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MICHIF Language

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

La lang di Michif TA-PASHIPIIKAN

By: Melissa Martin / Ruth Bonneville Posted: 09/25/2010 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

CAMPERVILLE, MAN. -- Seated in the living room of her tiny, impeccably ordered house, Grace Zoldy takes a little girl's hand and begins a language lesson. "La viande," the woman says, her hazel eyes dancing under a fringe of silver bangs. "That means meat." "Deux poisson," she says next, a nod to the goldfish circling a nearby tank. The little girl likes to come watch them. "Two fish." The sounds are familiar to anyone who took elementary-school French. But Zoldy is not French, and her words aren't either: they are something rare, something studied in universities in countries that Grace, when she was learning these words as a toddler in Camperville, didn't know existed. This is Michif, the language of the Mtis. In its oral DNA, it carries the history of Manitoba and the bloodline of the Mtis themselves: Michif's nouns, like the ones Zoldy shared with that little girl, come from French. Its verbs, however, come from Cree. It's one of only a handful of languages like it in the world, and Grace Zoldy is one of only a handful of speakers left to share it. To a listener trained in one language or the other, the seams at which Michif's two ancestral tongues join together are a jolt to the ear, a breezy leap from the familiar to the foreign.

"Do you have children?" an English person would say. "Avez-vous des enfants?" a French speaker would ask. In Michif, those "enfants" still ring out, but the rest is a twist. "Le zanfan chen kitayawawak?" The last word, of course, is Cree. Or was Cree. Now, it's all Michif.

Linguists call it "an impossible language," a tongue that challenges everything we think we know about how language happens. All languages carry the culture and histories of their people; with Michif, this cultural cargo is literally built in. Sprung from 200-year-old camps where the children of French fur trappers and Cree mothers forged their own speech, it is, like the Mtis themselves, not-quite-one and not-quite-the-other. "That sort of explains the birth of Michif. A kid grows up hearing French from one parent and Cree from the other," says David Pentland, a linguist at the University of Manitoba who specializes in aboriginal languages. "But then why the next generation? That's the mystery, why it persisted and got passed on that way. It got codified very early. It's a linguistic mystery." For a time, it's a mystery that flourished in small but close-knit communities in the backwoods of the Canadian heartland and into the United States, kept by a people who followed the bison herds and were turned away by Europeans and indigenous communities alike. Thus spurned, the "half-breeds" created their own culture, their own music, and their own language. They called themselves Otipemisiwak: the Free People. The word "Michif," a variation of the word "Mtis," stood for both the language and those free people who spoke it. Now, the language survives only in pockets, spoken mostly by elders in outposts of Manitoba, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. With perhaps a dozen fluent speakers, Camperville is one of its last Manitoban hospices, a secret shared between linguists and students eager to document Michif in its shrinking native habitat. Zoldy, 76, learned her Michif when it still thrived. Back in the early 1930s, "everybody" in Camperville spoke Michif, she says. Grandfathers, born around the time Louis Riel was executed, told wide-eyed children the tales of Riel's resistance in Michif. The language was alive then, and its people's stories lived through its words. Today. four-year-old Billie-Dawn, the little girl dutifully repeating Zoldy's words, doesn't speak Michif. Her mother doesn't speak