wahkotowin: Reconnecting to the Spirit of nêhiyawêwin (Cree Language)


  • Kyle Napier Dene/Cree, University of Alberta
  • Lana Faculty of Extension - University of Alberta




nêhiyawêwin, decolonization, land-based, ceremony, kinship


 The Spirit of the Language project looks to the Spirit of nêhiyawêwin (Cree language), sources of disconnection between nêhiyawak (Cree people) in Treaty 6 and the Spirit of nêhiyawêwin, and the process of reconnection to the Spirit of the language as voiced by nêhiyawak. The two researchers behind this project are nêhiyaw language-learners who identify as insider-outsiders in this work. The work is founded in Indigenous Research Methodologies, with a particular respect to ceremony, community protocol, consent, and community participation, respect and reciprocity. We identified the Spirit of the language as having three distinct strands: history, harms, and healing. The Spirit of Indigenous languages is dependent on its history of land, languages, and laws. We then identified the harms or catalysts of disconnect from the Spirit of the language as colonization, capitalism, and Christianity. The results of our community work have identified the methods for healing, or reconnecting to the Spirit of language, by way of autonomy, authority, and agency. 

Author Biography

Lana, Faculty of Extension - University of Alberta

The goal of this community work is to find the patterns of actions having traumatic impacts on Indigenous language loss, and then offer solutions for language revitalization and acquisition as proposed by nêhiyawêwin (Cree language) learners. This work looks specifically to nȇhiyawȇwin loss as coinciding with the disconnection to the land through colonization, Catholicism and capitalism, while then identifying solutions to Indigenous language revitalization and acquisition as proposed by nêhiyawêwin learners.


Each of the issues highlighted in this paper and during those community circles address impacts on Indigenous interrelations to language, culture, and the land — particularly through nêhiyawak experiences of colonization. The biggest causes of disconnection between the language of the land and Indigenous language speakers can be linked to massive population losses due to sickness and disease; the near-extinction of many subsistence animals on the continent for the purposes of the international fur trade and other capitalistic endeavours; forced removal and relocation of Indigenous Peoples from their ancestral homelands, particularly to reserves; state illegalizing of ceremonies such as the potlatch, the sundance ceremony, dance, regalia, and the government’s further  institutionalization of the pass-system requiring permission from an Indian Agent before leaving the reserve; the ongoing enfranchisement of Indigenous women through patriarchal sexist policies and provisions maintained by Canada; the forced sterilization of Indigenous women; the ongoing legacy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; the appropriation of Indigenous languages to produce Catholic and other Christian texts in native languages; mandatory attendance to residential schools and “Indian day schools”; and, the ongoing removal of Indigenous children from native families into foster care through the child welfare system.

We invited a diverse nêhiyawêwin learners and speakers from urban environments to First Nation reserves within the boundaries of Treaty 6 to contribute their voice in sharing circles. Those surveyed nêhiyawêwin learners identified problems of previous research around Indigenous communities and languages, including hesitations around institutional involvement, concerns around intellectual property. There was also acknowledgement of the historical and ongoing consequences of colonization, capitalism, and residential schooling as factors affecting nêhiyaw relationships with their language, the land, and their ancestral governance and kinship systems. These community conversations also identified Indigenous languages as holistic and being from and of the land, and further recognized the land as having its own spirit. Elders and community members emboldened the importance of honouring the living language through land-based Indigenous pedagogies through reciprocal-relational methods, such as ceremony, environmental stewardship and mentorship. 

The researchers in this community work are both of nêhiyawak descent, and are each dedicated to restoring their connection to the land, the languages of their lineage, traditional governance and kinship systems. 


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How to Cite

Napier, K., & Whiskeyjack, L. (2021). wahkotowin: Reconnecting to the Spirit of nêhiyawêwin (Cree Language). Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching, and Learning, 7(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.15402/esj.v7i1.69979

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