Teaching a language to children is a way of transmitting culture to the next generation. Cam Robertson’s book Nîpin, which means “It is summer,” introduces Cree phrases about summer to children from ages five to 10.
The phrases are presented in transliterated Cree, in Cree syllabics, and in English. Each phrase is also accompanied by a colourful photograph that depicts what the phrase is intended to communicate.
“Today I see my language in peril,” says Robertson, who now lives in Winnipeg and holds a Cree instructor certificate from Red River College. “I am hoping to give people their real identity by teaching my language through the art of storytelling.”
Robertson, who is also the Cree language lab tech at the University of Winnipeg, credits his grandparents for inspiring him on his storytelling path. Born in Norway House, Manitoba, Robertson is Ininew (Cree) and was raised around the area by his grandparents. The family moved often.
“Each season we were in a different spot within our amazing homeland where we would sometimes have to share the campsite with someone else like a travelling relative,” he says.
“There they would always tell stories and I would constantly listen with pointed ears and wide-opened eyes. Both my grandparents were amazing storytellers. They filled my head with so much into my already overflowing mind.”
Robertson’s main home as a child was in a town known at the time as Warren’s Landing (Nîyawakahk), at the north basin of Lake Winnipeg. Though it was once a thriving town, in his childhood there were abandoned buildings where Robertson would find old books that his grandfather would read to him.
“He went to residential school, so he knew how to read and taught me what he could. Today I have that style in my writing, old English mixed with Cree thanks to Moby Dick and Farley Mowat, along with endless stories and knowledge about our ‘real’ Cree ways of life,” says Robertson.
Nîpin will be a valuable teaching tool to both teachers of the Cree language and parents who want to help their children learn Cree. “I write simple phrases that people can say or remember hearing as a child and maybe teach someone else,” says Robertson, who is grateful to Goldrock Press for supporting the book.
Robertson wants people to learn not only to speak the language, but also to use the syllabic system, which is new to a lot of people. “I am still remembering; I learned as a child 45 years ago, but forgot because it was so long ago, but each day I am remembering.”
Robertson is also working on a novel and a play. “I teamed up with actors from Manitoba Theatre for Young People. We are doing a play that will be released shortly called Frozen River. I am teaching them Cree and how to speak. I am hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship with such amazing people,” he says.
“I have so many plays and dances and songs that need to be heard.”