This Cree teacher overcame residential school and 19 months in hospital to help keep her language alive

Not even being forbidden to speak her language in residential school, nor a 19-month stint in the tuberculosis ward of a hospital as a teen, stopped Dorothy Visser from speaking, writing and eventually teaching the Cree language.

Visser, 81, has now been teaching Cree in Metro Vancouver for four decades, instilling it in a new generation of learners after transcending attempts to stifle her language while she was growing up. 

“It’s important to me because we lost so much of our language when children were taken away from families and put in residential schools,” she said.

Visser’s tenacity was forged while growing up at home in Amiskwacīwiyiniwa (Saddle Lake First Nation) in Alberta.

“I learned my language at home because that’s all my parents and grandparents spoke around us,” she said. “I never spoke a word of English before going to residential school. It was all Cree.”

Visser retained her language after being forced to attend residential school. But her greatest challenge came when she spent 19 months in hospital recovering from tuberculosis. With no one else around her to speak to in Cree, the resourceful Visser still found a way to use it.

“I wrote letters home to my grandfather using Cree syllabics and he’d write back to me,” she said. “Later, I asked him if he understood the syllabics and he smiled and said yes.”

Visser and her family moved to Metro Vancouver in 1981 and she has taught Cree language classes since arriving.

Today, Visser teaches adults and children at the Native Education College in Vancouver and at the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Surrey.

She says teaching children Cree is critical to retaining heritage.

“Children learn quickly, so they will never forget it if they are taught at an early age,” she said.

Cree has its origins in the Algonquin people of Quebec and Ontario, Visser said. The language then migrated west across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Cree is also a relative to the Ojibway language.

There are five dialects of Cree, and Visser speaks the Y-dialect of Plains Cree, she said.

According to the. 2016 Census, Cree is the most commonly understood Indigenous mother tongue in Metro Vancouver.

As part of National Indigenous History Month, Visser chose “nehiyaweh’win” (neh-hee-YA-way-win) as the Cree word she wanted the audience to know. It means “retaining our heritage.”

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