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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Getting Up to Michif

Cover of the Gabriel Dumont Institute video, 'Li Michif: The Language of Our Families/Li Michif: Kakee-Payshee-Peekishkwaywuk-Oma'. Cover of the Gabriel Dumont Institute video, 'Li Michif: The Language of Our Families/Li Michif: Kakee-Payshee-Peekishkwaywuk-Oma'.
Image courtesy of the Gabriel Dumont Institute, May 2007

"Ethnogenesis," the development of new ethnic groups, that is, people with a distinct culture that they recognize and pass down in their families, is far from a new phenomenon. It is something that happens all the time all over the world, much to the frustration of various groups who deem themselves to be "elite" and therefore allowed to impose what they consider a useful and appropriate uniformity. That this is an effort in the annals of futility in reasonable proximity to trying to control the weather doesn't seem to dissuade them. Acknowledging that ethnogenesis is not a bad thing, and that the products of it are not somehow degenerate, whether we are considering people, their language(s), or the material and spiritual elements of their culture, is still at best a lip service action. This unfortunately remains the case even for the Métis Nation,1 which has inspired so much excitement among anthropologists and historians, and in spite of firm Métis challenges to and corrections of the historical and cultural record. A great illustration of how stubborn assumptions of degeneration has been is the still persistent attempts to label the Métis language Michif a creole or pidgin.

Before getting into the details of Michif, it is worth pausing to sort out pidgins, creoles, and patois. Pidgins, better known as the less pejorative "contact languages" are inventions of necessity between two groups with very different languages who need to come up with a way to communicate more quickly and effectively than sign language. The examples I am most familiar with tend to be derived from languages from different families, which may discourage full language learning if the interactions are restricted to trade or labour transactions. However, that is not a necessity. On reading more about the early history of english, especially the period of repeated invasions by various germanic-language and slavic-language speaking groups, there seems to be an argument for "english" being a pidgin in the period between "old english" and "medieval english." Between those two points, "english" underwent significant simplification in grammar and vocabulary. Yet if english is any indication, a contact language that remains in use doesn't stay this way for long. Soon its speakers revise and develop it into a "creole," with an expanding vocabulary and elaborated grammar to handle a wider range of subjects and tasks. "Patois" is yet another pejorative, typically applied to dialects of a language with a form marked as "official" or "standard" in some way, or else to what is now more commonly called a "jargon."2

Now here's the thing about Michif that troubles this commonly accepted set of definitions. Although it is certainly a combination of Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and french, it is not a contact language. A contact language is one used between two groups with very different, or at least plain different, languages. But originally and to this day, Michif is an in-group language: it was not used with outsiders at all, and its speakers were and are consciously members of the same community, with a shared history and culture. It seems to be creole-like, but its origins are apparently quite different. If nothing else, this is an excellent warning not to underestimate human linguistic creativity. For linguists like Peter Bakker, this is less of a puzzle per se because he is focussed on accurate description and trying to understand the actual circumstances of Michif's development.3 Reading his book on Michif, he sounds far more puzzled that Michif developed in a region where the fur trade was not important, which probably reflects his understandable expectation that all the same, Michif should be a contact language produced via interactions in the course of teh fur trade.

The more Bakker looked into Michif, the more surprises he found. For instance, he had to take care about what the language speakers meant by "Michif" in their specific communities. In northern saskatchewan, the Métis community of Île à la Crosse and the surrounding area has its own Michif, but it is a Cree dialect with a few borrowed french words. People who speak both french and Cree fluently in this area handle the combination of those languages quite differently from the Michif of the southern areas of Métis territory.4 So what is happening is that the language name the community uses is based on who speaks the language, and that logic may not match the expectations of outsiders. Île à la Crosse Michif is not simplified with respect to its Cree grammar, either. If Bakker had gone further west and surveyed Métis communities such as Lac Ste. Anne, he would have learned that in that area, Métis speak Plains Cree.

Turning back to Michif of southern saskatchewan, manitoba, and north dakota, which I'll call Red River Michif, Bakker found that the usual description of "Plains Cree plus French" was far too simple. Instead he found that yes, the nouns were mostly from french, with a few from english. The rest of the nouns come from Saulteaux.5 The Cree verb system in Michif matches up with what might be expected (range of words, how they are marked for number and so forth), yet the Cree words don't match what is often treated as "standard" Plains Cree. Bakker traced the specific dialect strand to the south and east, corresponding nicely with the one area where Métis and Plains Cree linguistic territory definitely overlap, the Qu'Appelle Valley.6 The french wasn't standard french or québec french7 either, but a dialect of prairie french now specifically identified with Métis speakers. It isn't too different from québec french, with changes mostly to meanings of specific words and perhaps a few more words borrowed from Cree and Saulteaux.8 In other words, there is not much, if any, real grammatical simplification evident in Red River Michif.

