Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Cree and Michif Language Resources
There are many wonderful Cree language resources out there, and best of all wonderful people who are teaching it in the whole gamut of possible places, elementary schools, universities, community resource centres, and so on. There are now also many wonderful online resources, including many books that are no longer in print but have been released in digital versions to support learners in a way that honours the commitment and intention of the many elders and community members who contributed to them. Other people who are learning or teaching Cree have their own resource pages, and many of them find social media a helpful adjunct to their practice. I am not among them however, so this selection does not cover Cree language resources that are primarily or wholly social media based. Nor am I up on any possible Discord servers or the like that are part of Cree language teaching and learning, so those with knowledge of those venues will want to check for current options available.
I have already said that Cree is a language, but it would probably be at least closer to correct to refer to "Cree" as a piece of an Anishnabowen word, "Kristinaux" or "Klistinaux" that seems to mean "northerner." The people referred to by this term by europeans were not just northerners, they also spoke languages related to Anishinabowen, although distinct from it, and related to each other but spread across a great distance on the land of northern Turtle Island. So it seems more fair to revise to start with to say that Cree is a european-pronounceable term for a linguistic continuum of sibling languages spanning most of what is currently called northern canada between the tree line to the furthest north and the northern edges of the great plains to the south. On the west the border is mostly the rocky mountains and the land edge where the muskeg ices up early in the year or the Dene insist that no, this is their territory thank you very much, and that tends to follow the peace river basin. On the east, the border is usually the ocean, but things get complicated around the st. lawrence because that is an important northern part of a region known in Indigenous terms as where The Common Pot Treaty holds. There people speaking languages from the Cree and Anishinabowen language continua mix with peoples speaking languages from the Iroquoian and Siouan language continua.
Open course version cover of Jean Okimasis' deservedly famous Cree textbook for her course Cree: Language of the Plains
from the university of regina open educational resources page
, march 2022.
Stepping back a bit, linguists eventually figured out that Indigenous languages are generally polysynthetic. The definitions I have found of that term are frustrating because they assume everyone means the same things by a "word" and a "sentence" but actually, that can't be assumed. However, if you are reading or perhaps listening to this article, then it is very likely that we can start from at least what these mean in written english. In written english, a "word" is defined by it being set off from another word by a space at its beginning and end, or else by a space at its beginning and a punctuation mark at its end. When speaking those spaces and punctuation correspond to brief pauses. There are a small number of punctuation marks that correspond to the end of sentences, and that is what in english would be heard or read as a complete statement. At this point we can already tell that english is an analytic, it is made up of separated words, and we make sensible statements in it most of the time by putting words together in a defined order. A few english words have their shape changed slightly to alter their meanings, like adding "s" for most plural nouns and "-ed" for the past tense on verbs. Okay, having taken care to set out all that, it is now possible to say that most Indigenous languages, while they are sticklers for order, they make sentences by mostly adding prefixes and suffixes to verbs. But there are still sentences in which a speaker of an Indigenous language would have other words than the main sentence, just like in any other language including english, and they may use certain other modifiers that can stand alone. In some Indigenous languages those may include cardinal numbers (1, 2, 3...), and demonstrative pronouns (this, that...).
There are some good examples that show these differences, like these two from Cree: Language of the Plains, by Jean Okimasis:
Cree: Language of the Plains
I want to speak Cree well.
There are broadly speaking two ways of writing Cree, the roman transcription used in Okimasis' book, and one of several versions of Cree syllabics. The versions differ mainly in how many vowels are represented and what they do with the semiconsonants "y" and "w." Eurocanadians and europeans before them like to claim that syllabics were developed by a missionary, however, as devised and used they include enough Indigenous spiritual content to make this seem highly unlikely. Highly unlikely even before Cree scholar Winona (Stevenson) Wheeler wrote about "Calling Badger and the Symbols of the Spirit Language" in Oral History Forum, briefly recounting how Calling Badger was gifted the syllabics, and how he in turned gifted them to the Cree people. A give away at the very start even for those unfamiliar with the oral history of the Cree syllabics is their application of the four directions to represent sound changes for each syllable. A closer look at Cree art, including rock art, will soon reveal that all the symbols have clear precedents all around Cree people at the time. Then there is the fact that generally missionaries spent great effort on making romanized representations of Indigenous languages so that they could easily write linguistic reports for their fellows and superiors, and later make and print prayer books cheaply. I have read some arguments that the missionary must have cribbed from some of the common shorthands of his time, but the timing is actually quite problematic, not least because, as Wheeler noted, the european written record claims that somehow the missionary worked this all out in a few months. Worked it all out in a few months, without being a fluent Cree speaker. All very odd. In any case, there are two widely accepted ways to write Cree, and people may opt to learn either one or both. Whether a community prefers to use syllabics varies. It seems to me that it might be a bit easier to go from syllabics to writing in a romanized form when necessary than the other way around, but in any case in my experience dictionaries and books that use syllabics also provide a roman character transcription in small print.
Michif and Métis Cree are the main languages traditionally spoken by Métis, who are a post-contact Indigenous people who have relationships with much of the same land as their Cree kin. The most famous dialects of Michif are those that combine Cree verbs with french nouns, creating a polysynthetic language with its own particularities. People who speak Michif cannot immediately understand a person speaking the closest Cree and french dialects that have contributed elements to their dialect of Michif. On top of that, Michif has also incorporated words from western dialects of Anishinabowen due to historical relationships. There is strong evidence for Michif dialects that combined Cree and Gaelic, but these have been completely lost between the forced dispersal of most of the visible non-french-speaking community in manitoba during the nineteenth century, and the anti-celtic language hostility of most people of british descent in canada. Both Michif and Métis Cree are highly endangered languages, with elders and younger speakers putting in overtime to record fluent speakers, create teaching materials, and develop a consistent orthography. Writing these languages down is particularly tricky because the sounds used in Cree and french are very different, and depending on the dialect, the french has been reshaped to bring it more in line with the Cree, but the process of harmonization is not complete yet.
