Congratulations to the forever-young Dr Jean Okimâsis whose groundbreaking work in the classroom at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University) inspired the careers of so many fine “Creechers” including Solomon Ratt, Wayne Jackson, Darren Okemaysim and many, many more. Through her teaching Jean has consistently set a strong example for standard spelling as a tool for building a community of readers and writers who are fully literate in Cree.
Unlike spoken language which we can pick up naturally when we hear it enough, learning to read and write (in any language) requires formal training. In a world where residential schools forbade Cree language instruction, opportunities for people to learn to read and write in Cree simply didn’t exist.
The survival of spoken Cree in the face of Canada’s determined interference is nearly miraculous. It is both natural and admirable for people to read and write the language using the tools they learned for English. But a genuine command of the written language, and a genuine command of reading in Cree – the kind of command we want for our Cree-speaking children and grandchildren – demands predictable spelling. As we look forward, imagining Cree as an official language of Canada, it’s hard to formulate that vision without a consistently shared system for writing and spelling.
So today, we congratulate Jean for her patience and persistence and life-long commitment to her language (and we work really hard to spell it right, too!): kimamihcihinân. We hope our efforts make her proud, too.
(If you are a former student of Jean’s (or a student of one of her students), please feel free to leave a comment below. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you!)