2017: pawâcakinisîsipîsim / ᐸᐚᒐᑭᓂᓰᓯᐲᓯᒼ / December

2017calendar-corrected_page_12Thanks to Solomon Ratt for allowing the Cree Literacy Network to share his 2017 calendar, complete with his own original illustrations. Following his request, we will post one image at the beginning of each month. For those who like to plan a little further in advance, a link to complete pdfs is included here:
Y- and Th-Dialect Version: http://creeliteracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/2017CalendarCorrected_Whole.pdf
N- and Th-Dialect Version: http://creeliteracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/2017CalendarN.pdf

NEW Calendar for 2018:


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Who knew Santa was a Hoop Dancer?

James Jones gives a new definition to “lively and quick” in this epic hoop dance that Cathy Wheaton recently shared on Facebook. He’s dancing to Moccasin Burner by Northern Cree, but his moves are flashier than the lights on that Christmas tree!
Hoka ho ho ho! (Shared here with permission: hay hay, James!)

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New project funded: The Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak

Congratulations to elder William Dumas and his many collaborators for inspiring a whole collection of books to accompany the  award-winning book, Pîsim Finds her Miskanow.

Thanks to Robert Falcon Ouellette (Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre, and dedicated Cree language learner) for sharing his interview with Mavis Reimer of the University of Winnipeg. Robert writes:

In 1993, the remains of a 25 year old Cree woman were found. She had lived 350 years ago near South Indian Lake [opiponipîwin]. The community lead archaeological research resulted in Elder William Dumas writing an award winning book, Pisim Finds Her Miskanow. This also led to working with Dr Reimer from The University of Winnipeg to create a research project with the goals of reclaiming Rocky Cree language history and culture. This is an interview with Dr Reimer about the community based research and partnerships that she has formed to ensure that knowledge moves beyond the academia to impacting community. Six Seasons research project is receiving $2.5M over 7 years to make this research possible. Only 15 projects were accepted for funding in this very competitive category of SSHRC. I was happy to be a part of making the announcement of funding today but also to hear directly from Dr Reimer on what work she will be doing in partnership.

The University of Winnipeg issued a press release and backgrounder – which you can view here as pdfs. Undergraduate students should watch out for Research Assistant opportunities in the coming year!

PR-2017-11-01 Six Seasons Rocky Cree
BG – Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak Final

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Eight Great Ways to Help Yourself Learn Cree: Solomon Ratt (y-dialect, audio)

Updated: Now *Twelve* Great ways! (January 2018)

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If you’d like to download all eight images at once for printing, click here for the pdf.

Click here for a prayer to help with Step 5.

Click the audio link to listen and read along:

