By Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Published Oct 20, 2021
Learning a language, and how to laugh, are never far apart for Solomon Ratt.
His unique approach to teaching language, specifically Cree, has earned the First Nations University of Canada professor a membership in the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
Ratt spoke to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix about the role of humour in teaching Cree, and the award’s “wonderful acknowledgment of what First Nations language instructors are doing to revive our Indigenous languages.”
Q: What led you to teach Cree?
A: I got here by accident. I was in journalism school in the mid-’80s. I had already taken introductory Cree classes when that instructor asked me to take over for the rest of the semester. A couple of years later, I was full-time.
Cree is my first language. We were not allowed to speak it in residential school, but we always managed to do so, away from the teachers. We always spoke Cree on the side and my parents didn’t speak a word of English, meaning I was only speaking it during the summer. I was able to keep my language because of that.
Q: What would you say to yourself when you started teaching?
A: If could go back, I’d say, “Don’t do it!”
When I started teaching, one of my mentors told me “You’re going to find yourself alone” — that there’s nobody supporting what you’re doing. I had support from my mentors, but that’s true. I’ve had to keep on working. When I started, there were hardly even any reading materials.
What I was able to do was go back to those stories my parents told me. I stopped hearing them when I went to residential school, but I was able to find all these lessons again, to help me along.
Q: A lot of those stories are funny, too. What role does humour play?
A: It’s essential. I was at a workshop once and an Elder told us, “Hey, you! You have to lighten up! Don’t be so serious!” I took that to heart.
Humour opens doors to explore new things, new possibilities, and also to let us accept our flaws as human beings.
When I was listening to the stories from my mother when I was a kid, we always ended up laughing. For example, this hero character Wīsahkēcāhk does all sorts of silly things, but by doing that, he opens the door for me to look at my silly things. It tells me about my need to adjust my behaviour.
There needs to be more Cree immersion and land-based education. But most important, I’d like to see education go toward honouring our stories and bringing them into elementary and high schools.
A lot of people think our stories are just fairy tales. They’re much more than that. They are lessons on how to be in this world — how to be a parent, how to be a community member, how to be a spouse.
All of that is in the stories.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This item is reprinted with permission from The StarPhoenix. See article HERE.
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