Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
This summer there were some excited people at the University of Regina Press (URP) when a new CBC-TV drama hit the airwaves.
“I just happened to be watching the episode of SkyMed when (the nurse) pulled it out in the airplane,” said Melissa Shirley, marketing and publicity manager with URP.
After pausing her television screen, Shirley confirmed that “it” was a Cree dictionary published by URP. A little later in the episode, the nurse looked at a second book, this time a Cree workbook, also published by URP.
SkyMed is set in remote northern Manitoba and follows the lives of pilots and nurses who work for an air ambulance service.
According to an article in thetvjunkies.com, SkyMed creator Julie Puckrin wanted to create a show that included strong Indigenous characters. She staffed her writing room with people who could speak to the lived experiences of her characters.
“Watching the show, I thought how it was cool they were able to integrate the Cree language into it without making it a thing,” said Shirley. “It was just that those characters speak Cree and they would just flip back and forth with the subtitles.
“I thought it was really respectful and really well done and then how they made a plot point about it, just in the one nurse who didn’t speak Cree, (who) realized it was something they should learn.”
Inquiring of colleagues later, Shirley was told that someone from the SkyMed production team had reached out to URP about a year-and-a-half ago for Cree language materials.
SkyMed is not unique in its use of an Indigenous language. Shirley points out that the Predator movie prequel Prey, which also came out in 2022, has an option to watch with Comanche audio.
She says the use of Indigenous languages in this way is becoming a “growing movement.”
URP is launching a new series of books this October under the title Speaking Cree in the Home. It’s aimed at “revitalizing and teaching” everyday Cree words used around the house to young children.
Shirley notes that the writers are Cree speakers. For Andrea Custer, Cree is her primary language, while Belinda Daniels uses Cree as her secondary language.
Shirley also points to one of URP’s perennially popular books 100 Days of Cree, which got its start through a series of Facebook postings.
“As I began to get more and more responses from my small posts in Cree, I had the idea of a large, ongoing project, wherein I would post at least ten words a day on a concentrated theme for one hundred days straight,” wrote author Neal McLeod in his book’s introduction.
McLeod, who grew up on the James Smith reserve in Saskatchewan, decided to introduce Cree words to “describe the world in which we live today.”
With that in mind, “Terms were developed for things such as Internet use and computers, demonstrating the great flexibility and adaptability of the language. It is hoped these gathered terms will offer something to the new, large, emerging generation of Cree speakers, in whose minds and bodies the future of the language now rests,” wrote McLeod.
The book, says Shirley, is a “fun way, particularly for young people, to see …(Cree) is not a dead language. It’s still very much a used language.”
Dr. Arok Wolvengrey, a professor in Indigenous languages at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, is editor of 100 Days of Cree. He also contributed the Guide to Cree Pronunciation at the end of the book.
He began editing books for the Canadian Plains Research Centre, which became the University of Regina Press. Next year marks 10 years for URP, which continues to build on and broaden the mandate of publishing books in the Indigenous languages of Saskatchewan established by its predecessor.
“We’ve covered geographically almost the breadth of the country and we hope to just keep expanding that,” said Wolvengrey.
Wolvengrey edits the First Nation Language Readers series for URP, which was started by the Canadian Plains Research Centre. Each book includes Indigenous syllabics, Standard Roman Orthography (SRO), and English. Wolvengrey explains that SRO is made up of symbols of the Latin or Roman alphabet, but not necessarily applied in the same way that most readers will be used to from English.
The First Nation Language Readers series are small works aimed primarily at beginner readers. Now, Wolvengrey is editing longer works for a new series entitled Our Own Words, which is geared more toward intermediary and advanced readers. The series was launched with an editing collaboration between Wolvengrey and his wife Jean L. Okimasis on I Come from a Long Time Back by Piapot First Nation Elder Mary Louise Rockthunder.
“As with the shorter stories, I just hope it inspires more Indigenous writers and storytellers to consider the possibility of making sure their material gets out there, that they find publishers out there and the University of Regina Press is certainly one option and I think a good one. We continue that trend and really see far more publications in Indigenous languages as we go forward,” said Wolvengrey.
As for the use of the two Cree books from the URP on SkyMed, said Wolvengrey, “I was happy to see it was our books … I know how hard people work who work on language revitalization, and it’s nice to see that work highlighted in some way and recognized in some way.”
This year starts the UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages to highlight the importance of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages, particularly to uphold the right of Indigenous peoples to liberty of expression, education and participation in public life in their mother tongue.
“The new vision, really form the University of Regina Press, is to highlight each and every language across the country. That will take a long time, but it’s a wonderful vision and hopefully we’ll just be able to plug away at that and expand the (language book) series as we go along,” said Wolvengrey.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.