Jan. 29, 2024

Research proposal written entirely in Cree language receives federal funding

Project could shift social work practices
Group photo of researchers
Stephanie Tyler, Ralph Bodor, Kristina Kopp and Elder Leona Makokis (seated) are ensuring Indigenous language and culture is represented in research. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

A Faculty of Social Work research funding proposal written entirely in nêhiyawewin, the Cree language, has been approved for funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to demonstrate their commitment to supporting Indigenous languages in government-funded opportunities. This is the first proposal submitted exclusively in an Indigenous language to be funded by a federal funding agency. 

The research project’s long-term goal is for Indigenous service providers, such as Children’s Services and other agencies, to understand the vital role that ceremony, language, and protocol play in healing. The project’s focus was born from the team’s extensive research and practice experience, which revealed that the languages, protocol, stories, and ceremonies of Indigenous Peoples are integral to the healing process, providing insight into a distinct worldview parallel to the Western perspective.  

Reconciliation through research

“We’ve been focused on Western worldviews, and we need a growing understanding (in social work) of Indigenous values and beliefs,” says Kristina Kopp (âpihtawikosisân), who is part of the research team. 

Team member Stephanie Tyler (nisoyahk ohci) echoed this sentiment, saying, “With social work’s negative history with Indigenous communities, this is an opportunity to engage in consistent acts of reconciliation.”

Elder Dr. Leona Makokis (nocikwesiw), EdD, alongside Dr. Ralph Bodor (oskâpêwsis), PhD, with Kristina Kopp (âpihtawikosisân), PhD candidate, and Stephanie Tyler (nisoyahk ohci), PhD candidate, were the driving forces behind the proposal. Their primary goal was to ensure that Indigenous language and culture was represented and valued within the evaluation process.

“We never applied with the main goal of receiving funding. Our goal was to be evaluated fairly. That’s the goal we achieved, that’s our dream,” says Bodor, adjunct associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work.

The team is adamant that there is an overrepresentation of Western worldviews, values, and beliefs in the lives of Indigenous Peoples. The success of this project is a small step toward correcting that over-representation.

Grant application journey

The project titled isihcikewin e apatak ka natahîwe: atoskatamik tanisi kesi pîtos kiskinohamake encountered its share of challenges. The first application of the project faced a setback when it was stopped at the administrative level by SSHRC due to the proposal not being written or provided a translation in French or English. 

There was not an existing pathway for review, but the team established a direct connection to the funding agency to explore the idea of creating one.

The team made a second submission, and another hurdle emerged. SSHRC gathered Indigenous scholars who were fluent in Cree to assist with evaluating the project; however, due partly to history and context, some Cree language speakers are not comfortable when the language is written in Roman Orthography. The research team responded by preparing an oral recording of the entire research proposal (in Cree), with each member recording sections of the application for review, which was evaluated by SSHRC reviewers.

SSHRC says this project is a milestone for SSHRC-funded research. “As the first Cree-language application to undergo merit review, as we move forward in our support of Indigenous research, pilot projects such as this will be invaluable in exploring new ways of strengthening Indigenous research capacity in Canada,” says Ted Hewitt, president of SSHRC.

UCalgary Vice-President (Research) Dr. William Ghali echoes the importance of this milestone and sees this project as being in alignment with UCalgary’s ii' taa'poh'to'p Indigenous strategy, specifically with the recommendation around preserving Indigenous culture through languages in research.

“I appreciate SSHRC’s response, enabling this important application to undergo merit review in nêhiyawewin. The University of Calgary is committed to supporting Indigenous languages, traditions, and methodologies, and we congratulate the research team for their perseverance and dedication,” he says. 

"Language creates our understanding of the world.  UCalgary is committed to supporting the team as they move forward in preserving Indigenous languages in research.”

Listen to an audio recording of the project name, spoken in the Cree langauge nêhiyawewin.

Created by Aylin Arzola Salazar

Importance of language 

It was important to the research team to submit the proposal in the Cree language, nêhiyawewin, as translating it into English would significantly change the meaning of the project. nêhiyawewin, unlike English, functions as a language of verbs, emphasizing connections, ceremony, and relationships. Project members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have been learning Cree as a part of their commitment to the work. They put their language skills into practice with the grant proposal in both its written and oral submissions.   

Bodor highlights the critical role of language, saying, "Language creates reality, and Western language creates a Western reality that is not an Indigenous reality, whereas nêhiyawewin creates a different reality."

Elder Leona, who is part of the research team, recalls having to relearn her language due to her time in a residential school and says this project moving forward is a vision that is coming true.  

She emphasized that things from the Cree language don’t translate easily into English. “Our understanding of the world is very different. The whole misunderstanding that happened in our treaties was due to language. In Cree, we don’t have a word for selling. We have sharing. So many concepts are different,” she says.

Next steps

With the grant secured, the next steps involve initiating the project in ceremony to begin in a good way. 

The team is now working with the university’s Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board (CFREB), the Indigenous Research Support Team (IRST), and the Research Service’s Ethics and Compliance team to develop a parallel ethics application with the intention of paving the way for future Indigenous research projects. As this unique initiative takes its first steps, it opens the door to a future where Indigenous languages are not just preserved but thrive and are honoured.

isihcikewin e apatak ka natahîwe: atoskatamik tanisi kesi pîtos kiskinohamake applied for a SSHRC Insight Development Grant and was successful in obtaining a SSHRC Special Initiatives grant.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.