Language is a powerful thing. As an Indigenous person, I wanted to tell a story about the anxieties of losing one's language, and how one fits into modern society. Though brief, we explore an important moment in the lives of two women, standing in the same spot, separated only by the wall of time.
“We call Hochelaga, but we don’t what they called it,” Addelae overheard a student say to his friend beside the famed snow-covered Rock on McGill’s lower field. She trudged through the heavy snow, making her way to class. The university remained open, despite the heavy storm that recently happened.
Addelae assumed the “they” that the student was talking about to his friend were the original people who lived on the Island of Montréal. The stone stood to commemorate the massive community of Indigenous people that lived on what is now the campus of McGill University, where Addelae was studying. Addelae examined the boulder, and the small plaque resting on the front of it. That was all the stood of the Village of Fifty Longhouses—a native metropolis when compared to the other sites peppered throughout the province. A rock, a single rock represented the thousands of people, Addelae’s people, and the lives they led.
Addelae’s people—at least to a certain degree—lived here. She looked down to her hands, which were stuffed in the front pockets of her winter jacket. She pulled out her left, revealing her snow-white skin. Her blonde hair hung in a side-braid over her right shoulder. Addelae frowned at the sight, and she wondered just how much of her bloodline goes back to this place. She knew she was Kanien’kehá:ka, she lived in Kahnawake her whole life. Nevertheless, her pale complexion created a rift between herself and her friends back home that “looked the part”.
Language was the most important thing to Addelae’s family. Her thoughts trailed to the long-winded explanations from her uncle—who explained that the language carried power. “It’s like the Force,” he would explain, “it’s a power that’s within you. Within everything. That is how you know who you are, when you feel that old language swim through your blood. We don’t learn it, we remember it. Because it’s alive. It may be asleep right now, but there will be a time in your life, dear niece, when that Old Power will wake up, and you’ll know your place in all of this.”
Addelae feared the concept of place, especially since she was living downtown and not in Kahnawake. She never felt that awakening that her uncle so adamantly talked about. What if I don’t have a place in this story? The combined weight of her thoughts and the books in her schoolbag weighed Addelae down. Countless students milled about, on the road to their next class. She looked around the campus, the great hill that was Mount Royal loomed over the university. Its snowy mass cast a shadow over half the campus as the sun made its way across the sky. Addelae assured herself again, I know who I am. However, that familiar anxiety crept in. But I don’t feel it. Addelae closed her eyes.
Ká:nen opened her eyes. She was standing in the shade of the Bear Longhouse—her mother’s clan, and so it was hers as well. She crossed her arms to generate heat in the autumn’s chill. Her gaze shifted to the great Hill beyond the Village’s grand palisade. With Brother Sun making his descent, and the color of the leaves, the great mound appeared to be on fire. “Something’s coming. I can feel it.” The voice of Ká:nen’s uncle echoed from behind her, “You look worried, something wrong?”
Ká:nen turned and watched as her Uncle whittled a stick for Ká:nen’s water drum. There was a look of concern on his face, his twin braids dangling on either side of his head like oil-black serpents. He sat atop a stump, his flint knife in his right hand, and the drumstick in the other. “I had a bad dream last night.”
Uncle blinked, “Oh? What was it?”
Ká:nen rubbed her arms, feeling goosebumps rise from under her hide clothing. Her thoughts searched for the memory of the dream that resulted in Ká:nen gasping for breath earlier that morning. “I dreamt that someone stole all my blood. I remember looking into a pot of water and seeing that I was as pale as the snow. And when I tried asking people for help, they just looked at me like they couldn’t understand me. Uncle, it was awful. It was like I didn’t know our words anymore.”
Ká:nen’s voice was quaking as she tried to continue telling him about her dream. She couldn’t do it anymore. Uncle hopped up off his stump and set down his knife and drumstick. He went to hug his crying niece. “Our dreams are important, Ká:nen. They’re like seeds—sometimes they come to fruition. And sometimes they do not.”
“It felt real. What if we lose it all? This place? Our blood? Our words?” She asked him, “You said our words are powerful, but what if we lose that power?”
Uncle pulled back and looked Ká:nen in her troubled eyes. “You can lose all your blood; it won’t take away who you are. Blood is not who we are. And that power is not ours to keep. It’s everywhere, Ká:nen. Look around you.”
Uncle guided her with a hand on her shoulder. With his free hand, he pointed to the great Hill. “That power that makes us who we are flows through everything. Not just our blood. Look at those trees, Ká:nen. The day is coming, soon, when we will be faced with something beyond our understanding. But listen to me, dear niece. No one can take your language from you. It can be buried. But it’s alive. And yes, a day may come when it goes to sleep for a long Winter. But it will wake up. Like those trees, Ká:nen. Their leaves may fall and they may appear to be dead for a time, but they wake in Spring, with new life.”
She looked at the trees, and smiled. She felt a growing sense of relief at the sight, knowing full well that the Hill will become green after the Winter. At her foot, a small oak sapling stood. Ká:nen felt the rumbling of thunder, off in the distance. She looked to the West, and saw a storm approaching. It was growing in size, sheer darkness at its base, which expanding to a great tower of white clouds. She saw the lightning flashes, and heard its roar a few moments later. The storm eclipsed the sun, but Ká:nen was unafraid. She shut her eyes and smiled.
Addelae opened her eyes, and looked up at the trees lining the road to the Arts Building. They were barren in the Winter’s cold. Black claws reaching out to the sky. But upon closer inspection, Addelae noticed something on the oak’s branches. She saw the faintest hints of budding. Tiny emeralds speckled the branches, which swayed in the faint February breeze. They’re waking up, Addelae mused. It was going to be an early spring. In that moment, standing in the middle of the McGill campus, Addelae felt something budding within her.