Josephine Bacon, a well-known Innu poet originally from Pessamit, Quebec, nowadays makes her home in Montreal. She recently found herself in France, invited to the international literary festival Etonnants Voyageurs of Saint Malo, in Brittany, to share insights from her Innu-French book, Un Thé Dans la Toundra, (A Tea in the Tundra, Mémoire d’encrier, 2013). Bacon’s work reflects the ways in which her Innu language has changed as the First Nation society has moved from a nomadic past to a sedentary lifestyle, the people forced onto reserves. Since languages reflect their environment, the Innu went through major changes with the introduction of French and English, the two dominant languages of Canada. Bacon eventually became young Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine‘s mentor, sharing her enthusiasm with a new generation of writers in search of their roots through language. Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Bacon as she passed through Paris after the festival.
How was the festival in Saint Malo?
I loved it! It is a great event, where I met poets, novelists, so many types of writers. Festivals are magic: You discover all those people in love with words. Saint Malo is so beautiful as well: the sea, the vast horizon. And the bilingual Innu-French edition of my book was really appreciated.
Can you write in Innu about the same concepts as you can in French?
I adapt my writing: I published two bilingual books in Innu and French. My last one is adapted from Innu, A Tea in the Tundra, and I try to translate my soul.
How do you know Innu?
It is my first language: My parents spoke it. I learned French at age five, in a Native boarding school outside my community. In the fifties, nobody spoke it. Because our parents were hunters, the Innu we spoke was closer to nomadism—the earth, the land. Nomadic Innu is not similar to the sedentary spoken on the reservations today, as the environment, the needs, are different: Before, as hunters, we used our environment, so we spoke about it constantly. The creation of the reservations gave birth to a new Innu: Settled on reservations, we did not speak much about lakes, rivers, etc. We lived in houses, with fridges, kitchens. The language changed.
So the new Innu followed the environmental changes?
Yes. Also, we lost a lot because of the missionaries.
Was the study of French perceived among Natives as a colonization process?
No. I was in boarding school from the age of five, until nineteen, and my experience was not bad because they did not ask us to stop speaking our languages , except in the class. We did not speak a word of French anyhow, so they could not ask it! Innus came to the boarding school having never really heard French, except in fur merchants’ shops.
So French was not a negative experience; we were actually happy to learn another language. Of course, I do not like French the same as I do Innu, which represents my memory, my identity, my dreams. Listening to the elders, I received their knowledge, a sense of who I am. But today, with the linguists’ research, Innu is written; also, in the past, the missionaries translated the Bible. Generally the transmission is oral; though now it is taught in reserve schools as a second language.
How do you write? Are your stories inspired by your childhood, your community?
Today I live in Montreal; so sometimes, I sit in a park, and going back to my memories, listening to what the elders told me, I start to write. But sometimes I do not write for months; then I meet people, I start telling a story, get carried away, and I start writing in Innu about the scenes and pictures coming to my mind, the voices I hear.
Are there Innu concepts you could not translate into French?
We do not say, “please,” good night” or “bonjour,” and we don’t say “good-bye” if we know we will see someone the next day. The French say “hi” all the time, so we adapted. But at the time of nomadism, “Kwe Kwe,” [hi] did matter, since it was common to go without seeing someone for months.
Do the young Native people speak their languages in Canada today, or are the languages in danger?
Cree and Innu are the main languages: the Cree is widely spoken, and linguists teach Innu at the university, since dictionaries exist now. But Cree and Innu people mostly speak French or English. The young people, because of the Internet and Facebook, do not speak any more with the elders, or their parents, and end up talking only French and English. So Native languages are in danger. That is why it is extraordinary that a youngster like Natasha, brought up outside of her community, has learned her language: I hope this trend will grow!