8 kiskisiwina ta-ati-nihtâ-nihithowîyahk8 ᑭᐢᑭᓯᐏᓇ ᑕ ᐊᑎ ᓂᐦᑖ   ᓂᐦᐃᖪᐑᔭᕽ 8 memory aids for us to begin speaking Cree
1. sîhkimitok ta-nêhiyawêmototawitoyêk. ᓰᐦᑭᒥᑐᐠ ᑕ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᒧᑐᑕᐏᑐᔦᐠ᙮Encourage each other to speak Cree to each other.
2. miskawik iyiniwak kâ-nêhiyawêcik êkwa sîhkimik ta-nêhiyawêmototawiskik.ᒥᐢᑲᐏᐠ ᐃᔨᓂᐘᐠ ᑳ   ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᒋᐠ ᐁᑿ ᓰᐦᑭᒥᐠ ᑕ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᒧᑐᑕᐏᐢ᙮Find people who speak Cree and ask them to speak Cree to you.
3. âpacihtâ itwêwina masinahikan ta-kiskinawâcihtâyan kitâpacihcikana kîkihk.ᐋᐸᒋᐦᑖ ᐃᑘᐏᓇ ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐃᑲᐣ ᑕ   ᑭᐢᑭᓇᐚᒋᐦᑖᔭᐣ ᑭᑖᐸᒋᐦᒋᑲᓇ ᑮᑭᕽ᙮Use the dictionary to label all the belongings in your home.
4. natohtamok nêhiyawê-nikamona êkwa nêhiyawê-âcimowina.ᓇᑐᐦᑕᒧᐠ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍ   ᓂᑲᒧᓇ ᐁᑿ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍ   ᐋᒋᒧᐏᓇ ᙮Listen to Cree songs and Cree stories.
5. miska nêhiyawê-kâkîsimowin êkwa kâkîsimo tahto-kîsikâw.ᒥᐢᑲ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍ   ᑳᑮᓯᒧᐏᐣ ᐁᑿ ᑳᑮᓯᒧ ᑕᐦᑐ   ᑮᓯᑳᐤ ᙮Find a Cree prayer and pray every day.
6. kwayâtastamâso kanakê pêyak kîsikâw ita kapê ta-nêhiyawêyan.ᑿᔮᑕᐢᑕᒫᓱ ᑲᓇᑫ ᐯᔭᐠ ᑮᓯᑳᐤ ᐃᑕ ᑲᐯ ᑕ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᔭᐣ ᙮Set aside at least one day where you always speak Cree.
7. nêhiyaw-masinahikê ispî masinahikêpicikêyani.ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ   ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫ ᐃᐢᐲ ᒪᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫᐱᒋᑫᔭᓂ ᙮Write in Cree when texting.
8. âhkamêyimok: êkâwiya pakicêk!ᐋᐦᑲᒣᔨᒧᐠ: ᐁᑳᐏᔭ ᐸᑭᒉᐠ!Persevere! Don’t give up!
9. âhkami nêhiyawêtân: kipîkiskwêwininak astêw kinisitohtamowininaw.ᐋᐦᑲᒥ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᑕᐣ: ᑭᐲᑭᐢᑵᐏᓂᓇᐠ ᐊᐢᑌᐤ ᑭᓂᓯᑐᐦᑕᒧᐏᓂᓇᐤ᙮Let's keep on speaking Cree! In our language lies our understanding.
10. âhkami nêhiyawêtân: kipîkiskwêwininak astêw kinisitawêyimitowininaw.ᐋᐦᑲᒥ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᑕᐣ: ᑭᐲᑭᐢᑵᐏᓂᓇᐠ ᐊᐢᑌᐤ ᑭᓂᓯᑐᐍᔨᒥᑐᐏᓂᓇᐤ᙮Let's keep on speaking Cree! In our language lies that which defines us.
11. âhkami nêhiyawêtân: kipîkiskwêwininak astêw kipimâtisiwininaw.ᐋᐦᑲᒥ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᑕᐣ: ᑭᐲᑭᐢᑵᐏᓂᓇᐠ ᐊᐢᑌᐤ ᑭᐱᒫᑎᓯᐏᓂᓇᐤ᙮Let's keep on speaking Cree! In our language lies our life.
12. âhkami nêhiyawêtân: kipîkiskwêwininak astêw kinêhiyawâtisiwininaw.ᐋᐦᑲᒥ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᑕᐣ: ᑭᐲᑭᐢᑵᐏᓂᓇᐠ ᐊᐢᑌᐤ ᑭᓀᐃᔭᐚᑎᓯᐏᓂᓇᐤ᙮Let's keep on speaking Cree! In our language lies our Cree traditions.



8 kiskisiwina ta
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From “A Framework for Indigenous Language Legislation”

As Solomon Ratt observes, the original is written entirely in the language of ‘omânitêwak’ (visitors, that is, English), so he’s remedying that by translating the six recommendations into th-dialect here. Listen and learn!

