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Words Matter

Culture is Language and Language is Culture

by Sheryl Newton


Words matter. When I’m teaching, I tend to always use the preposition ‘we’ rather than ‘you.’ This is because I believe that I am working right alongside with students as they grapple with new concepts and try to apply the knowledge to everyday problems. Students have told me that by me using ‘we’ makes it feel as though they were not left alone to try and figure things out.


Pronouns and prepositions have never been my strong suit (and I find myself even confusing the two) according to many of my past teachers and professors. I always wondered why. Often, I misgender someone by saying he rather than she or vice versa. This is largely because the Nehiyaw language doesn’t have he/she pronouns. An example of my poor preposition choice would be something like confusing in or on. “My ancestors lived in Saddle Lake and Ahtahkakoop.” One of my teachers wrote that people live on a reservation, not in, and docked five points for poor grammar. Of course, in one way, she is correct because we live on the land, and not in the land. Or at least this is where my thought process goes. However, when speaking about my ancestors, I cannot say they lived on the reserve because they were restricted and could not venture outside of the reserve without permission from the Indian Agent. So in this context, they lived in the reservation. As I type this, google docs wants me to switch “in” to “on”. How colonial [insert cheeky smile here]. My ancestors were not free to roam from one place to another and were confined to the reserve they were registered to. I was reminded of this when I was talking to my auntie.



Lately (for the past 20 years in reality) I've been trying to figure out who my grandfather’s biological father might be. According to all of my research, it might be someone with the last name Delorme from a neighbouring reservation. My auntie reminded me that the likelihood is pretty slim seeing as people weren’t able to move around from one reserve to the next unless they had permission. I am now given the task of figuring out if my paternal great-grandmother was living off-reserve. If that is the case, she probably lost her status. I do know that my aunt remembers her dad writing letters to Ottawa to get status. I’m unsure if this was because the family was enfranchised as his father might have lost status serving in WWI. In this case my grandfather have received status by applying for 6(1)(d) Reinstatement an amendment to the Indian Act for an individual who was enfranchised by voluntary application prior to April 17, 1985. This would also work if his mother lost her status due to remarriage. This seems unlikely because she stuck with Bird as her last name right up until her passing. If she did remarry, he would have had to apply for Bill C31 (this bill is damaging in its own way which I’ll address another time). Needless to say, I have a lot of digging around to do.


What this article is trying to say is that, if an Indigenous student writes something in an unusual way, ask them why. You might learn something [insert another cheeky grin.]


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