it, either. Billie-Dawn's grandmother Elaine speaks the language, but like many elders in Camperville, she doesn't speak it often. Maybe that will change. When Billie-Dawn leaves, Zoldy watches her skip away across the tree-lined street. "I have an idea," Zoldy says. "I'm going to talk to Elaine, and tell her... now, when (Billie-Dawn) visits, we'll talk to her in Michif. So she'll learn." If Billie-Dawn does learn, she'll be one of the few children who can speak Michif, anywhere. There may be only 500 fluent speakers of Michif left in the world; most are Zoldy's age, or older. The language's life expectancy can now be dated in decades. The clock is ticking. But the end, for Michif, isn't certain yet. In the early 1990s, Dutch linguist Peter Bakker travelled all the way from Aarhus University in Denmark to Camperville. Like other academics who have trekked to the village, he was looking for something special and, in Grace Zoldy's living room, he found it. Bakker is Michif's pre-eminent documentarian. He travelled Canada, taking down hundreds of recordings and transcripts of Michif stories and sentences along the way. He wrote his doctoral thesis and a significant portion of his academic papers on the language, born a half-world away from his own homeland. The linguist, Pentland says, very possibly knows all the fluent Michif speakers left in Manitoba. And he knows what their words are worth. "In many respects, Michif is an impossible language," Bakker wrote in his seminal 1997 survey of Michif, A Language of Our Own. "I know several professional linguists who contest its existence since it does not fit into their model of how a language, or a mixed language, should look. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we study, describe, and preserve this unique language." The first pages of Bakker's book are titled "The Problem of Michif." A problem for linguists, that is, though not for its speakers: there's no language in the world quite like this one. Split down the middle and spread as a cohesive tongue, it confounds easy classification. It's not a European language, not an aboriginal one. It doesn't have one sound system; it has two. To Michif speakers, it's second nature to leap between them; to linguists, it's a puzzle. Languages collide in different ways. Usually, the pidgins come first, stripped-down languages used for trade and communications between groups that don't share a language. Pidgins can be passed to children as a mother tongue, at which point they become the often-colourful creoles, dozens of which are dotted along the path of European colonization. Take Sierra Leone's nearly-universal Krio, an English creole influenced by Yoruba and other languages of West Africa. It looks baffling to an English speaker; but read aloud, the sounds leap off the page. "Papa God we de na evin," the lord's prayer begins in Krio. "Mek olman respekt yu oli nem." Then there is "code-switching," such as the effortless Spanglish of bilingual Latino teens in the U.S. southwest. This is informal, fluid: it has no rules. The speakers may switch languages to emphasize or by instinct. "El libro me cost 20 dollars," a Spanglish-speaking book-buyer might say. But none of these examples are what linguists call mixed languages; none of these are Michif. Unlike a pidgin, Michif's earliest form wasn't simplified French and Cree; it was the orderly blend of both. Unlike those Spanglish-speaking teens, modern Michif speakers usually don't speak either French or Cree, and can only understand glimpses of those languages; their vocabulary is too divided, married from two sources into an indivisible whole. This is a rare occurrence. Of the more than 2,000 tongues on the planet, only seven may be true mixed languages. One, Mednyj Aleut, is spoken on Bering Island and looks a lot like Michif, with its Russian verbs and indigenous Aleut nouns. The bad news is that Mednyj Aleut has fewer than five speakers left.

