Falynn Baptiste always loved Christmas concerts as a young girl growing up on Red Pheasant Cree Nation, 150 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
The Cree-Métis child, who was known for her powerful pipes, was only six years old when she donned a purple dress and sang her first solo – a Christmas carol in Cree – at her school concert.
“People would say, ‘Oh Falynn, can you sing?’ and I was always raring and ready to get up on stage and, not so much be seen but share music and be heard,” she said.
Thirty-two years later, the recording artist stood centre stage in a floor-length green gown and sang What Child is This? in Cree with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra at its Christmas concert.
In that moment, Baptiste felt she had come full circle.
“I’m very, very proud,” she said. “To go from maybe a time when I wasn’t proud of who I was to now … Showcasing our beautiful language, it’s an accomplishment.”
Losing her identity
Baptiste, who is now 38, grew up surrounded by family members who spoke Cree as their first language, and she could sing Cree church hymns. She learned English in school, however, and lost interest in the traditional language as a teenager. She had to bus off reserve to attend junior high in the city of North Battleford, Sask.
“It was pretty jarring. It was so clear as a 12-year-old girl, that ‘All right, whomever you are is not okay, so we need to change who you are to fit in,'” she said.
She changed how she spoke, acted, dressed, and who she spent time with.
“I spent a large part of my life trying to prove to others that I wasn’t First Nation, that I wasn’t ‘Indian,'” she said.
Years later, when she was struggling with her sense of identity in her late 20s, she realized “my culture, my spirituality, my language, my family, that was the connecting piece to making me feel complete.”
At age 30, the teacher returned to the University of Saskatchewan’s education program to complete an Indigenous language certificate.
She’s become a champion of the Cree language both on stage and in the classroom.
Cree teacher and musician
Today, she teaches in the miyo mâchihowin academy — an Indigenous wellness program that incorporates language and culture — at E.D. Feehan Catholic High School in Saskatoon.
One of her Grade 12 students, Isabelle Robin, a teenager from Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation, said learning about the dark history of residential schools has motivated her to learn the language.
“I get to learn for the children that never got to learn their language, and weren’t allowed to learn it or speak it,” Robin said.
Baptiste is excited to help Indigenous teenagers learn pride in their culture at the time in their lives when she lost her own connection.
“There’s almost a process of self-acceptance that has to take place. And when that happens, you can see the physical change, you can see the emotional change, you can see the spiritual change,” she said. “[Students] stand a little taller. They walk a little prouder down the hallway.”
A Cree Christmas
At home, Baptiste began working on Cree translations for Christmas carols that didn’t already have translations. She enlisted the help of Solomon Ratt, a Cree language instructor at the First Nations University of Canada, to translate lyrics into Cree, and then Baptiste tweaked the lyrics to fit the melody.
In 2020, she released an album called A Cree Christmas with eight songs such as O Holy Night, Silent Night, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
Earlier this year, she was going to produce an album of religious songs. But, she stopped the project after the discovery of unidentified remains at former church-run residential schools in Canada.
“It wasn’t the time for it because we were all being faced with our realities … with struggle, loss, and grief,” she said. “And so I stopped the project altogether and thought, ‘No, this isn’t the time for it.”
She doesn’t feel the same way about Cree Christmas carols.
Baptiste said Christmas is a time to celebrate the Creator, community, and culture.
And, as she did with the symphony orchestra behind her, a time to stand tall.
As Baptiste told the crowd, “I wish you all a very, merry Christmas and blessings to all of you.”