Iron hopes to breathe life into Plains Cree language with hockey broadcasts

Clarence Iron believes he's on a divine mission to revitalize the Plains Cree language through hockey.

He'll be the play-by-play announcer with host Earl Wood and analyst John Chabot this Sunday when APTN televises the Winnipeg Jets versus Chicago Blackhawks in the first of six games to be broadcast in Plains Cree this season.

"I've been given an opportunity because I changed my life around, I gave my life to God, and now He's giving me a new life and that's why I'm very excited to be doing this," said Iron, who has overcome problems with alcohol and drugs. "Knowing that this is for the Aboriginal people to try and revitalize this language.

"I've been given another chance at life, that's why I'm so excited. I'm not scared to go and do this job."

Iron hopes that the six games on APTN will help First Nations people across Canada reconnect with their Indigenous language after residential schools almost wiped them out. Iron, who attended Beauval Indian Residential School in northern Saskatchewan, has seen first hand how the mandatory use of English and the systematic oppression of Indigenous culture has led to many First Nations people losing their connection with their languages.

"There's still lots of people that understand, they cannot speak, but they understand," Iron said in a phone interview from Pinehouse, Sask., adding that Plains Cree is closely related to other dialects. "They could learn very quickly to speak it. In this sense of having the language in any capacity, as long as you're speaking Cree, people are listening and they're excited.

"There's been a lot of talk of people just wanting to listen to this game coming up on Sunday. So people are very excited, they're just waiting. They're hungry. They're excited."

APTN and Rogers Sportsnet agreed a three-year deal on Dec. 13 to broadcast NHL games in Plains Cree. After Sunday's game, APTN will next broadcast in Plains Cree when the Jets and Blackhawks meet again on Feb. 9 in Winnipeg.

The Winnipeg-based network will also broadcast the Calgary Flames' visit to Detroit on Feb. 23, the Vancouver Canucks' trip to Columbus on March 1, Vancouver hosting the Jets on March 15, and the Edmonton Oilers welcoming Anaheim on March 29. The deal guarantees a minimum of six games will be broadcast in Plains Cree per season.

APTN broadcasted the first nationally televised game in Plains Cree between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes last season. Iron, Wood and Chabot all had the call as the Hurricanes edged the Habs 2-1 on March 24.

It was a childhood dream come true for Iron, who grew up idolizing legendary Canadiens play-by-play announcer Danny Gallivan. In particular, Iron has tried to emulate Gallivan's musical style of speaking.

"I tried to imitate him a little bit in that sense, it's actually similar between Cree and English," Iron said.

"To try and imitate Danny Gallivan takes a little skill, but that's how I'd like to sound to make the hockey exciting," he added with a laugh.

Developing his own broadcasting style has been one challenge for Iron, but adapting Plains Cree to hockey has been another one altogether. It's a very descriptive language, so learning how fit all the possible adjectives to describe a play has taken some practice.

"When you're speaking the Cree language you describe the thing, whatever it is, but there is also a name to it," Iron said. "We have a word for puck, but we also say that it's black and flat.

"Now if you're going to describe it, it's a very long way of describing. It's something that's round and flat and slides around something that you slap around with a stick."

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2020.

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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press