Not that Michif is the only Canadian language lumbering towards the same fate. In 1996, a survey of Canada's 50 living indigenous tongues found that only three -- Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut -- are robust enough to survive the coming years. For now, Michif is still being spoken, passed from person to person like a flickering torch. To most Mtis under the age of 50, Michif is known best in whispers and memories; words for food, Pentland explains, things you say to grandparents. These are the Michif words most people know now. At the International Mtisfest in late August, St. Laurent elder Norman Fleury led daily discussions on Michif at the International Peace Gardens. The festival's program guide quietly nodded to the fact that more Mtis remember the language than command it. "Norman will speak on the Language, its origins and history," the festival's program promised. "He may ask members of the audience to talk about what they know of the language." Fleury himself knows a lot about the language. In Michif circles, he is a famous speaker and language advocate, having served as the Michif director for the Manitoba Mtis Federation. He has translated books, made videos and audio recordings for websites such as LearnMichif.com and spoken about his heritage language at conferences in British Columbia and elsewhere. In 2000, Fleury published a Michif prayer as part of a document for the Mtis National Council's language revival strategy. "Sa prend lee famee di Michif chee shoohkshichik kispin la Nation di Michif chee shoohkawk," he wrote. "We must have strong Mtis families to have a strong Mtis Nation." To save that language for future generations of strong Mtis families, Fleury and others are now in a fight against the tide of the present and the crush of the past. Quietly lined up along Hwy. 20, butting against the southern edge of Pine Creek First Nation, Camperville tumbled roughly through the 20th century. There's not much work here. In years past the people -- mostly Mtis and Ojibwe -- eked a living from the land, trapping and fishing. Decades ago, Lake Winnipegosis started dying, the walleye populations collapsed and now the fishing's not so good anymore. The furry animals don't come around much either. Rich Americans used to come up to hunt black bears, but not in this economy. Along the dusty main road there is a huddle of houses and two gas stations. The nearest grocery store is 45 minutes south, in Winnipegosis; Camperville's grocery burned down about a decade ago, and wasn't rebuilt. Then the former convent, which had been turned into a restaurant, burned down. This year, a local hunting guide's place burned down. Guiding is one of the few jobs for men in in a town where most of the population is unemployed. To pay for the gas they need to shop in Swan River or Dauphin, the people of Camperville still follow the seasons. On a crisp and rainy August day, the town is quiet. Most of its 550 residents are out in the giant blueberry patch that spreads outside town. There, they fill big pine crates of the juicy berries and sell them to the cities for $20 a box. Despite these hardships, the village is growing. Young parents who once left for Winnipeg are coming back now, fleeing the city and its rumbles of gangs and drugs and violence. In the meadows and berry-laden bushes of Camperville, they find something like peace. "That's a big thing. It's safer here, much safer," one mother tells me. The former Winnipegger moved her family back to her husband's hometown last year; the kids have already fallen in love with country life. Mom found a job at the Philomene Chartrand school, named after the midwife who delivered most of the town's elders; her kids "don't even miss" Winnipeg anymore, she says. Camperville doesn't wear its troubles on its sleeve. The ills of poverty are creeping closer -- Oxy-Contin addiction, already ravaging Winnipeg, has started to infiltrate -- but the town's rectangular slatboard houses are gaily painted, their gardens carefully tended and bursting with the leaves of traditional teas and other good things to eat. Camperville's council hall sits along the main road. Outside the boxy building flies a bright blue flag, emblazoned with the white infinity symbol of the Mtis. Today it flies at half-mast, the morning after Camperville lost a resident to a stroke. This is the kind of place where everybody is mourned, and everybody is missed. Inside the council building, Gail Welburn barrels in to the council's office room, clutching the miniature Mtis L'assumption sash that serves as her keychain. She is Grace Zoldy's daughter, and at 47, she's probably the youngest fluent Michif speaker left in Camperville. "Don't quote me on that," she says cautiously, but her mother can't think of anyone younger either. Like a lot of residents, Welburn is back from away. She worked as a broadcaster for NCI Radio in Thunder Bay and then for non-profits in B.C.; six years ago she came back home to take a job as her hometown's recreation director. She's a "bush baby," she jokes. In Camperville, she fits right in. Feisty women seem to run this town. Their laughter bounces off the walls of the council office, their hearty greetings ring across narrow streets. Despite relative isolation and tight finances, they have plans for Camperville, big plans. A year ago, they opened an exercise room that proved so popular with elder women, they can barely order enough equipment to meet the demand. Earlier this year, one of Welburn's pet projects -- a music program for kids -- spurred the creation of a young band, who are eagerly learning Johnny Cash and Metallica songs to play at town dances. There's another project that has to get off the ground. In March, hoping to revive the tongue that was once spoken by everyone in Camperville who wasn't a priest or a nun, Welburn launched a six-week Michif-language program. It was sort of a test, and she gamely extracted promised students from the town's Mtis parents.