Here’s a link to the original document prepared by First People’s Cultural Council:


ôta ohci ôma “kiskinwahihtâsowin ohci ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin.”From “A Framework for Indigenous Language Legislation”
ikos kâ-isi-masinahamahk kiskinwahihtâsowin ispimihk ôta ohci, nikotwâsik anihi kîkwaya ta-pisiskîthihcikâtîki osîhtâniwiki ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin. iyakoni ôho ôta masinahikâtîwa ikwa mîna nipakosîthimowinâna:As we outline in the above framework, there are six areas which must be encompasses within the proposed Indigenous language legislation. These areas along with our recommendations are:
kâwi ta-otinikâtîki, kihtwâm ta-ohpikihkâtîki, îkwa kâpî ta-pamihcikâtîkiReclamation, revitalization, and maintenance
nisihkimonân ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin ta-nisitawîthihtamahk kâwi ta-otinamahk ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina, kihtwâm ta-ohpikihtâyahk ithiniw pîkiskwîwina, ikwa kita-ahkami-pîkiskwîyahk ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina, kahkithaw ithiniwak ohci ôta Canada.We recommend that Indigenous language legislation recognize the need for reclamation, revitalization and maintenance for all Indigenous languages of Canada.
ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina kiskinwahamâtowinIndigenous Language education
nisihkimonân ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin ta-ayâsîtât ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina mîthikosiwin mîna ta-takonamahk ithiniw-kiskinwahamâtowin.We recommend that Indigenous language legislation affirm Indigenous language rights including the right to language education.
nisihkimonân ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina ta-nistam-astîki kitaskînahk Cananda mîna ta-otasiwâniwik ta-wîcihitonânowik ihtâwinihk ôma nisitawinamâkîwin.We recommend the national recognition of the Indigenous languages of Canada as the first languages of this land with provision for local implementation of this recognition.
kâ-isi-pimipathihcikâtîk ikwa ka-wîcihitonânowikInfrastructure and capacity building
nisihkimonân ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin ta-nâkatîthicikâtîk kâ-isi-pimipathihcikâtîk ikwa ta-wîcihihonânowik ta-maskawâk pakosîthimowin ôma ohci othasowîwin.We recommend that indigenous language legislation regulate the establishment of infrastructure to support capacity-building and successful implementation of the legislation’s key objectives.
kîhcinâc ka-wîcîhitonânowinGuaranteed Support
nisihkimonân othasowîwin ta-othasiwânowik kîhcinâc sôniyâw kapî ta-ihtakot ta-wîcihihonânowik ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina othasowîwin ka-nisitawîthihtamahk, kâwi ta-otinikâtîk ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina, kihtwâm ta-ohpikihkâtîk ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina, ikwa kita-ahkimi-pîkiskwîyahk ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina.We recommend that legislation mandate guaranteed, permanent and sustainable funding for Indigenous language reclamation, revitalization and maintenance.
ithiniw nîkânastamâkîwin ikwa tipîthihtamowinIndigenous leadership and control
nisihkimonân othasowîwin ta-wihtamamât ithiniwa ta-nîkânastamâkîcik ikwa ta-tipîthihtahkwâw kahkithaw ithiniw-pîkiskwîwina atoskîwina.We recommend that legislation declare Indigenous leadership and control of Indigenous language initiatives.
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Typing Syllabics on your Computer: Installing what you need via LanguageGeek

Finding fonts and keyboards to type syllabics is an issue that many people struggle with. Here’s a first try at presenting and explaining what is needed and why. It would be great if someone would volunteer to be a guinea pig (guinea Ratt?) and follow these instructions, to help me see where further clarification is needed! This is fairly technical stuff, so it demands some patience and persistence. But patience and persistence are Cree specialties, right? (Hey! Should I mention that I’m available to help with this in person if anyone wants to hire me!) 

Chris Harvey – who calls himself a Language Geek – has been a friend of the Cree Literacy Network for many years, since his grad work in Linguistics at the University of Manitoba. His Language Geek website is a terrific resource that provides free tools for many languages, including the fonts and keyboards we use for writing Cree in syllabics.

As Chris explains, you need to choose two items to proceed: a Unicode Font and a Keyboard Layout. Here are the choices recommended by the Cree Literacy Network for writing in y-, th-, n- or l-dialects.

  1. Unicode font: Aboriginal Sans Serif 
    1. Cree Literacy Network prefers Aboriginal Sans Serif for two reasons:
      1. Not all fonts are created equal. Pre-Unicode fonts look good on your own computer, but when you put them in email or on Facebook, they appear as random characters. Unicode is an international encoding standard for use with different scripts, where each letter, digit, or symbol is assigned a unique numeric value that applies across different platforms and programs. You need to be sure the fonts you choose are Unicode compliant. Aboriginal Sans Serif is unicode compliant.
      2. Unicode provides unique codes for all possible characters, but some Unicode fonts omit some characters. When a Unicode font is missing characters you need, you will see empty boxes where your characters should be. Aboriginal Sans Serif includes all the characters needed for Cree (in y-, th, l, and n-dialects).
  2. Keyboard Layout: Nēhiyāwēwin-Ininīmōwin-Ililīmōwin (Cree).   
    1. “Keyboard Layout” software controls what shows up on screen when you type.
    2. Most computers use Canadian or American English keyboards by default. To type syllabics, you must install a syllabic keyboard layout. Various keyboard layouts work side by side on your computer: you must choose which one you need as you need it.
      1. On a Canadian or American english keyboard, typing the keys QWERTY gives you the letters qwerty.
      2. On a Cree syllabic keyboard, typing the keys QWERTY gives you various syllabic characters, depending on the typing style you choose.
    3. Choose your typing style: One-Key or Build-a-Syllable 
      1. One-key gives one character for each keystroke, either full syllabic: like ᒧ,ᔦ, and ᒐ, or a final: like ᐤ, ᐨ, or ᐦ. Combining symbols, e.g. the mid-dot ᐧ, are typed separately.
        1. This system works best for proficient readers and writers of syllabics.
        2. Click here to see a map of the one-key keyboard: http://www.languagegeek.com/keymaps/pmwiki.php/Main/Crk-cwd
        3. Some people print out this keyboard map on stickers, and attach stickers on top of your existing keyboard to show them which keys to type.
      2. Build-a-syllable. These keyboards have you type consonants and vowels separately. To type ᐃ, simply use the ‘i’ key. To get ᑫ,  type ‘k’ + ‘e’. More information on these can be found in each keyboard’s keymap pdf.
        1. This is the system preferred by the Cree Literacy Network, because typing in SRO (with a few modifications) produces syllabics onscreen.
        2. Click here to see a map of the build-a-syllable keyboard:  http://www.languagegeek.com/algon/syllabics_keyboards/2010keymaps/CreeWestern.pdf
    4. If you’re not sure which typing style you might prefer, it’s just as easy to  install both and see which works best for you.
  3. Now you know which font and keyboards to choose, you are ready to follow the LanguageGeek Font and Keyboard Installation Tutorial: 
    1. For Windows Computers
      1.  http://www.languagegeek.com/faq/tutorial.html
    2. For Mac Computers
      1. http://www.languagegeek.com/keyboard_general/MacNoPkgInst.html
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A Sweet Day for Literacy in Cree: Rosanna Deerchild, Calling Down the Sky

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The launch of Rosanna Deerchild’s Cree-language edition of Calling Down the Sky on Sunday, 29 November 2017 at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg was poignant and sweet. The photos here – most from Rosanna’s Facebook Feed – capture the best of the event, where a small group of Cree speakers assembled to demonstrate their hard-won command of the Cree language despite a century of colonial interference.

The guest readers included Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas from Pukatawagan, University of Manitoba Master’s student Janice Bone from Pimicikamak, and Cree Literacy Network board member and university professor Ken Paupanekis from Norway House, each one a living testament to resistence and resiliency.

