to Marcella Williams and Shane Snook when they were in St. John’s to offer a series of workshops at Identify, an Indigenous arts and culture festival hosted by Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s back in April. Here’s what they had to say.
Marcella: My mother didn’t know the language. If you spoke to my grandmother she didn’t know it. But my grandmother knew some Mi’kmaw words. Because when she’d curse at somebody she used words I didn’t understand. At least, I thought it was a curse. When I was working with [a Mi’kmawlanguage teacher] he was teaching just for fun about big feet and big headed and thick headed. I was like, oh my God, that’s the word my grandmother was using, she was calling my mother thickheaded, stubborn right. Oh my god, that was a Mi’kmaw word.
Shane: So much of the culture, the mindset, the activities did stay with us even though we had to be low key.
Marcella: Because being Native growing up wasn’t something you admitted to especially on the West Coast. If my mother or father would have been known as being Mi’kmaw they never would have been able to work on the base. There was a lot of jobs they wouldn’t have been able to get.
For a lot of those parents the language got lost. The parents didn’t speak it to the kids, the kids didn’t learn it they didn’t speak it to their kids and in turn I didn’t get it. If they used Mi’kmaw in the house they literally got their knuckles rapped because it was dangerous it could affect the livelihood of even your parents. So that language was lost.
Shane: One thing that I think is really worth mentioning too is anytime instructors come across the water to come here and help us with learning the language they’re always blown away with the interest and enthusiasm with the attendance. They come to events and there’s so many people and everyone is so amped up. The drive is definitely there. It’s just a matter of getting there. We are. We’re making a lot of progress.
Marcella: But on the other side of that coin because we had all this wide open space there was a lot of our culture that we retained. I grew up learning to make snowshoes in the middle of winter. I went fishing and hunting. It was nothing for me to help even as a child cleaning an animal to get it ready for supper. I still had access to all that. So although I didn’t have parts of my culture, like the language, I did have the rest of it.
It always felt that language, the joining piece, was missing. There was something that wasn’t really connecting right.
Shane: The first major language class in Newfoundland was in my area and I was home at the time. I’ve been all over the place just trying to make a living, but I was nearby and I wanted to know what the language sounded like, what it was all about. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became because as you learn the language you get more and more insight into how words were built and the way that our ancestors used to even think and even see the world. The more of those words you learn, the more those structures you learn, the more you understand how we used to think.
Marcella: I think the next big step is we need to get some fluency. We need to get a few people that can do that fluency program and then come back and start the language pods because that’s when you’re going to find it really taken up.
Shane: When you talk to the older generations a lot of the times they recognize Mi’kmaw words.
Marcella: My grandmothers wouldn’t have been taught it. It would only have been used around her when they didn’t want her to understand something. So the fluency would have been the ones before my grandmother. So my great grandmothers would have been fluent. Because that works about the same time the base was coming in. They would have already had that language and they would have been hush hush about it and not teaching their kids.
Shane: I know the language is technically endangered at this point. But we do have a lot of people making a really strong effort to start bringing it back.
Marcella: The first attempt we made nobody knew anything we fell flat on our face. We didn’t know anything.
There was a bunch of us wanted to learn. We got together in a school and tried to do it online with no help. Didn’t have a clue. We failed miserably. We ended up maybe getting one or two words out of it.
So about a year or two after that was when I started in earnest trying to learn again. And I started getting a bit of help. And I learned the basics for the reading and writing. I learned the basics and I kept going. Every time there was a language camp or there was something where I knew there was going to be speakers there, I was there.
Shane: And that’s more or less the part where I stepped in as well. Once the courses were being offered and opportunities to hear the speakers and go to the classes. That was probably about five or six years ago. I started out of curiosity.
Marcella: When I seen someone in my Mi’kmaw class struggling, I offered to help, like most people would. And that kind of got noticed. They said I could tutor, so then I started tutoring. Which eventually, four years later, led to a job. The first job was offered to myself and another individual. We worked fifteen weeks each doing the first language program during the evenings we studied over Skype over the internet with someone who was a fluent speaker Curtis Micheal, a sweet heart, love him to pieces.
The next year we started the idea with the videos. That led to the Mi’kmaw language learners [those videos are being used with the Mi’kmaw Language Learners Facebook group]. The videos that I have done get released once a month. People can comment and post and ask questions and we answer back.
And then this year we started the second set of twenty videos. And now if we are lucky enough we are hoping for funding for the next program which will tighten up that package.
Then we have the 20 – 40 introductory videos, and then the two in detail one, packaged with a game and a bunch of other stuff.
We do weekly language class at the Friendship Centre in Stephenville. We work with kids another evening a week. Language, culture, drumming all of it. We recently finished songbook project. Ten original songs, chants, for the kids.
Shane: Funding is one of the challenges we often face. Realistically in the real world we need to pay the bills.
Marcella: In other places in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick there are speakers. It is a spoken language. It’s not dead, not by a long shot. We’ve been to a few language conferences lately they’ve gone down to having as little as two speakers and they’ve managed to come back. I know they have a full fluency school in Eskasoni [Nova Scotia].
Shane: That place is awesome. I want to sign up for Kindergarten so bad.
Marcella: There’s a growing demand out there for the language. On our site alone we have over 700 people that are working towards learning. And that’s where we’re going to start getting advances by leaps and bounds.
It ties us to our past and to how things were done. Even just the way Mi’kmaq looked at life is mirrored in their speech. We look at the colour orange and orange is just what a thing is. This card is orange. But Mi’kmaw look at it like this is orange-ing.
Shane: It’s a process. Colour is a process.
Marcella: Here’s the catch, though: when you look at this scientifically that’s exactly what’s happening. Because it has to do with the way the light reflects and then travels back into the eye. There is science behind it. So it’s not static colours, everything is doing something. Mi’kmaw is like that. It’s very much a verb based language.
Shane: 200 hours of immersion and you’re basically fluent. So that’s six months.
Marcella: People were talking about it saying that’s so long and I’m like that’s not long. Think about it. That’s 167 days. That is an achievable amount of time.
Shane: We often build words instead of sentences.
Marcella: The next thing you need to know is that the language if I say I’m going to the store, that’s five words. In Mikmaq that’d be one word but it’d be slightly longer.
Shane: One of the first examples I had of animate versus inanimate was the difference between a fork and a spoon. Years ago we would have have used a spoon made out of wood. The word for spoon then would have been animate because it was made of wood – it was made of a tree, a living object. Whereas the fork was introduced by the settlers and forks were made out of steel or tin. That wasn’t made of something natural so that wasn’t animate. Spoon was also considered a necessity, a part of survival. The fork was more of a luxury.
Marcella: In English we think alive and dead. But that’s not always the same way in Mi’kmaw because there’s different values. I have one person describe it to me that the black ash tree was so important because it kept people alive, so it was animate.
I hope we have classes in school teaching Mi’kmaw language like they do French. That’s what I want to see in ten years.
Shane: That’s doable.
Marcella: I want to see us taking our original language back and teaching it in the classrooms. I want to hear it. When I walk in a store and I ask someone how much, they answer me in Mi’kmaw. I want to hear it.