When the class started, almost nobody came. "I think my timing totally sucked," she says bluntly. "In March, April, May, everybody's so glad it's melting off. They don't want to be sitting inside learning this stuff." Welburn is not daunted. She's going to try again in the fall, hoping that this time, Michif will find its way onto young tongues. One man came to the March classes so he could "know what (his grandparents) are talking about when they talk about me," he said. There's interest out there, Welburn guesses, and it's now or never for Michif. "We know it's dying," she says. People don't mince words in Camperville. -Back in Winnipeg, Manitoba Mtis Federation president David Chartrand leans over his big wooden desk and thumbs a copy of Peter Bakker's book. Chartrand met Bakker once, during one of the linguist's trips to Manitoba. Bakker's enthusiasm for Michif, Chartrand muses, is instructive. "If we can see such an interest (in Michif) in Denmark, for crying out loud, then we can see it in our own backyard," he says. Chartrand, 50, doesn't speak Michif, though he understands a little bit. Raised in Duck Bay, just 20 kilometres north of Camperville on the other side of Pine Creek First Nation, Chartrand grew up speaking Ojibwe. His father spoke Michif, but didn't pass it on to his son. "Going back in our history, we spoke Michif," Chartrand says. "But Saulteaux (Ojibwe) swallowed it up." Now, the MMF is trying to help Michif claw out of the belly of Ojibwe and English and French and all the other languages that gobbled it up. It's an identity thing: the Mtis speak many languages, but only Michif is truly theirs. It's a history thing, too. "Our country is so bad at our understanding of our own history," Chartrand says. "We study everyone else's history but our own. This language can't be replicated anywhere. It's one of Canada's treasures. It's a language that was a conduit for the economy of early Canada. I bet you, if we didn't have to hide it (back then), it would have been a dominant language of the West." In coming years, Michif may get the recognition that's eluded it for so long. In April, the province passed an act naming Michif, among other tongues, as one of Manitoba's official aboriginal languages, a move that aboriginal and northern affairs minister Eric Robinson hoped would lay the groundwork to protect them. Meanwhile, the MMF currently receives no funding for Michif language programs. It's hard to save a language on a shoestring. But the MMF will find a way, Chartrand says. The Mtis government's publishing arm, Pemmican Publications, currently sells four Michif books and compiled a Michif dictionary. The Louis Riel Institute, the MMF's education wing, recently put in a $900,000 funding request to develop and digitize a collection of Michif-learning resources. Right now, with Norman Fleury's help, the LRI is putting the final touches on a series of children's picture books. Chartrand slips a draft of one of the books across his desk. La Pchit Fii, it's called, orThe Little Girl. Inside is stuff for young minds to grab hold of: a picture of a pony-tailed toddler pushing a toy vacuum is subtitled "La pchit fii atooshkew avik soon vacuum." The little girl is working with her vacuum. The booklet is part of a strategy huddled around the basic premise that Michif needs to get to children. Chartrand and the MMF imagine accredited Michif language teachers. They picture DVDs and Michif language software. They even picture Michif in schools. "We are adamantly going to be pushing this to go into curriculums," Chartrand says. "This is our language, and it helped found the West. We need to do everything we can. These languages are born and bred here. If they die, they die forever." It's going to be a "hard sell," Chartrand admits, to push a tiny and aging language into formal education. But Michif, and the Mtis people themselves, are tenacious, he insists. After years spurned as "half-breeds," after a generation where they were recognized by no government and given no formal identity, the Mtis people are still here. And in time, Chartrand vows, the Michif language will be here too. If the plan to get Michif into schools doesn't work, they'll bring it to Mtis-dominant daycares. Or into homes, if need be. "We're not giving up. Even without government funding, we'll try our best," the president says, pauses, and rephrases. "If the government comes or not, we will succeed." Outside the salt lake on the Camperville's southern edge, men from Sapotaweyak First Nation are picking sweetgrass. With the permission of area residents, they come down here a few times a week, pulling bundles of the sacred medicine and beating the stalks against the ground "to get the yellow," or trash grasses, out. It's tiring work. Sitting in a big white truck, a 27-year-old woman watches the men thrash and pull. Normally, she'd be twisting the bundles into braids, to sell at pow-wows and to distributors for $1.75 a bunch. But she sprained her wrist after weaving more than 400 knots last week, so today she just watches. The woman is Mtis. Her partner is First Nations; he speaks Saulteaux. Does she know anyone who speaks Michif? "No!" she exclaims, raising her eyebrows in surprise. "Actually, I have a great-grandfather. Maybe he does."

