Discovering the Atikamekw language

Posted on January 31, 2022

Have you ever wanted to learn an Indigenous language? Here’s your chance! I recently met with someone who participated in a training program on Atikamekw language and culture. We’ll call her kiskinohamakan, which means “student” or “pupil” in Atikamekw.

E.L. Marchand: Kwe! Can you tell us a bit about the program? Who can participate, and how does it work?

Kiskinohamakan: The program is held over 4 weekends and is offered by Kina8at (pronounced “kinawat”), a non-profit organization that fosters the sharing of Indigenous cultures with everyone and anyone. The word “Kina8at” means “together” in Anicinape (an Algonquian language). There were about 20 of us registered in the program, all non-Indigenous or Métis people. We spent half of the time learning the language and the other half learning about Indigenous cultures.

E.L. Marchand: What motivated you to register for this program?

Kiskinohamakan: My main motivation was that I’m drawn to nature, but not only to nature, to the spirit of all living things, too. It’s something that I felt as a child and that I still feel, that connection to nature. Also, some of my ancestors were Indigenous, so that might be why I have a strong connection to Indigenous culture and philosophy.

E.L. Marchand: What stood out for you about the language?

Kiskinohamakan: What’s really special about the language is that there’s a story behind each word. Every word we learned gave us a glimpse of world history through the eyes of Indigenous peoples. For example, the word for “cemetery” (rikwaskan) contains the word for “bark” (wikwas), because the dead used to be buried in bark. The word for “sun” (pisimw, pronounced “piissim”), which is the day star, comes from the word for “explosion” (pisiparin). That word conveys the idea of an initial explosion, which is similar to the big bang theory. The word for “earth” (aski) is embedded in the word for “cauldron” (askikw, pronounced “askikkwa”), because cauldrons were made out of clay, and so on.

E.L. Marchand: What cultural lessons did the training program teach you?

Kiskinohamakan: The teachers shared their sacred fire and water ceremonies with us and explained the medicine wheel or circle of life. They also showed us how to make a dream catcher, a medicine pouch and bannock.

During the sacred fire ceremony, each piece of bark was treated with respect and reverence. We honoured the life in these particles of nature. It was the same thing during the water ceremony. The teachers spoke to us about the energy of water, what it means to us.

But most of all, the teachers are Indigenous people who live or have lived on reserves. They all talked to us about residential schools. They spoke openly about their experiences, both good and bad.

I was very touched by their courage in opening up like that to people from another culture—because we are from an entirely different culture. Not only did I feel a lot of compassion for them, but I was also very humbled by them. They really engaged with us as humans, not as part of this group or that group, as this culture or that culture. We were truly human beings who had come together to share knowledge.

E.L. Marchand: Do you have a story that you can share?

Kiskinohamakan: One of the teachers described how some Indigenous people greet one another. Instead of asking “How are you?” they ask “Are you living well?” The teacher explained that living well is about knowing how to surround yourself with the people and things that bring out the beauty and the best in you and everything else. It’s about knowing how to appreciate life.

E.L. Marchand: How did the course benefit you personally?

Kiskinohamakan: From a personal standpoint, the fact that I feel more connected to Indigenous culture, and in particular, seeing how Indigenous people are sharing their culture more and more gives me confidence that our planet and humankind have a bright future. I think that Indigenous people will guide us toward a world that shows more respect for nature and our humanity.

E.L. Marchand: Before we wrap up, I’d like to direct those of you who are interested in learning more about this language to the online French-Atikamekw dictionary (opens in new tab) (in French only). The website has definitions and a pronunciation guide.

Thank you for reading! I’m grateful to our kiskinohamakan, Hélène Rioux, and micta mikwetc (thank you very much) Kina8at!

Translated by Anne-Marie Tugwell, Language Portal of Canada


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand has been an English-to-French translator for the Government of Canada since 2009. She specializes in employment, training and project management. In addition to translation, she studied creative writing and music—her gateways to a parallel life where she writes works of poetry, fantasy and science fiction.


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