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Strength in language

May 26, 2023

Woman smiling with feather earrings while standing outdoors.

Belinda kakiyosēw Daniels, assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Education at UVic, is teaching the next generation of nehiyawewin (Cree) language keepers as a way to reclaim nationhood.

Dr. Belinda kakiyosēw (KAH-GUY-YO-SEE-YO) Daniels found her life’s work through a journey that began with a childhood dream. The nêhiyawêwin (Cree) language spirit chose her for the field of Indigenous Language Revitalization (ILR), or “languages standing up for themselves,” as she says. ”It was the language spirit that chose me to be a rescuer. I remember a dream I had when I was about 10 years old: I was laying on my belly on my grandmother’s kitchen floor, playing with an old silver hand mirror. I was imagining what the world was like on the other side of this mirror, and I was actually transported through the mirror,” she recalls. 

“In the place I landed, there were thick trees and a huge mountain. I looked up and saw etchings on the mountain’s rock wall. I ran my hand over the etchings. I didn’t know it then, but I believe those to have been ancient spirit markers, petroglyphs of the Cree language.”

Daniels, a member of the Sturgeon Lake First Nation, SK, is now a celebrated educator, collaborative researcher and community leader. She is also a mother, grandmother and reclaimer of her mother tongue. She teaches ILR as an assistant professor in UVic’s Faculty of Education and leads the nēhiyawak language experience, a non-profit organization that offers immersive, land-based summer language learning camps on Treaty 6 territory also known as Saskatchewan. Her mission is to reclaim sovereignty and nationhood through the Cree language.

Immersive language learning

After learning and teaching Cree grammar in classroom settings for years, Daniels became uninspired by the western curriculum. Intuitively, she began exploring ways of unlearning and unravelling western ways of thinking. In 2003, she started planning for her first immersive Cree summer camp where attendees could come to learn and practice speaking the language.

The concept of her immersive-language camps has resonated well with communities across Canada; the number of participants continues to grow each year as awareness and demand increases. The core experience is a week-long, immersive summer program with a focus on introducing students to a variety of language-learning methods. By the end, most can confidently introduce themselves, engage in basic conversation and tell a short story in Cree.

“Immersion is the best practice in reclaiming our Indigenous languages. In the language, we learn our laws, our roles, our history and our connection to the land. We remember our treaties with the animals, the lakes, the sun and the sky. We learn the stories of where we come from and where we will return to after we leave our bodies as vessels. We find where we belong in this world. This is why it’s so important and that we have our own ways of learning and teaching languages. It is time to privilege that.”

Connections and collaboration

Over the years, Daniels has led and participated in hundreds of language classes, collaborated with other researchers, been honoured with several awards and celebrated by her peers. In 2022, a life-sized portrait of Daniels was created by renowned Canadian visual artist Kent Monkman and included in their exhibition “Being Legendary” at the Royal Ontario Museum. 

She points to the strong connections she’s made with others as a key factor in her work’s remarkable ripple effect. She has maintained relationships with her favourite professors and colleagues, who later became good friends. “I really admire people who are very kind and compassionate and consistent.” She shares this advice: “Connect with other human beings and to people who look up to you. Continue to guide and show the way to make this world a better place.”

Michelle Butterfield, BCom ‘14

This article appears in the UVic Torch alumni magazine.

For more Torch stories, go to the UVic Torch alumni magazine page.