A surprising language; a hidden language. Even in Camperville, many of the dozen or so elders who speak it fluently won't speak it to the Free Press; some need to be coaxed even to speak it to each other. Grace Zoldy talks to some of her friends in Michif, and they respond in English. Why won't some elders speak it to a broad public? "They're shy," Welburn shrugs, and teasingly waves at an elder man down the street who insisted he was "too busy" to speak Michif to a pair of reporters. "He's not busy. He's just scared," she laughs. "Hey, ya chicken!" This language was once shouted in children's games. For clues to how it fell to a whisper, look to the northern edge of Camperville. There stands a stately stone church, bordered on one side by a meticulously manicured graveyard and on the other by the foundations of what used to be a residential school. The school was torn down, years ago. But although the Mtis and First Nations elders have hard memories of the place, many are still devoted Roman Catholics: the church's immaculately preserved bell tower still watches over the sparkling waters of Lake Winnipegosis. Earlier this year, Camperville threw the church a gala 100th birthday party. People came home from all over Manitoba to celebrate. Still, it was in and around those halls that the first and most deadly blows against Michif were struck. Grace Zoldy didn't speak English until she and the other Mtis children in Camperville during the 1930s were pressed into a religious day school. The First Nations kids were boarded at the residential school; the Mtis, Zoldy says, "were just poor." Their parents had to learn what money was before they could scrape together the nickel needed to buy them a pencil for school; they'd break the pencils in half to share. Inside the school walls, the nuns made their opinions about the Mtis well-known. Teachers banned students from talking about Louis Riel; to do so, they had to explain to the baffled children what "treason" meant. And then there was the matter of words. As kids, "we were all playing together and all talking in Michif, all of us," Zoldy remembers. "At school, it wasn't allowed for us to speak Michif. It 'wasn't a language' (to the nuns)." Chartrand remembers being strapped across the wrist for daring to speak Saulteaux in school. Welburn, when asked how this strict history made the elders shy to speak, purses her lips for a minute and points to her wrist. "You see this bracelet?" she asks. The bracelet Welburn wears is made from tiny, striped berries that dry into beads. The Mtis and the First Nations used to love them, Welburn says, until the residential school put kids to work picking them from the prickly bush. For hours, the children would pick and pick and pick, their hands welling up with scratches and criss-crossed welts. After the kids left school, nobody picked the berries anymore. The language, too, left welts and scars. Scolded and strapped just for speaking Michif, young Mtis held their tongues. In those days, Michif was a trap, not a treasure: Mtis men and women who wanted to make it in Winnipeg or beyond hid their Michif. Those who could, passed off their dark hair and eyes as French, and French only. "To go and speak Michif, you'd get no place. You had to speak real good English to go someplace and work," Zoldy sighs. "We've been turned away from so many places, it's not even funny." Zoldy used to be shy to speak Michif, too. That changed when Peter Bakker landed in her living room, flown from Denmark to record her and other Michif elders speaking their mother tongue. Bakker is like a fourth child to Zoldy, she says; more than that, he helped her find her Michif identity, helped explain the roots of the words she'd always known. "I didn't know we had two languages in one of our words until Peter told me," Zoldy says, wide-eyed. He told her something else, too. "Peter said, 'Grace, I'm going to tell you something. Don't ever let your Michif language die. Do whatever you can to keep it alive.' I'm not getting younger. We're losing our language. I don't want to let that happen." She pauses, stares at the maple spreading outside her window, and murmurs something in the full-bodied consonants of her native speech. What does it mean? "It means, 'I want to leave the Michif language here for my people,'" she says. -Stones thrown in a pond. The ripples are spreading. Back in Camperville, the foot-trodden paths and neat dirt roads spread out like veins. Down these arteries drive a handful of men and women who could be among the last people in the world to speak Michif. And they are leaving things behind for their people. They're the only ones, after all, who can get the job done. Rita Flamand, a Camperville elder whose passionate battle to save Michif led her to compose the language's first customized writing system, came to her Michif mission after attending an aboriginal interpreter course at Red River College that advertised Michif among its languages. "This is how come I went, and I was the only Michif person there," she laughs. "Even students didn't know what the heck Michif was. I realized nobody is doing anything about the Michif language. But we speak it, we spoke all our lives. I realized the government doesn't help us." Here and across Manitoba, fluent elders and sympathetic linguists have banded together to pass Michif forward. Flamand teaches Michif in Camperville and has developed a wealth of learning tools for the Mtis Cultural Resource Centre in Winnipeg. And there are other resources too. A website, LearnMichif.com, founded by a group of Mtis youth in B.C. and featuring online Michif lessons, draws from Bakker's work and videos by the MMF. Another website, michifdictionary.com, pledges to gather Michif linguistic experts together to produce a complete grammar and dictionary.

Zoldy translated parts of the Bible into Li Liivre Oche Michif Ayamiiawina, "the Book of Michif Prayers," and consults with the University of Lethbridge on their Michif studies. Recently, the publisher of a graphic novel about Louis Riel sent Zoldy a copy to translate into Michif, if she liked it. (She didn't, not entirely. The book misses out on some of the most important parts of Riel's life, she says.) At a ceremony in June, Zoldy was lauded with the Keeping the Fires Burning award, an honour given to those who are saving and sharing aboriginal culture. She keeps the plaque standing proudly beneath photos of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Its frame reflects the crossed Mtis flags hanging neatly on the wall; it hints at the hope of a different future, one where Michif could still echo down these roads, across these forests. "This is not for me," Zoldy says, holding the Keeping the Fires Burning plaque in soft, spiderweb-lined hands. "This is for my people. I want something to come out of this. I've worked so hard." melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca