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Eskasoni high schooler hopes Mi’kmaq music video inspires others to learn language

WATCH ABOVE: Grade 10 student Emma Stevens performs Blackbird in the Mi'kmaq language in a YouTube video put out by her school in Eskasoni First Nation.

Pu’tliskiej wapinintoq (Blackbird singing in the dead of night)

Kina’masi telayja’timk (Take these broken wings and learn to fly)

Tel pitawsin (All your life)

Eskimatimu’sipnek nike’ mnja’sin (You were only waiting for this moment to arise)

They’re familiar lyrics to a classic song — sung in a language that is quickly becoming not so familiar.

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Grade 10 student Emma Stevens has been featured in a music video, produced by Allison Bernard Memorial High School music teacher Carter Chiasson, singing The Beatles’ Blackbird in Mi’kmaq.

Stevens admits she’s only one of a few students in her school who is able to speak Mi’kmaq. By singing in her mother’s native tongue, she hopes to inspire other young people to take up the language.

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“The Mi’kmaq culture is very important to my family. My mom really loves the song because it’s her heritage, so it’s mine,” she said.

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The music program at the Eskasoni First Nation school in Cape Breton has put out several Mi’kmaq music videos in recent years to celebrate the language, and this one has quickly been racking up the views since its release last Thursday.

“For the last number of years, we’ve been creating an original song,” said Chiasson. “This year, we decided to do things a little differently.”

To mark the International Year of Indigenous Languages — a United Nations observance — Chiasson decided to work with fellow educator Katani Julian to translate the Beatles’ song.

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“It’s all about bringing awareness to languages that are dying,” said Chiasson.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a drastic decline in the number of young people that speak (Mi’kmaq). Some people have even said that the language could disappear within two generations.”

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Julian and her father, Albert “Golydada” Julian, painstakingly translated the lyrics into Mi’kmaq. When he heard Stevens’ rendition of the song, Julian says her father quickly became emotional.

“When it was all done, I played it to my dad to see how he liked it, and when my dad heard the song and saw the video, he had tears in his eyes,” she said.

“When he had tears in his eyes — and he’s a tough guy — I knew we had something special.”

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Julian, who grew up in Eskasoni, says when she was young, “maybe one per cent of the students spoke English.” When she started teaching high school in 2001, about half of her Mi’kmaq language class was able to speak the language.

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“My last year of teaching, (which was last year), there were probably two in a class of 25,” she said.

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She says the decline of the language is due to students not speaking Mi’kmaq at home and experiencing more English influence on TV and in social media.

“A lot of elders say that if we lose our language then we lose our culture, we lose our connection to Mother Earth and our connection to the land,” Julian said.

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That’s something Stevens agrees with.

“A lot of the kids here think it’s easier to speak English rather than Mi’kmaq,” she said.

That’s why she hopes performing in Mi’kmaq will encourage her peers to view the language differently.

“I hope (this music video) shows kids that English isn’t the only language. We have our language, too,” Stevens said.

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Julian says it has been “refreshing” to hear her language on YouTube and has noticed it has already inspired non-speakers to seek out phonetic guides in a bid to learn Mi’kmaq.

“Once we lose it here in the Maritimes, it’s gone. It’s the last place that the Mi’kmaq language exists,” she said.

“I certainly hope it inspires children, and perhaps educators and people in the music industry, to embrace other languages.”

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The school’s music program is on track to play a role in that change.

Chiasson says he and his fellow educators are currently working on creating more Mi’kmaq content that is geared towards children. They are also working with a non-profit group in the United States to create an app that helps teach Mi’kmaq.