The Indigenous Métis of the Canadian Prairies, through a heritage of travel and trade, speak many languages. Our unique language, Michif, evolved from a combination of French and Cree, with influences of Ojibwe. It is spoken in parts of Canada and the United States.
I was born in British Columbia. As an adult, I yearned to connect more strongly with my Métis identity. My father’s mother was the last first-language speaker of Michif in our family. As a result of her traumas in the Canadian boarding school system, where Indigenous children were punished for speaking their languages, my grandmother did not pass her Michif language to her own children. This is a common story among several generations of Indigenous peoples and one of the main reasons all Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered. Our country has been colonized by England and France; our children are growing up speaking only English and French.
In 2003, I started down the path of becoming a language revitalization activist after meeting with Elders Grace Zoldy and the late Rita Flamand, both speakers passionate about Michif. They encouraged me to move to Camperville, a remote village in Manitoba, to learn Michif with them. Who would have guessed I would end up marrying a guy from there!
I still live in Camperville with my husband, Orville Guiboche. After our years together here, I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am happy to be close to my relatives. Orville’s late parents always encouraged me in learning and speaking the languages of our family—Michif, Cree, and Saulteaux. I enjoy the land and Lake Winnipegosis. In the spring, I gather seagull eggs and scoop suckers, a plentiful fish. In summer, I pick berries and medicines and grow vegetables and flowers in raised beds. In the fall I hunt, and in the winter I commercial icefish part-time with my husband. I am grateful to the Creator for our life, the land, and the lake.
Recovering my Michif language and teaching it to others as I go has been challenging. Still, it has given me many insights into how Indigenous languages can be learned and taught. I have worked with Elders and like-minded people to study linguistics, create Michif references and curricula, and bring community-based learning opportunities, such as the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program (MAP), to the surrounding area.
The current estimate of Michif speakers is around 100 individuals, with even fewer first-language speakers. Around Camperville, I hear the two dialects of Cree (Plains and Swampy), Saulteaux, and Michif spoken less and less. Few young parents speak these languages, and so few children are acquiring them at home. Others have shared similar observations about their own communities. I know that all Indigenous languages and “speech communities” across Manitoba are at risk—not just Michif. It makes me want to act to ensure our languages and our cultures continue to survive—and one day again thrive—in our schools, our communities, and especially in our homes.
In 2003, I identified the MAP (also called a Mentor-Apprentice Program) as an appropriate revitalization strategy for the Michif language in Manitoba. With Grace and Rita, I attended a MAP training in California with the program’s creators, the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. This led to a short-term pilot program that I started in Camperville both as a facilitator and an apprentice. In 2016, I attended the University of Victoria’s Masters of Indigenous Language Revitalization (MILR) Program in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There I met many other Indigenous activist-scholars and our one American classmate, Laura Grant of Tehachapi, California. Laura has been with the MAP of California since 2003 as an instructor of immersion techniques and a coach to Elders and learners of California’s Indigenous languages.
Together Laura and I decided to reestablish a MAP in Manitoba. While in our last class at the MILR program, we acquired grant funding. In 2017, Michif speakers Verna Demontigny, Gail Welburn, and I co-founded what is now the incorporated nonprofit Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle to support long-term programming. Below, Laura locates herself in relation to our language work.
“Though I am not Indigenous, Norma Nelson, an Owens Valley Paiute Elder, first set me on this path in 1997 when I joined her language teaching efforts in Bishop, California. My role since meeting Norma has been to partner with language workers like Heather to implement strategies that focus on skills development for local people who will be practicing language reclamation over the long run.
The MAP was designed to address specific conditions. For example, the Owens Valley Paiutes had six Elder first-language speakers remaining in 1997, so it was urgent to enable new speakers quickly. Indigenous languages are passed along orally; typically community members do not use a written form. Language revitalization programs are supported by tribal organizations, not by state governments or public schools. Conditions are similar for the Metís in Canada except that first-language speakers still number in the hundreds. The methods of the MAP, as Heather had identified, could have a greater chance to effect change.”
What Is the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program?
The MAP is a language immersion program. Immersion here refers to a learning experience during which learners hear and interact with speakers only in their languages, not the colonial/dominant language (like English). The MAP teaches people to create this experience for themselves in places where their languages are rarely heard or spoken anymore.
Learners acquire their languages informally through speech in context much like children do when they are exposed to their language at home: listening, speaking, asking questions, using gestures and non-verbal communication, and doing repetitive daily activities together. Neither grammar nor writing is formally taught. Languages are not taught through translation (for us, from English). The method follows Indigenous traditions of learning in which knowledge is passed by word of mouth through the generations.
