Chapter 9: Reclaiming Indigenous Languages

9.7 Reclaiming Michif

Chantale Cenerini and Martin Kohlberger

Chantale Cenerini is an assistant professor at the Department of Linguistics of the University of Saskatchewan. She is a citizen of the Métis Nation Saskatchewan. Her work revolves around language reclamation, maintenance, description and documentation, focusing on the languages of the Michif/Métis people, Algonquian languages and French spoken in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


Martin Kohlberger: Hello everybody, my name is Martin Kohlberger. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan. And today, I am delighted to have the opportunity to have a conversation with Chantale Cenerini, who is also an assistant professor at the Department of Linguistics of the University of Saskatchewan.Chantale works with languages of the Michif people, Algonquian languages, language reclamation, language description and documentation, and I’ll simply let you introduce yourself a little bit more, Chantale. Why don’t you please tell us a little bit about you, your nation and your languages?

Chantale Cenerini: For sure! Thank you so much for the invitation, I’m very happy to be here and to be sharing my experiences, so like like you mentioned, I work with languages of the Michif or Métis people. I myself am a citizen of the Métis Nation Saskatchewan. It’s one part of my heritage. I am equally proud, I would say, of each Nation which I’ve come from and to do research on languages of the Michif/Métis people for me has been a really special way to celebrate my ancestors and that part of my heritage and my roots because I’ve had the opportunity to visit so many wonderful communities and to speak with many people that are so hard working and so dedicated to their language and to their community. And not only preserving the knowledge and the languages that they speak and the knowledge that they have, but also to pass it on to the next generations.

One thing I think I would like to say about the Métis or the Michifs is that they’ve always been multilingual people and multilingual nation as a post-contact Indigenous people, they would come into contact with not only European traders and settlers but as well as their relatives such as the the Cree, the Ojibwe, the Saulteaux Nations. And so to be able to communicate and to have a relationship with all these different peoples, they always have spoken many, many languages and that speaks to me to their adaptability as a people. And also what what that is that has made is that the Michif and Métis people are also very spread out.

The Michif homeland is very large across the western provinces and the United States, North Dakota and so on. And so we have we have a Nation that is extremely spread out that is multilingual and so they actually don’t share one language across the entire Nation. There is a common consciousness as a Nation that seems to have emerged beyond sharing one single language. So I think one of the things that I’ve found to be really important when working with Michif/Métis communities has been to really learn about the linguistic history and context of each community and learn from the people what language is spoken and has been spoken in the communities and which languages have become part of their identity as Michif people. So there’s really a need when we’re talking about Michif or Métis communities to focus efforts locally often because of that fact. So I think that’s something that I really found to be a really fascinating question about working with languages of the Michifs and it’s very rich in terms of differences in diversity, but also like I said, there is again still that common consciousness.

Martin Kohlberger: So with such a diverse nation, I imagine, from what you’re saying, that the roles that people can have in language reclamation can be quite different, depending on the communities and the geographic regions and so on. And so I’m curious – I know that you work a lot with language reclamation and language documentation, so I’m curious what your role specifically is in language reclamation and in what ways you have carried out your work.

Chantale Cenerini: Absolutely, well you’re right in terms of saying that there’s all kinds of things that you end up being able to do, and I think again that experience for me has somewhat varied depending on the community and the speakers that I end up working with so my role has been in my own research I’ve been able to work with documenting stories as told in the community’s language. These are stories of growing up in the community. They are stories about their family, about the community themselves, and I did get a lot of interest from people with this kind of project, because not only does it bank and document the language, but it also it also promotes it, it also puts it, you know on a plane of prestige, I guess, I would say.

Martin Kohlberger: Right.

Chantale Cenerini: Any documents and history that sometimes has not been included in other community accounts, for example. And just on a personal level as well, it was a way for for people sometimes to just document their own family history. So it’s a family legacy, even if it doesn’t go beyond the family, that’s worth it all in itself. So on that side of things that’s definitely been for me really rewarding work. So that that idea of language documentation and banking, but, as well as sharing, dissemination.  So taking those stories and then publishing them in some way that’s for the families and for the communities themselves.

But then also my role sometimes expands to beyond that, in terms of then becoming a facilitator or a technician for other community-driven projects. So that would include here in Saskatoon community classes. For the last four or five years as more and more people are interested in hosting classes for the community, especially for adults that want to learn their ancestral language. This has been really high demand. So then they reach out to speakers who at this point are Elders for the most part, and of course they have all the intuitive knowledge as fluent native speakers. But then it’s nice – I think it can become a much more positive experience for them, when you have other people that come in to support you on the other side of what it means to teach a class to a group of adults.

So I definitely feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be part of these kinds of groups where we have teachers, linguist such as myself, and speakers that are working together. We’re bringing all our specialized skills and we’re delivering the best class that we can together. And that can be a very rewarding relationship as well.