Reasonably enough, Bakker then turned to history in an effort to triangulate Red River Michif's origins. He found that the earliest clear written note of the language dated to 1875.9 After further consideration of the ages of the oldest living speakers at the time of his study and their memories of who did and didn't speak Red River Michif in their families, he concluded that its origins must go back to at least the 1820s, if not the early 1800s.10 So he has sorted out a most likely time of origin, and determined that place is most likely the Qu'Appelle valley region. Bakker then began to wrestle with the question of how, in light of Métis typically being bilingual, serving as intepreters, and freely mixing languages in the early 1800s.11 Understandably, this isn't a question Bakker manages to fully answer with the fur trade still at the centre of his exploration of the question. He does emphasize the likely importance of the bison hunt, especially since Red River Michif is spoken throughout the area where Métis bison hunted in the first place, and the present-day villages can be connected via the hunt. Yet Métis were and are busy traders, and it is a cultural practice of ours to move around the lands we have an ongoing relationship with. This isn't just tied to the bison hunt, and couldn't be, or we wouldn't still have those relationships now.

I am inclined to stand back a little and take a different perspective. Red River Michif was and is, an in group language – in other words, an independent language, rather than an auxiliary. In its earliest days, Métis multilingualism was a commonplace, and the shared language across the northern plains was Plains Cree. There was no need for Red River Michif as a means to make Métis intelligible among themselves or with others. So it seems to me that Métis developed it as an expression of their distinctness, and probably also for those times when they wanted to talk and not be understood by non-Métis, something that might have been needed for a whole range of reasons. Red River Michif may be best described as a Cree dialect that has developed on its own into an independent language, just as eventually the various dialects of latin ceased to be latin and became the range of continental european languages many of us have already heard of. The original developers of Red River Michif to my mind must fundamentally have been Métis women and children. They would be on the pointy end of social prejudice from white people, and may have found having a language that whites could not understand an important source of strength and resistance to that prejudice. On the more positive side, Métis traders and hunters didn't travel alone but in communities, and in the 19th century on the northern plains, that often meant travelling for long periods without regularly communicating with others, Indigenous or not. This would also encourage the development of Red River Michif.

Today the key challenge for Red River Michif is to overcome the destructive drives of colonial americans and canadians, who like to rationalize their hostility to it and any other language besides english as, "For the good of the children. They'll be more successful if they only speak english." In reality, Indigenous children and adults are more successful when they are able to fluently speak the languages of their own communities and english and/or french. Michif language courses are available at Turtle Mountain in north dakota, and there is a series of children's books and classes in development mainly in saskatchewan by the Gabriel Dumont Institute and affiliates. It remains to be seen what will happen next, whether Michif will make it, or if it may end up being reincarnated so to speak via the development of Plains Cree as spoken by the Métis communities in central and southern alberta.

  1. For those wanting a clear description, the Méis Nation is an ongoing community that has developed post-european invasion on the northern plains of north america. Its cultural and political centre is at Red River, now misnamed Winnipeg, in Manitoba.
  2. The notion of a standardized version of a language is frustrating, because it is such a sensible and useful idea that can go so horribly wrong. We have all benefited from widespread agreement on a standard written form of the languages we read for example, and unusual vocabulary and the like are less likely to be excised than glossed in a non-stigmatizing way. Yet when it comes to the spoken language, standardization is impossible, yet instead of focussing on whether we can understand one another when we need to, differences of vocabulary and accent have been designated markers of social status.
  3. The more detailed information on Michif in this article is drawn from "A Langugae of Our Own": The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed French-Cree Language of the Canadian Métis by Peter Bakker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). The linguistic information in the book is excellent, but it is important to bear in mind that it was published in 1997, so the socio-cultural information is dated in some important areas.

    As the subtitle shows, Métis Nation members are referred to as "canadian" which makes no sense, especially because the language is spoken by Métis living on both sides of the present 49th parallel, and we are citizens of our nation, not canada or the united states. Bakker also repeats what are now acknowledged inaccurate racialized descriptions of what being Métis means.

  4. Bakker, pages 118-119.
  5. Bakker, pages 146, 263.
  6. Bakker, pages 45, 146.
  7. Québec french has its primary origins in dialects in the normandy region of france.
  8. Bakker, pages 251-253.
  9. Bakker, page 163.
  10. Bakker, pages 166-168.
  11. Bakker, page 164.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 01:28:14 MDT