The goal is to enable adults to become speakers who, in turn, may pass the language to others, especially as older first-language speakers become fewer and fewer. After receiving training, two people (often related)—a master (proficient speaker) and an apprentice (adult learner)—practice in their typical daily environments using one-on-one immersion techniques. They learn new habits to create and maintain the immersion setting. It is a simple idea but difficult to do! Even the most fluent speakers are in the habit of speaking, in our case, English and teaching through translation. The minimum recommended immersion hours are 900 over three years, about ten hours per week following the Ten Points of Language Learning from How to Keep Your Language Alive (Hinton, Vera & Steele, 2002), a “how-to” manual for the MAP.
The MAP of Manitoba
Between 2018 and 2022, Laura and I modeled the first MAP in Manitoba after the California program, which mentors teams for three years (variations exist in many places including Canada and Australia). Our Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle’s program serves not only Métis but also Anishnaabe (Ojibwe), Nēhiyawak (Cree), and Dakota peoples of Manitoba and beyond.
We started our first cohort of ten teams, including myself and Grace, in the fall of 2018. In the first year and into the second, we gathered in person for intensive weekend training workshops twice a year. Two communities, Dauphin and San Clara, most generously hosted our workshops in their gathering places. We coached individual teams in person and our teams worked together face to face.
Our workshops open with a circle of introductions and reflections. There are often tears as speakers remember when they stopped using their languages, often under sad or humiliating circumstances, and when they made hard decisions to protect their children, to keep their languages from them. Often those children are apprentices, and they too cry at hearing these stories and having their language withheld from them.
People feel hope, too. They are being introduced to ways to reclaim their languages—so similar to traditional Indigenous ways that focus on hands-on and oral learning with Elders. Sometimes we cry then too. It isn’t a bonafide workshop until someone cries!
“The piece that has been missing for me and my language journey is working with a fluent speaker,” said Kate McDonald, Anishinaabemowin apprentice. “Immersion is the key to becoming a speaker.”
Intense emotions are tempered by the MAP learning activities, which are typically playful and fun: play acting, narrating wordless books, drawing, and using puppets, Play-Doh, and props from home—dishes, clothes, firewood. In MAP, we focus on speaking in the language without any use of English. Our teams learn language that you can use every day, like greeting others, asking and answering questions, giving directions, describing things and people, telling stories, praying, etc. Our languages carry our cultures, so doing traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, beading, and cooking brings our language and culture together.
We also give away recording devices and teach teams to use them and their own cell phones to create listening practice materials. Shared meals, music, and visiting are highlights after long days of intensive learning. Drop-in visitors and the curious are welcome to observe. Friendships are created. Teams network to sustain one another through a demanding, three-year learning journey.
Yeah Two: How We Overcome the Challenges of COVID
Then, in 2020, COVID impacted the world and, of course, our young program too. It was the middle of the second year for our first cohort of MAP teams. Traveling and in-person workshops were too risky for the Elders. We began to coach teams solely over the phone. A few were able to meet in person within their established “bubbles” of safety, but some stopped working. During this year, two Elder speakers passed away.
As whole countries began isolation practices to control the spread of COVID, many of us learned to use software such as FaceTime and Zoom to continue “meeting” together. Our funding organization agreed that our program could be adapted to use virtual meeting tools and granted us a project extension. Laura and I redesigned the program for fully remote training and master-apprentice immersion sessions. We hired Fineen Davis of Ontario to make sure the teams had the equipment, internet connections, and skills to use Zoom, hefty logistical challenges that required several months.
Year Three: Weekly Virtual Workshops
After this pause, we regrouped to begin Year Three. We opened our MAP to ten teams, some new and some veterans, all within our fully remote program. We switched from weekend workshops during which participants gathered for up to twenty hours of training to weekly two-hour sessions via Zoom.
As many of us have discovered, sitting in long virtual meetings can be tiresome! We limited workshop duration and then increased the number of times we met to provide the same amount of support. We used Zoom’s “breakout room” feature to give masters and their apprentices the opportunity to work independently. Often teams who spoke the same language worked in groups to foster community and build relationships.
While Laura and I presented the learning activities, Fineen was indispensable to coordinating our comings and goings during Zoom meetings and retrieving those who got “lost in space”! We found that this new method worked really well. It was thrilling to see and hear each other again after the first fearful year of the pandemic. Many of us had gotten COVID and recovered, but we lost many people in our communities, too.
During the pandemic, a few of our teams lived in shared households, but most met only through technology. They used computers, tablets, and phones to practice immersion. The MAP relies on the concept of “learning through doing,” as well as non-verbal communication like gesturing and body language. Some of the techniques from before the pandemic worked well in this new virtual world too.