And then from that, you kind of start falling into resource development to support these kinds of classes. So I can talk about it a little bit later, too, but that resource development as well, has been a really important part of of what I’ve done to try to support especially adults trying to achieve fluency in their learning.

Martin Kohlberger: And from what it sounds like, a lot of this work really revolves around fostering and reinforcing relationships, right? I guess in terms of when you were talking about the documentation of stories and how it’s about people documenting their histories, but I guess, in turn, the documentation reinforces their relationships that people have in their communities with their own memories. So that that sounds like a really multifaceted work. So it must be rewarding but I’m guessing it’s also a challenge!

Chantale Cenerini: It’s a lot of work, but absolutely! It’s something great to work with.

Martin Kohlberger: And i’m wondering – you mentioned the fact that a lot of adults are wanting to learn their heritage language and that that often happens in collaboration with multiple different people, whether it’s linguists or Elders, or a combination of that, and I’m wondering what is it like, do you think, for adult learners to go through this experience? Do you have any personal insight into that? Because I imagine it’s quite a different process to learn a heritage language as an adult than learning it at a younger age.

Chantale Cenerini: Oh, absolutely. Well, I think, for me, that’s something that I went through myself, because it was important for me to learn  these languages that I’m working with that my family doesn’t speak anymore, but that  they would have spoken just a few generations ago. So for me it’s really personal journey to be part of the learning process myself so and then I have that personal experience and i’m going through maybe what the other students are going through as well, as adults.

In the case here of Saskatoon there’s quite a few descendants of the wintering camp called Round Prairie or La Prairie Ronde, and these were Michif families that would have originated from the Red River. They spoke a mixed language that they called Michif. And so there’s a lot of interest, for example here in Saskatoon, to learn this language, because it’s the language of the families, of their ancestors, so a lot of adults are are looking for opportunities to to learn this language. And there are a lot of challenges. Most adults are native English speakers, and of course English doesn’t have a very complex verb structure. But a mixed language like Michif, the verbs come from Cree, so it’s an Algonquian verb structure and that’s a whole nother animal than the English verb! So, then, to be faced with a complex gender system, a complex verb system, these are things that they have no basis on if they only know English. So those are huge challenges in terms of trying to get people to slowly try to learn.

So the main way that I think people are trying to approach their language learning here as adults is there are a lot of online resources that are getting created for the language, some online beginner courses, lots of videos, online dictionaries, lessons and so on. So I think that’s the resource that a lot of people end up depending on. As well as the opportunity to take these community classes taught by a speaker and supporting team. And the goal that we’re working on here in the city is how do we take these people that have been taking beginner classes or beginner content for a couple of years now, but are really desperately trying to break through – the next the next step, the next stage, exactly. How do you get to become a fluent speaker if the only material that’s really at your disposal is either the beginner stuff or the really complex fluent language videos or children’s books that are fully translated, but that aren’t really broken down or anything?

So that’s actually something that I’ve really tried to work on in terms of resource development is through a non-profit organization that I’m part of. We’re actually developing a verb game so people can actually start to broach the topic of the Algonquian verb and the structure and how do we stratify their learning and make it seem as painless as possible through a series of exercises and, in this case, this is an interactive game where you’re manipulating pieces of the verb and building a full sentence using the verb in a sentence. So the goal is to really try to make the verb not so scary, not so intimidating and to really introduce the idea of those regular patterns which then you start seeing in the verb. And that’s the key in this case to going from a beginner to someone who can actually hold a conversation in the language and can feel confident in using the language. So we are definitely thinking about ways to do that and ways to support that with the adults, especially.

Martin Kohlberger: I guess that’s one of the key changes that happens there is the difference from being an early student to bringing the interaction in? So is that why that game is interactive to bring a little more conversation into the picture? Or are the early classes also pretty immersive?

Chantale Cenerini: Well, to various levels I think in our journey here in the community classes I’ve been offered in Saskatoon and even out of Saskatoon – because now with Zoom you can offer the same course to people in British Columbia, to people in Regina, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing as well. And so we’re starting from Saskatoon but then we’re distributing content elsewhere in the country where Métis people are spread out.

Martin Kohlberger: Judging from what you were saying about the the geographic distribution of the Métis Nation, I imagine that that’s actually been quite a positive development over the past couple of years: having the the Zoom possibilities.

Chantale Cenerini: Oh well yeah, because speakers that are willing to teach a language class is getting harder and harder to find. I think, in the case of of Michif, for example, I mean speakers are in their 70s at least. And with more and more interest and more and more funding available for work on Indigenous languages, the people that are active in language work, speakers that are active in language work, they often get quite busy. Right?  With the amount of work that’s available to them and they’re in hot demand! It’s nice if there’s ways like Zoom where you can connect with with a speaker if you don’t have one in your own community that is doing that kind of language instruction, then it allows you to reach reach out. And the funny thing with all being Michif or Métis people is then you find connections with people that are all the way living, for example on the West Coast. They’re all from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and there’s a lot of relations happening there, so it allows you to connect with people that are from your own family that you wouldn’t have connected with otherwise.