Rosanna – deprived of her birthright language through her mother’s residential school traumas – also read a poem in the translation provided by First Nations University professor Solomon Ratt, while encouraging non-speakers to reflect on the experience of listening without understanding that Residential School students were forced to endure.

Ken Paupanekis – who teaches for both the University of Manitoba and at University College of the North commented on the difficulty that reading presented for each of the speakers: Learning to read and write Cree is a separate skill that none of the speakers acquired in childhood, and few fluent Cree speakers have ever had the opportunity to learn.

Learn more about the book here:

î-nitotamahk kîsik: Rosanna Deerchild translated by Solomon Ratt

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2017 Language Keepers Conference – SICC

For full program information: http://www.sicc.sk.ca/2017-sicc-first-nations-039;-language-keepers-conference-.html

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Harold Johnson in North Battleford: 10 November 2017

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If you’re around North Battleford on 10 November 2017, don’t miss the chance to meet Harold Johnson at the Gog (1392-105th St North Battleford). Harold is the best-selling author of Firewater and of Two Families (as well as several works of fiction). His provocative insights are not to be missed. Master of Ceremonies Ray Fox; entertainment by Ross Paskemin, traditional Cree singer; Prayers by Wes Fineday, knowledge keeper. (Event organized by Dr David MacKinnon).

Admission $20. Doors open at 6:30.

Click to listen to Harold speak about Firewater with Shelagh Rogers in a CBC interview from 30 January 2017. 

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Indigenous Mapping Workshop 2017: Supporting Cree as a 21st Century Language

Slides and text follow of a presentation given by Arden Ogg at the Indigenous Mapping Workshop 2017hosted in Winnipeg by Google Earth Outreach, Firelight Group and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation (2 November 2017)
The work I’m presenting today is a map of Cree language place names that is very much a work in progress. I hope perhaps you’ll take a chance to explore it a bit for yourself as I speak. There’s a short link to the map in the PowerPoint footer that you can use: http://goo.gl/AZVyhZ

I learned an important lesson one time about the nêhiyaw view of technology from the late elder Smith Atimoyoo. Smith founded the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre in 1970. I visited there for the first time in the mid-80s. Anyway, there was Smith, a deeply respected traditional knowledge keeper, with a tipi set up indoors – for some educational purpose, I guess. When he discovered he was missing the pegs that hold the canvas together around the door, he went rummaging through every desk in the office, until he found himself a complete set of coloured markers. And that’s what he used to pin the tipi together, all rainbow-like. I wish I’d had a camera.

I remember thinking, “That’s certainly not traditional.” But in that same moment, he grinned at me and said, “We Cree people are never stuck!”

So whenever I hear people arguing against technology in the service of cultural survival, I think of Smith Atimoyoo who was living proof of the resiliency of Cree language and culture. Even as he dedicated his life to preserving Cree cultural tradition, he was never afraid to embrace innovation that could help him get the job done.

And I hope that’s what this map and Cree Literacy Network project are doing, too: embracing technology in a way that helps promote a sense of community and connection between speakers of the many varieties of Cree that are found across most of Canada.
Here’s a quick first look at the map – created with Google My Maps. It shows the Cree Names of Cree-speaking communities that stretch from Moberly Lake in British Columbia all the way over to Labrador in the East, and from the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, all around James Bay, and up into the Northwest Territories.

The different coloured points on this map refer to the dialect of Cree spoken in each community. In some cases, those labels are guesses. Sorting all of this out is yet another work in progress, since there has never been a thorough survey of Cree dialects.

One thing you may notice is that the map has two layers. They are built with identical data. This allows users to choose their preferred spelling system. The image on the left shows Standard Roman Orthography (or SRO). The one on the right is Cree syllabics, which is still the preference of many Cree communities.

