International Water Day, 2021

nipiy kipimâcihikonaw
ᓂᐱᐩ ᑭᐱᒫᒋᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ
Water Keeps us Alive

(Thanks to Solomon Ratt for this magical photo of a beaver swimming in sunlit Wascana Creek.)

Water is fundamental to life: we can’t exist without it. Simon Bird (#CreeSimonSays) recently built an analogy around water as a connector that feeds the survival of Cree communities and culture. And maybe language, too. It seems particularly relevant today.

Simon began with this image of three puddles: Imagine for a moment these puddles are like our indigenous communities today. Compare how these communities were once connected by the water. This was the reality of how people were connected once. The primary mode of transportation for most indigenous people was the canoe, prior to the arrival of the horse, prior to the arrival of European people.

Traditionally, people would work hard in the winter to survive, then travel by water in summer to camp together in a larger community where they could fish and feast and celebrate, share ceremony and news, and sing, and dance, and talk together – unimpaired by dialect differences – in the language they shared.

Simon continues: The once free flowing rivers are now dammed, community members don’t know their neighbours, and we don’t know who or how we are related. Our people have become intolerant of others: the mentality is to look at each others’ differences, and not what we all have in common. … Traditionally our indigenous people valued human connection, spiritual connection and our connection to the land and animals.”

So how does flowing water relate to language? Think again of those puddles. Without a continuous source of water to keep them renewed and replenished, puddles dry up and disappear. When ducks nest in puddles that dry up, their ducklings are unlikely to survive. Sadly, the same thing is happening right now in Cree-speaking communities that choose to focus on differences – their unique vocabulary, their unique pronunciation, their unique spelling. As they fight to preserve and protect these differences, the unintended result is isolation. As they isolate themselves from the larger Cree-speaking community, from closely-related books and classroom materials, from essential tools like dictionaries, their puddle just keeps shrinking. In some communities, language is being protected right out of existence.

International Water Day reminds us that water is essential to life. By analogy, free-flowing connections are also essential for maintaining and revitalizing Cree as a vibrant, living language. Because like water, language also sustains us.

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