Martin Kohlberger: Wow, yeah! Hmm. I’m also curious because you mentioned the fact that you have these multiple hats, you have these many roles. On the one hand you’re a member of the community yourself, you talked about how the language journey was part of your own journey, but you’re also obviously a linguist, a researcher, in terms of your career and also your research interests. But I’m also wondering, in general, what is the your community’s experience with linguists – like academic linguists – or even the field of linguistics? Has there been much interaction there? What are the views of community members about linguistics? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Chantale Cenerini: Well, I think, I think, like in many cases, it’s a mixed experience sometimes, but there have been some really positive experiences, I think. With many communities in Western Canada, a lot of people have remembered… The linguist that published probably the most foundational work on languages of the Michif/Métis people has been Peter Bakker and he’s very well thought of still. And I think one of the things that people mention, for example, they talk about him or other people that have come after him is there seems to be always more of a positive thought towards the linguist or the researcher that came and was interested in your language if they themselves made an effort to learn the language and made an effort to speak the language. I know as linguists we don’t like to get asked how many languages do we speak and assume that we’re just studying to learn how to speak languages, but when it comes to doing language reclamation or revitalization work, that’s actually a really important part of building a positive relationship: become a learner yourself. And I think it allows you to to have a different perspective on the language.

As well, when you do try to become a learner, it allows you to see the language a little bit more from the inside, rather than an outside perspective, and it is just… I’ve found anywhere that I’ve gone that that’s just generally something that people notice and really appreciate if they see that you’ve come, you’ve stayed for however long, a while, but while you were there you did make that genuine effort to try to communicate in the language, try to use the language, try to show an interest in learning the language and a sincere one, of course. And I think that plays a really important role in in building a relationship.

And I think for me that’s one of the things that struck me the most coming into my own research and my own work, something that I was told or that I heard. And, well, otherwise it is a lot about building that personal relationship. I think, if you can show yourself, not only as a researcher, but a human being and a person, that you find those commonalities and you build that person-to-person relationship, that just generally tends to be a lot more positive than trying to stay to a certain point too professional. I think that that’s something as well that that I see. But of course it depends. It depends on the expectation of the people that you’re working with and what they need or want out of the relationship as well, so it doesn’t always look the same.

Martin Kohlberger: And like you mentioned,with such a diverse Nation, the meet the needs and expectations are presumably going to be different in all the different cases. Thank you for that point! And I’m wondering if there was one thing,or a few things that you would want linguistics students to know about either the kind of work that you do, or about the languages of the Michif/Métis people? Is there something that you would want linguistics students to definitely kind of know about or come out with?

Chantale Cenerini: Well, I think if they are interested in this kind of work and anything that is related, for example here in North America or elsewhere in Indigenous language revitalization and reclamation, and this is something that students are interested in and that’s the direction that they want to take in terms of their their their career in linguistics, I think one of the things that maybe I would want to share again, it has to do if you do want to work with people and you want to work on languages that have this complicated history with disciplines such as linguistics and where relationships are really important, I do like to share something that actually really struck me or marked me the most when I was going through the early stages of my PhD program. I went to a one week institute at the University of Carleton and one of the organizers was John Medicine Horse Kelly, and they had put up a whole week on ethics of research with Indigenous peoples, and it was people from all different fields that came to this this institute so not only from linguistics or social sciences, but we had people in the field of agriculture, in the field of medicine, and everything like that, we kind of all came together. And one thing that he shared with us during that time that honestly just stayed with me the entire time was just: “Come in with a good heart.” “Have a good heart.” And he says, “If you make mistakes or you make errors in protocol, or different things like that, it will always be better received if you came in with a good heart.”

Martin Kohlberger: Wow, yeah.

Chantale Cenerini: And it’s really simple advice, but for me it stayed with me the entire time and it’s still something that I think about regularly, in terms of sometimes you don’t know how to approach something, or you don’t know how to go about something. It’s just something that always pop back into my head and almost as a reassurance that, okay, take a break and just that simple thing of always checking how you’re going into something and your intentions when you’re going into something and that sometimes can just make all the difference in terms of even how you approach it. So there’s a lot of unknowns when working in language revitalization reclamation documentation, and I think to keep that in mind is maybe just a steadfast something to think about that anyway stayed with me the entire time after I heard it, and it will probably be in my mind, for the rest of my life honestly. So that’s something that I like to think about and that struck me to share.

Martin Kohlberger: Thank you so much! Thank you so much for your time, for your insights into your own work, your community and for the lessons.I can say personally, I appreciate that lesson: “Come in with a good heart.” I think that that will likely mark me too.So I thank you once again for sharing all this with us! And thank you for being here today!

Chantale Cenerini: Thank you so much for inviting me! It was great, thank you!


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition Copyright © 2022 by Chantale Cenerini and Martin Kohlberger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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