Why I am reclaiming my mother’s language 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 about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Read the column in Oji-Cree here

ᐊᔭᒥᐦᑐᐣ ᐃᐍ ᑎᐸᒋᒧᐘᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫᐏᐣ ᐊᓂᔑᓂᓂᒧᐏᓂᐠ ᐅᒪ᙮

A few years ago I noticed a little handbook in my mother’s living room titled Pocket Oji-Cree. I started flipping through it and felt a deep longing. 

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

But other than the few words she spoke to me as a child — “niwiihsin” meaning eat,” “ekwa nipan” for go to bed, “pishan” for come here — I was unable to understand it. So I borrowed the book with high hopes of learning on my own. 

Days, months and years passed, and the book sat patiently on my shelf, collecting dust. The necessity to speak Oji-Cree in my daily life was simply non-existent. I was not surrounded by family or friends that spoke it. Like many Indigenous languages, Oji-Cree is at risk of becoming lost.

The 2016 Census Aboriginal Community Portrait shows that only 16 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada speak an Indigenous language — a five per cent decline from 2006. 

Over the last century, Indigenous languages have been gradually slipping away. This knowledge has always weighed heavily on me. Then a couple months ago, I saw that Nishnawbe Aski Nation was offering a six-week course on Oji-Cree language lessons. The course was free and open to anyone interested. 

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

Until she was 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 displaced her community onto a reservation. Their lives completely changed. As a young girl, my mom experienced many hardships and left home to attend high school hundreds of miles away. 

Alone and afraid, she said learning in an English-language school was difficult. This challenge became too great and halfway through the school year, she dropped out and returned home to the reserve.

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

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

Learning in an institution that only supported English speakers and curriculum, she rarely spoke her traditional language.

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

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

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

She mostly spoke English around our family but would lovingly sprinkle Oji-Cree words into everyday conversation. Still, as time went on, speaking Oji-Cree in our home became increasingly difficult as she was the only fluent speaker.

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

When I was young, my family would travel to Muskrat Dam First Nation every couple years for Christmas or summer vacation. I would sit in rooms listening to the flutter of my relatives speaking in Oji-Cree. I could never have a full conversation with my Koomshoom, my grandfather, as he knew no English. 

I remember the way he would chuckle my Oji-Cree name “Wabunn” into my ear as he hugged me. There were many times I would sit next to him in silence while he watched old Western movies on his TV even though he couldn’t understand the words. 

I remember sitting next to his hospital bed, holding his hand, stumbling over the word “Kisaakihin,” 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 evening for six weeks, I joined a Zoom call on my laptop from my kitchen table while my children 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, her mother, her two sons and her husband. (Rochelle Bragg)

Having the words of my ancestors fill my home and find their way into the ears of my children is an irreplaceable gift. 

LISTEN | Rochelle Bragg introduces herself in Oji-Cree.

0:19Rochelle Bragg speaks in Oji-Cree

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

My desire to learn Oji-Cree is ignited and I plan to continue learning. I understand the tragedy Indigenous people have faced in their loss of language and culture all on their own land. I understand how my mother’s language got lost in the pursuit of education. I understand the opportunities and advantages she was giving us in doing so. I understand it is now my responsibility to learn her language. 

I am embarking on this language journey for my people, for my children, for my Koomshoom, and mostly, for my mother.


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