About all those Cousins – Arok Wolvengrey

The cousin terminology of Cree is confusing to many – because it is so different from “cousin” in English. Here is, hopefully, a brief yet useful explanation. It’s important to remember that there are separate charts for male and female speakers, since the terminology changes depending on whether a man or a woman is speaking! Click here to download a 3-page pdf that includes the following description, plus both charts.  A fuller description of the relationships follows the charts. 

This chart is for female speakers:

For Female Speakers

This chart is for male speakers:

This chart is for male speakers describing their cousins.

First:
We have siblings – our brothers and sisters. In English, we use the term brother for our male siblings, regardless of age. So my older brother Hal is “my brother”, but my younger brother Marlow is also “my brother”. In Cree, however, more distinctions are marked, because I have to be specific. Hal is nistês (my older brother) and Marlow is nisîm (or nisîmis) (my younger sibling). It’s the same for sisters. Dolores is nimis (my older sister) and Nancy is nisîm (or nisîmis) (my younger sibling). Note, I differentiate older sblings by gender, but not the younger siblings – younger brothers and sisters are both called nisîm (or nisîmis).

Second:
We have cousins – the children of our parents’ siblings. In English, we use the term cousins regardless of age, gender or which side of the family they come from. They are all cousins. Again, in Cree, far more important distinctions are made. First of all, there is a very important distinction made between “parallel-cousins” and “cross-cousins”.

Parallel-cousins are the children of your father’s brother or of your mother’s sister. They are called “parallel” because of the same gender of your father and his brother (male) or of your mother and her sister (female). They are of parallel gender. In Cree, you can use different terms for your parallel-cousins (such as the man’s term niciwâm “my male parallel-cousin” or the woman’s term niciwâmiskwêm “my female parallel-cousin”. But you can also use the same terms as you would use for your siblings. In Cree, your siblings and your parallel cousins are treated the same. In English, siblings and parallel cousins are not treated the same.

In contrast to parallel-cousins, there are also cross-cousins.
Cross-cousins are the children of your father’s sister or your mother’s brother. They are “cross” cousins because of the opposite gender of your father (male) and his sister (female) or of your mother (female) and her brother (male). They are of opposite or cross gender. In Cree, your cross-cousins are never treated the same as your siblings or parallel-cousins. This is a very important difference. The terms for your cross-cousins are specific to the gender of both cousins. A man calls his male cross-cousin nîstâw (or nîscâs). A woman calls her female cross-cousin nicâhkos. The key term is a term that both men and women use, but which means different things for each. The term is nîtim. When a man says nîtim, he means “my female cross-cousin”. When a woman says nîtim, she means “my male cross-cousin”. So, the term nîtim means “my cross-cousin of the opposite gender to me”. I am male, so I can only call my female cross-cousin “nîtim” and reciprocally she would call me “nîtim”. The cross-cousin relationship is important, because traditionally cross-cousins of the opposite gender (those who call each other nîtim) were permitted to marry. Parallel-cousins were never allowed to marry. Parallel-cousins are like siblings. Cross-cousins are not siblings. This is not a distinction that English makes at all.

I will post a couple of kinship charts in the file section of this page which show the terms.

About Arden Ogg

Arden Ogg is Director of the Cree Literacy Network, a not-for-profit-in-the-making with the goal of creating Cree language literacy materials suitable for use by learners of all ages.
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