With all that said, here is what I have found online so far in terms of dictionaries, books, recordings, and the like.
- Dr. Anne Anderson's Metis Cree Dictionary: Hosted at the university of alberta's Special Projects repository at the Internet Archive, and one of Anne Anderson's last publications after many years of providing Cree language instruction in and edmonton. Métis Cree is a bit different, so those wishing to speak Cree in First Nations communities should focus on the specific dialect spoken there and then come back to Métis Cree later.
- Online Cree Dictionary / Nehiyaw Masinahikan: This is another Cree language project in partnership with the university of alberta as well as the first nations university, specifically as part of a broader web portal development venture. They are striving to provide online dictionaries and other teaching resources for Indigenous languages on northern Turtle Island in general, starting with Plains Cree.
- Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary/alperta ohci kehtehayak nehiyaw otwestamâkewasinahikan: This dictionary developed from the mid 1970s and continuing is not yet available online in any form, but is recommended by the team at the online cree dictionary project cited above. Both that dictionary and this one are closely connected with the Maskwacis Cree community just south of edmonton.
- Eastern James Bay Cree Dictionary: An important online project started with elders from Chisasibi, Wemindji, Whapmagoostui, Eastmain, Mistissini, Waskaganish, and Waswanapi in 1999. It has its roots in an early dictionary developed by a mixed team working for the Cree school board in québec.
- Algonquian Dictionaries and Language Resources Project: Besides being the apparent home of many Indigenous language dictionary projects, if you are interested in more recent papers on Cree linguistics, Marie-Odile Junker's contact information and a bibliography are also available here. The specific project on this site has a major multimedia component, with many recordings and also opportunities for students to train in how to develop similar materials for their own communities.
- Moose Factory's Community Language Project: On the ontario side of hudson bay there are of course Cree communities, and moose factory is one busy on their own dialect. Starting in 2012, they got to work on reviving Ililîmowin, which had few books even for children to learn to read and speak Cree at first. They have made up for those gaps since then via the hard work of a local cultural committee, and the whole community owns the teaching materials together. In fact, theirs is unique in its permanent support personnel too, who are all Cree people, including their linguist and lexicographer.
- Cree Literacy Network: A now just over decade old blog and network of Cree speakers and readers striving to promote standardized spelling. That's a big goal, but not exclusive of providing recordings to help people with pronunciation and listening practice. They also define "Cree literacy" as "awareness of Cree history and culture, living tradition and ancient ritual... understanding the depth and scope of damage from past wrongs, and engaging in the struggle to see them righted. In this so called 'age of reconciliation,' it means being aware of Cree political issues past and present, and helping to preserve this 'home on Native land' that we all share."
- itwêwina Plains Cree Dictionary Page, Application: Plains Cree has a relatively large number of online dictionaries. This one is a bit different, as it is part of a research laboratory project in the university of alberta's linguistics department. It takes a slightly different approach from the other dictionary, and can handle more complex queries in either syllabics or romanized transcription.
- Nêhiyawêwin Masinahikan - Michif*/Cree Dictionary and Nêhiyawêwin Mitâtaht: Michif ahci Cree Combo: This is another book as opposed to website, developed by Vince Ahenakew and based on the language as spoken in the Michif communities in northwestern Saskatchewan. A book, but it inlcudes a workbook and a CD with sound recordings. The information page at the Gabriel Dumont Institute linked to here lists the communities as: Beauval, Buffalo Narrows, Canoe Narrows, Cole Bay, Dillon, Green Lake, Ile-à-la Crosse (Sakitawak), Jans Bay, Patuanak, Pinehouse, and Turnor Lake. They also note that this is the only Michif language taught in a school system.
- âpihtawikosisân: Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin) links: I would be remiss if I did not make sure to include a link to Chelsea Vowel's blog âpihtawikosisân, because she has many, many great items that she has brought together. Most importantly, she is an experienced Cree language instructor from the Métis community of lac ste. anne, so she is solidly acquainted with both Cree and Michif. She has a great discussion of Cree kinship terms that is a great post to go back to with growing speaking and reading experience.
- Gabriel Dumont Institute - Michif Tools: The first thing a visitor will see on this page is links to the Heritage and Northern Michif dictionaries, which include sound recordings. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are also links to phone apps, then starter links to help a person begin exploring the many books, videos, recordings, games, and interviews in Michif.
- Michif - Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle: A community of people who are working to revitalize and preserve Michif and the other languages spoken by Métis and their kin across the Métis homeland. This website is the online home of a major project founded by Verna DeMontigny and Heather Souter. Site visitors can complete an online course, access a growing dictionary, and will soon be able to listen to a library of recordings. They already provide easy access to playlists of instructional audio and video recordings, plus a blog that is just getting started.
- BC Métis Federation Michif Language Project: The origins of the bc métis federation are a bit complicated, but this does seem to be a solid program. They have a set of workbooks and recordings going up to grade 6, and resources intended to help communities implement the program in their schools. It is well worth keeping an eye on it to see if they are able to keep building up into the higher grades.
- Métis Gathering: This is another language, history, and heritage project, including a neat "word of the day" feature on the front page. It is based in saskatoon and created by a partnership between métis nation - saskatchewan and canadian geographic. Playing an important complementary role to work already ongoing with the Gabriel Dumont Institute and through the western canadian universities, it includes a wonderful podcast hosted by Leah Dorion, Paykiiwikay.