The first time I read The Marrow Thieves, the award-winning dystopic YA novel whose author Cherie Dimaline will be at the Whistler Writers Festival this year, I missed the whole point. I was drawn deeply into the story of Frenchie, a Metis teen who was on the run with a ragtag band of kids, and two elders, trying to stay one step ahead of The Recruiters, officials working for the government rounding up indigenous people, in this dark damaged future landscape, so their bone marrow could be harvested, and synthesized somehow, into a dreaming pill, for everyone else, who had lost the ability to dream.
On second reading, I realized why the loss of their barely-verbal elder, Minerva, was so important, why they kept calling her “the key.” Because Minerva was fluent. In her language.
And the language is the key to the culture. To being.
Heather Joseph explained it me like this. Joseph is the language teacher at Signal Hill Elementary School. “When I was at Kamloops at [language teacher] training, I met one language group. They’d lost almost their whole language. They had barely any elders left to help them. You could see that they were really holding it, and they were struggling, but it was something that is really important to them. And then, another lady, they had lost their whole culture. They knew their language. They had their whole langauge, but they’ve lost their culture. And I was talking especially to her and I said, the culture is in the language. If you guys look back into all the words, research the words, you’ll see your culture. For the ones who are losing their language, it’s really saddening, because the language is really connected to the people and the land, so once that’s lost, they lose a lot of history and a lot of who they really are as a people.”
When I realized my kindergartener would have a chance to learn Ucwalmictws in school, I told him I thought he was really lucky.
“I learned some languages in school,” I said, “and I really loved it. But I didn’t get to learn Ucwalmictws. I think you’re so lucky. That is the language spoken by the people who have lived here, where we live, since the long-ago time.
“You mean they didn’t speak English,” he asked?
“Not until the first English speakers arrived here. Before that, they spoke their own language. And after the first English speakers arrived, they learned to speak English. But the English speakers didn’t want them to speak their own language, so they sent the kids away to school, kids as little as you, had to get on trains and buses and go away to a school where they teachers cut their hair, and took away their special clothes, and wouldn’t let them speak their language. They had to speak English and if they spoke their own language, they got in trouble. But some people kept the language safe, like a box of treasure, and their sharing it with you is like someone giving you a treasure from their special treasure box, and it’s a real honour to be given that. Something so special and precious. For someone to share that with you is a real gift.”
I don’t know if he understood. But I meant it with all my heart.
2019 was declared “the International Year of indigenous Languages” by the UN to raise awareness that indigenous languages hold “complex systems of knowledge.” There’s a lot more media attention given to language and revitalization. Heather Joseph helped me understand the importance of this. But reading The Marrow Thieves really helped me experience it. That’s what great fiction does, and why it’s such a powerful tool.
I didn’t feel as though I was being educated, as I read The Marrow Thieves. I raced through the pages, utterly gripped by the human drama. But after I closed the final page, and the book’s events and characters wiggled their way around my inner-parts, dancing across the landscape of my brain, I really understood.