Hand-drawn and photographed action sequences could still be shared through camera “eyes” in their devices, so apprentices could ask for new language without translation from English. In the two examples below, apprentices used visual props to ask the masters how to say what was happening or how to give directions to someone else. We exchanged graphics such as these, written ideas, helpful web links, recordings of the workshops, agendas, and program forms in a shared Google Drive.
We learned to interact with the “eyes” of our devices in ways that were fun and funny. We mailed typical MAP props such as puppets and wordless story books to masters and apprentices so they would have matching items to use. Puppets could still be used to model conversations and share some laughs.
Teams invited each other into their homes using the eyes of their devices. In her kitchen and using a laptop, one apprentice gathered all the implements and ingredients to make stew while her master, in her own home, offered cooking lessons. Others “met” regularly for breakfast, each at their own tables.
Some teams got creative with ways to communicate and stay in the language that did not rely on text: sending audio messages, exchanging videos, or using apps like Marco Polo.
In the virtual MAP, we continued to train apprentices to use recording equipment. Apprentices can use recorded immersion sessions to practice listening and speaking. We introduced best practices in community language archiving. Some used the recording feature in Zoom, and we also distributed video recording equipment. The tricky part is to make sure everyone has their equipment set in hand (with batteries charged!) before the workshops begin. Fineen again handled the logistics of purchasing and distributing many sets of equipment over our large geographical region. If you are going to try a virtual program like ours, a person in this role is critical.
Masters and apprentices had some apprehension about doing everything online. Verna and Elvis, who started the program in its original in-person form, shared their reflections about switching to working together remotely and how they got creative to resolve their challenges.
Carol and Kate, who joined the MAP only after it was a virtual program, also shared how they felt about working online. They describe how they took advantage of the technological innovations and opportunities devised during the time of COVID.
Challenges, Innovations, and Successes
A great challenge that we faced presenting a virtual MAP was connectivity. People living in rural areas sometimes had unreliable internet access, which affected their ability to do their immersion hours and attend workshops. As presenters, too, we had to be ready to take over spontaneously should any of us suddenly blink out in the middle of a sentence.
Teaching any skill and adapting to your learners’ responses also relies on subtle non-verbal cues. During virtual workshops, we often found it difficult to read learners’ faces and body language to see if they understood or were engaged. The images of their faces were so small and often poorly lit. Sometimes all you could see was a forehead or a chin. Poor connectivity forced some people to turn off their cameras. It seems as though many Elders with vision and hearing loss also struggled sometimes to engage.
It took time and patience for everyone to feel comfortable and enjoy teaching and learning new skills that would bring the languages that they loved back into their lives. We had missed the company of friends so badly in the first frightening months of COVID. Our language work requires that we speak together! That was the true motivation for enduring the technology hiccups. Even so, not everyone found online programs appealing or suitable, so some people stepped out.
Yet our move toward a more technology-based program came with many wins. We provided training and coaching on MAP methods and built skills in language documentation, archiving, and communication. With travel challenges (picture the Manitoba blizzards of January!) and costs much less of an issue, we were able to bring together people who would otherwise be geographically or socially isolated or at great risk from COVID. We even welcomed workshop participants with new ideas from as far away as Australia!
The most obvious win: through the inventiveness and enduring good humor of our people, we were able to prevail during a worldwide pandemic! For that we are thankful. We can envision all the ways we can continue to reach out using the virtual version of the Master-Apprentice Program and to greatly enhance its traditional in-person presentation in days to come.
Now, in 2023, the Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle is continuing with the virtual version of its MAP. In a perfect world, the MAP would continue ticking away with spots assured for those who wish to keep their languages alive. However, our organization must acquire funding each year through competitive grants and partnerships; nothing is guaranteed. Funding opportunities often hinge on viewpoints about language reclamation of the national and provincial governments, those who initially colonized the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Our organization has recently rented a house where some of our veteran Michif teams, including Verna and Elvis Demontigny, can be immersed in language together several hours a day. After their experience in the MAP, our hope is that masters and apprentices continue to expand their capacities to express themselves. We dream that they will carry their skills to convey and acquire language to their families and communities to be catalysts for healing and innovations in language reclamation.
Heather Souter is a learner-teacher of Michif based in Camperville, Manitoba. A long-time language activist and language revitalization practitioner, she runs the Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle, lectures at the University of Manitoba, and consults widely on language revitalization matters, including the use of language technologies for Indigenous languages. Fineen Davis and Laura Grant contributed to the article.
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