Belinda Daniels is reclaiming nationhood through Cree language learning

Dr. Belinda kakiyosēw Daniels (pronunciation: KAH-GUY-YO-SEE-YO) is a member of Sturgeon Lake First Nation, SK. She is a mother, a grandmother, a language teacher, a second language learner and a reclaimer of her mother tongue. The nêhiyawêwin language spirit came to her in a childhood dream and chose her to work in the field of Indigenous Language Revitalization (ILR), or as she puts it – “languages standing up for themselves”.

"It was the language spirit that chose me to be a helper, or in this case – a rescuer. I remember a dream I had when I was about 10 or 11 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. As I was laying there imagining, I was actually transported through the mirror. In the place I landed, there were thick trees and a huge mountain. I was intrigued. I looked up and saw etchings on the mountain’s rock wall. I ran my hand over the etchings to feel them. I didn't know it then, but I believe those to have been ancient spirit markers, petroglyphs of the Cree language."

Today, Belinda is a celebrated educator, collaborative researcher and community leader. She teaches ILR as an assistant professor in the 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.

Image: Dr. Belinda kakiyosēw Daniels, pictured teaching at a summer language camp. Credit: Sweetmoon Photography

Learning the language, unlearning western ideologies

Belinda says she was blessed to be raised by her grandparents. She grew up hearing them speak nēhiyawēwin Cree to each other at home, becoming familiar with the flow, intonation and rhythm of the language, but she was not encouraged to learn or speak it. Her grandparents had been forced to attend residential schools and didn’t want her to experience the same type of punishment and ridicule they had for speaking an Indigenous language. Eventually, Belinda was inspired to learn nēhiyawēwin Cree while working as an administrative assistant at a high school where others were speaking the language.

“It was such a simple idea of going back home and learning Cree, from Cree people, on Cree territories. But, no one was doing it, so I had to create it somehow. We’re in our 18th year now, and people come from all over Canada to take part in for one week. I'm so proud and grateful that families come and their children are learning how to speak Cree.”

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

Image: A group of language learners pictured together during a summer language camp. Credit: Sweetmoon Photography

Land-based Cree language immersion camps 

The concept of Belinda’s immersive language camps has resonated well with communities across Canada since 2003. That first year, five people attended. In 2017, there were 27 attendees. Now, the numbers of participants are between 30-50, depending on space, and there is a children’s camp and online offerings. 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 participants 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."

Flowing through communities across Canada

Belinda’s commitment to language reclamation and her influence as an activist is felt across the world and especially in Cree communities across Canada. Over the years, she has led and participated in hundreds of language classes, collaborated with other researchers, been honoured with several awards and been celebrated by her peers.

In 2022, a portrait of Belinda was included in renowned Canadian visual artist Kent Monkman’s exhibition ‘Being Legendary’ at the Royal Ontario Museum. She was one of eleven “shining stars” that Kent recognized with a life-sized portrait in the show. She points to the strong connections she's made with others as a key factor in her work's remarkable ripple effect. She has fostered and maintained relationships with her favourite early professors and colleagues who she now considers good friends. "I really admire people who are very kind and compassionate and consistent."

Belinda's advice to others: "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."

Learn more about the nēhiyawak language experience.

Image: Dr. Belinda kakiyosēw Daniels, pictured along the South Saskatchewan in saskatōn-minatohk askiy. Credit: Sweetmoon Photography