Conquerors have long known that the way to subjugate a civilization is to destroy its history, language and culture. As part of the campaign to solve the so-called “Indian Problem”, the government of Canada attempted to uproot and destroy our country’s Aboriginal cultures by placing kids in the notorious residential schools and forbidding them to speak in their native languages.
Iris Nicholas is a Tobique First Nation resident, and a residential school survivor, who spent her childhood at Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.
Iris spoke Maliseet as a child, but once she was sent to Shubenacadie it was the institution’s mission to “take the Indian out of the Indian” and so all the children were forced to speak only English while at the school.
By the time she returned home, Iris only remembered a few words of Maliseet, but she began to relearn the language from the Tribal Elders.
In fact, it is only the older members of the Maliseet communities today that still speak their native language fluently and extensively within their homes, but that is changing with the language initiative.
Iris is now completely fluent in Maliseet, and teaches the language to grades 1-6 students at Mah Sos School.
Language advocates believe that speaking the language will restore and reassert the deep feeling of cultural unity that was once pervasive in First Nations communities.
I dropped in to meet Iris a few weeks ago, and to sit in on a class. The class opened with the lovely traditional Maliseet Thanksgiving Prayer (printed below) which Iris and all the kids repeated aloud.
The Maliseet language, as spoken, has a beautiful and poetically murmuring sound to it. But, Aboriginal Tribes did not have written languages…stories were told through the generations to keep the history and culture of the tribes alive.
So, the written Maliseet language has only been developed recently, after World War II. Professor Robert Leavitt and linguist Philip LeSourd began work on a Maliseet and Passamaquoddy Dictionary back in the 1970’s. Their original database has now expanded to include more than 20,000 entries.
An entire alphabet had to be invented, with its own set of phonetic rules. The Maliseet language alphabet has been developed using 17 English letters and one symbol.
When I look at written Maliseet, I am reminded of written Gaelic, which is an English language that makes no sense unless you know the rules of pronunciation…. then it starts to become comprehensible. Sort of!
Maliseet is what is called a holophrastic language, that is, in this language there will be one word to express something that in another language would require several words or an entire sentence to express.
For instance, I opened the Maliseet Dictionary at random during my visit and amusingly…because this was just before Halloween… landed on a page containing words about scary stuff. There was one specific word, for example, to say “that person scares me”, and another single word to say “this is a frightening situation”.
There is a Nekutkuk Language Initiative Facebook page if you are interested in learning more or to join the group.
Wǝlasweltǝmwakǝn (pronounced as Wulusweldomwagen)
1.Wǝlasweltǝmohtine ciw pǝmawhsowakǝn
Let’s give thanks for life
2. Wǝliwǝn ciw psiwte kekw
Thank you for everything
3.Wǝliwǝn ciw samakwan, matehc wen kǝtǝwǝhsmiw
Thank you for water, no one will go thirsty
4. Wǝliwǝn ciw, pskihkwol, ciw welimahaskiyil
Thank you for the grasses, for the sweetgrass
5. Wǝliwǝn ciw micowakǝn, wellam wǝli kisikolhtowok knicanwok
Thank you for food, so our children will grow healthy
6. Wǝliwǝn ciw pisohn, weci kisipilsolhtiyekw
Thank you for medicine, so we can heal ourselves
7. Wǝliwǝn ciw kcihkw, ciw ǝpǝsiyik, wikpiyik naka stahkwǝnǝk
Thank you for the woods, for the trees, ash and evergreen
8. Wǝliwǝn ciw wey ǝhsis ǝk, pehkihtoniya nek ǝmaw kcihkw
Thank you for animals, they clean the woods
9. Wǝliwǝn ciw sipsisǝk, wǝlihtakwǝtol tǝlihntowakǝnowal
Thank you for birds, their songs sound good
10. Wǝliwǝn ciw wocaws ǝn, wellam kisi wǝlatǝmohtipǝn
Thank you for wind, so we can breathe
11. Wǝliwǝn ciw petakiyik, peciptoniya kǝmiwǝn, wellam psiwte kekw wǝlikisikǝn
Thank you for thunder, it brings rain, so everything grows good
12. Wǝliwǝn ciw kisohs, ktlahtwenmakon spǝtew naka kwǝlipǝsokon
Thank you for sun, it brings light and keeps us warm
13. Wǝliwǝn ciw nipawset, knipayatwenmakon
Thank you for moon, it lights up the night
14. Wǝliwǝn ciw pǝhsessmǝk, ciw elahtwehsoltihtit
Thank you for stars, for how they sparkle
15. Wǝliwǝn skitkamikw, ciw psiwte kekw eli wǝleyowinekw
Thank you for earth, for everything that is good to us
16. Nitte Psiw