Mi’kmaq couple help bring their language to the small screen

By: Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post
ESKASONI – The Mi’kmaq language is on display for all to hear in a popular historical drama produced for the History channel – and a couple from Eskasoni First Nation helped make it happen.
Vikings, a series set around 800 AD, follows the legendary Norse chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok and his crew, and later his sons, through six seasons. The final season focuses on, among other storylines, the Vikings’ expeditions across the ocean to North America, and their encounters with the now extinct Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland.
The producers, historians, and anthropologists that work on the show chose Mi’kmaq as the closest language to what would likely have been spoken by the Beothuk, since it is also part of the Algonquian family of languages and the two tribes would have interacted.
That’s where Tom and Carol Anne Johnson come in.
The Toronto company Take 5 Productions began a search for help with the language and eventually connected with Cape Breton University. Through that contact they were put in touch with the Johnsons, who are both fluent Mi’kmaq speakers, and have done other language work, including the Mi’kmaq overdubbed version of the Dreamworks movie Chicken Run.
Tom says they were first approached to do some translations of the script.
“We have a little recording studio in the garage, so we said, ‘Why don’t we record some audio, in terms of how they pronounce it, they can listen to it and practice.’ So, Carol Anne wrote it out phonetically and we sent the audio file,” he says.
Carol Anne says it wasn’t long before they were contacted again, this time to go to Ireland where the show was being filmed, and in November 2018, the couple flew in to spend two weeks on set as voice coaches for the actors.
They worked closely with producer Liz Gill, and the show’s creator, Emmy-winning screenwriter and producer, Michael Hirst, as well as the four main Indigenous actors, who were all from Canada. They also tutored well-known Swedish actor, Gustaf Skarsgard, who plays one of the main characters, Floki, a Viking who picks up the language from the Beothuk people.
This was the first time both Tom and Carol Anne had visited the United Kingdom, and the first time they’d been on the set of a show, so it was a big adjustment to the early mornings and long days on set in the damp, cold climate of Ireland in late fall.
“(The actors) are just really incredible. You’ve got to love what you do to actually be involved in these things because what you see on TV makes it look easy, but it’s hard work,” says Carol Anne.
“We were very happy to have been asked to come there, we don’t take anything for granted. We’re always very grateful … It was nice of them to reach out and to include an authentic Indigenous language in the show.”
She says the producers were very respectful and dedicated to being culturally and historically accurate, down to the smallest details, and as a teacher, she was very serious about getting the translation and pronunciation right.
“We wanted to portray our people, our language in the best way possible,” she says.
After the Johnsons returned home, they continued to contribute to the show with some voice work recorded with Jamie Foulds at Soundpark Studio in Coxheath. They worked with other Mi’kmaq speakers in Unama’ki to record some background conversation sounds. Carol Anne’s voice even makes a cameo appearance in the final episode.
Tom has a whole folder of photos on his computer of the experience, and is happy to show them now that the season has aired on the History channel in Canada. Before that, the Johnsons were asked to keep any details about the show under wraps.
They watched the episodes they were a part of with a group of friends and family, and they laugh about hearing the results of their work.
“You’re always your own biggest critic,” says Tom, but he’s proud to hear his language spoken, and to know it will be heard by people around the world.
The couple, along with their community of Eskasoni First Nation, are thanked in the final credits on the show, but the Mi’kmaq language is not mentioned anywhere, so it takes a keen ear to pick it out.
Tom says it’s taken some people by surprise.
“We’ve had a couple of people say, ‘Did you guys hear the Vikings, it sounds like they’re speaking Mi’kmaq’. And they are!”