University of Alberta Master's Student Champions Cree Culture, Honored With Alumni Award

For Dorothy Thunder, the Cree language and culture can’t be separated, and if one is lost, the other will surely follow.

It was this thought that inspired a dedication to preserving and teaching Cree, from her days as a student in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies, to her current work as a sessional instructor and master’s student on campus, to her latest accomplishment as a U of A alumni award winner.

As a recipient of the 2012 Alumni Horizon Award, Thunder is being honoured for early career accomplishments in keeping her native tongue alive. Through her work, Thunder hopes to help Aboriginal communities gain a strong sense of identity—one that is defined not by policy, but by culture, and supported by language.

“It would be wonderful if people understood their own language; if they know who they are, they know where they came from.”

Thunder, a mother to a blended family of nine children, is teaching her family to understand and speak Cree. She is particularly keen to leave a legacy for the generations to come.

“It’s my first language and I see a lot of the younger people don’t speak it anymore, and that is painful to me. Our values are in the Cree language. If you don’t have an understanding of the language, you are missing half the teachings; you are not getting the full meaning,” she said.

“The Cree language and culture are like a puzzle you are putting together to get the complete picture, the deeper meaning of it.”

Thunder grew up in Saskatchewan speaking Cree, but before beginning her studies at the U of A, did not know how to write it. While in a transition studies program at Concordia University College, she became intrigued by a guest speaker, the late Donna Paskemin, who was teaching Cree at the U of A.

Thunder learned about the U of A’s native studies program, and about the possibilities of immersing herself in her beloved language.

“Donna talked about writing it, learning the linguistics of it, and I thought maybe that was something I wanted to do.”

Thunder took up the challenge, enrolling in what was then the School of Native Studies and graduating with a degree in 2002. She’s been part of the U of A ever since, teaching and building layer upon layer of knowledge about the Cree language, and was instrumental in the development of the university’s Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute.

It wasn’t easy at first to learn Cree. “I had to switch to the Cree sounding and writing system, which is very different from English … but I told myself if I could learn English as a second language, I could learn Cree!”

Today she teaches introductory Cree and has developed a set of textbooks, helping students navigate and appreciate the language’s cultural nuances. She also played a pivotal role in helping translate an 1883 Cree prayer book into modern Cree and English, resulting in the publication of a rich scholarly work, The Beginning of Print Culture in Athabasca Country.

For her master of science degree in linguistics, Thunder is slowly sifting through the Cree language, sorting out the sometimes multiple meanings of each word, with plans to ultimately compile a corpus—a large, structured set of texts that define Cree.

“I’m hoping other language speakers can use it as a template.”

Reaching beyond campus learning, Thunder is also teaching online high-school Cree courses, as “another way of teaching and reaching the community.”

Humbled to receive a U of A alumni award, Thunder hopes it will encourage others to reach for their dreams.

“It gives the inspiration to do more, help others, and let them know that they can also do it.”