To protect a nearly lost language, this N.L. woman is learning to speak it

·5 min read
Submitted by Nora Funk
Submitted by Nora Funk

When Nora Funk was growing up in Stephenville on the west coast of Newfoundland, she always felt her Mi'kmaw ties to the land. After moving to Manitoba at 16 and beginning to increasingly experience her Indigenous culture, she knew she wanted to learn more.

Funk, who now lives in Nanaimo, B.C., told CBC Radio's Weekend AM earlier this month that she hadn't been taking part in Mi'kmaw culture before she moved, because it was "almost lost" in Newfoundland.

"I find now my heart really longs to know more," she said.

Her lighter skin colour means she'd hear troubling comments about Indigenous people, made by people who didn't know she's Mi'kmaw. Moving west showed her a different world, she said, and she experienced a troubling mindset toward Indigenous people she hadn't seen in her home province.

"My mom is Scottish and English, I'm whiter skin than most," she said. "The problem is you tend to hear more when you're like that, because people make allowances because they don't think that you're Native so a lot more things are said. And it really, really stung."

Funk started volunteering at friendship centres to learn more about her culture, and then decided to take it step further by learning the Mi'kmaw language, which she sees as a way to help preserve her culture.

"It's so crucially important not to let not only our language die, but our culture. It's so rich," she said.

LISTEN | Nora Funk speaks with the CBC's Paula Gale about learning to speak Mi'kmaw:

"I'm absolutely loving it. I am starting to learn how to put sentences together, proper pronunciation, participles, past participles. It's been challenging, but it's been so rewarding.… I'm starting to put out little stickers on my cupboard doors and my salt and my pepper, so I'm forcing myself to say it before I grab it. I really want to incorporate more of the language into my life."

Funk's teacher, Marcella Williams, has been sharing her language skills with the Flat Bay Mi'kmaw band on Newfoundland's southwest coast. She said the band has been hosting language classes since 2014, teaching people a language seldom spoken for decades out of fear.

"When we joined Confederation, it was said there are no Natives in Newfoundland," she said.

"[If] they found out, you would lose your job. In order to not have that happen and to be able to make their livelihood, they hid it. Because they hid it so well … we ended up losing that piece of ourselves."

Submitted by Marcella Williams
Submitted by Marcella Williams

Williams teaches close to 60 people over a 10-week online program.

She said the core language is mostly the same among different regions like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Conne River, with different regional dialects developing over time — similar to calling a couch a "chesterfield" or "sofa" in English.

"You will find some who are taking to it like a duck to water. They love it, I can't give them enough information," Williams laughed. "There are some on the opposite ends that struggle, but even though they're struggling they're giving it their all. And that's the most important thing."

The amount of stuff that I have learned in just a few years that we have done as … people of the Mi'kmaw culture would astound most people. - Nora Funk

While most of Funk's family are members of the Qalipu First Nation, she said she has not been able to become a member because she doesn't live in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, she hopes her work to preserve Mi'kmaw culture can bring a different kind of recognition.

"I don't really care about the health care and all the things that come with it. What I care about, and why I want status, is because I want the government to acknowledge that we exist," she said.

"When Joey Smallwood basically told the government that there was no Aboriginal people, I think he thought he was doing a service so that we could join Confederation. But it was such a disservice because we've never been acknowledged. And that's not fair."

Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

She also hopes speaking with others about the nearly lost language will encourage others to learn and preserve the culture.

"Knowing that my own language and my own people were almost bred out and learning and knowing that the language was dying … it was something that my soul was longing to get in touch with who I am. I didn't want to see that die out," she said.

"The amount of stuff that I have learned in just a few years that we have done as … people of the Mi'kmaw culture would astound most people."

Williams hopes more can be done to revive the language, like sending language students to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, where Mi'kmaw is more commonly used. Work is also being done within the Qalipu First Nation, which will launch virtual language workshops beginning in February.

"If you don't use it, you lose it … just like when you do French immersion in school. Without being able to hear it, you won't end up with fluent speakers," she said.

"Language ties to culture. Just by learning about the language, not even learning the words but about why things are the way they are in the language, you can learn a lot about the culture that may otherwise be lost. It's part of our identity, and it's who we are."

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