SRO is the spelling system preferred by the Cree Literacy Network because it’s based on the phonology or internal sound system of the language. Compared to English, which might have as many as eight different ways to write an individual sound, SRO is relatively simple, once you learn the basics, since each letter sounds the same way every time. SRO is also the spelling system that is taught in Cree language classes at all of the western universities, and in many Alberta and Saskatchewan Schools. (I’ll talk a it about Eastern dialects later on.)

Whichever set of labels you choose for viewing the map, when you click on a pin point, you open a data window (on the left side of the screen). And that data table includes all the information I’ve collected: the current official place name, the name spelled in SRO and in syllabics, a translation of what the name means, and the source of the information, and sometimes alternate names, or further comments.

In contrast to our Google maps, this map shows – somewhat roughly - the various Cree dialect areas across Canada. I hope you’ll be able to see some correspondence between it and the clusters of coloured pins on my map.

One thing that’s not well known about the Cree language is that it really isn’t just one language or even one family of dialects. It’s really a whole continuum of languages. And that makes things confusing. For linguists, the test of whether something is a dialect or a language is whether speakers can understand each other. On the western side, generally, speakers of Swampy and Woodlands and Plains and even Moose Cree can understand each other pretty well. And in ordinary conversation they will likely identify their language as “Cree”.

Similarly on the East side (dividing roughly at the Ontario/Quebec border) – the story is really about the same. So if you ask speakers of Northern and Southern “East Cree” (which is also called Innu), or speakers of Attikamekw and Naskapi what language they speak, they will also, in ordinary conversation, most often refer to their language as “Cree”.

But the group in the East and the group in the West are different enough that they can’t understand each other. And this is why linguists consider them to be different languages, even though they might all be referred simply as “Cree”.

((And I’d just like to comment here that as a speaker of English, I’m really glad nobody asks me what the technical name of my dialect is – because I don’t have a clue!))

In case you’re curious about how many speakers there are of each dialect, here’s an explanatory comment from the 2011 census that makes it all clear as mud:

What we see here is what happens when questions are badly designed – and also what happens when you record several different kinds of data in the same field. It is impossible to get meaningful information about numbers of Cree speakers in Canada census data.

That said, the work of the Cree Literacy Network focuses primarily on the Western dialects, primarily Plains Cree, or nêhiyawêwin (also referred to as the y-dialect). There is also standard spelling for the Eastern dialects, but it follows patterns of its own, and there are quite a number of language advocacy organizations that support those languages.

At the Cree Literacy Network, the most important technology we promote – believe it or not – is standard spelling for Cree. It’s sort of amusing to say that in a room full of high tech equipment and power users like yourselves. But fully fluent speakers of Cree these days are special and rare. And many of the speakers who have maintained their language have done so in a society that has tried again and again to beat it right out of them, sometimes literally.

So standard spelling is a tough sell. Sometimes people say that “Cree is an oral language” – which kind of lets them spell any way they like. I think of this kind of writing like Alphabet Soup, because it’s usually just as hard to read!

Spelling may never be as sexy as maps, but it’s important to remember that spelling is technology too. If we can’t read and write, high tech barely lets us in through the front door! Sometimes people argue that their “unique” spelling of Cree is preserving the things that distinguish their dialect from others, a little like the secret ingredient in kohkom’s bannock. But the whole purpose of writing is for somebody else to be able to read what is written. And the more “unique” your spelling is, the harder it is to read – for themselves, and for the children they train in school – to use the materials that are created in other communities. Even when the language spoken is exactly the same.

As long as Cree speakers make up fresh spelling every time they sit down to write their language, the technologies that should be helping them are defeated. And that’s a tremendous loss to the communities and to speakers and learners who deserve all the help they can get.

Another fairly common comment that I hear is that using syllabics will take care of everything. But fluent speakers who read and write syllabics leave out a lot of the details that struggling language learners really need. Handled badly, syllabics can be just another form of Alphabet Soup. Learning to read and write in syllabics – like learning any other form of reading or writing - also depends on a certain amount of teaching.

As an aside – you might like to know that syllabics spread across the prairies like wildfire back in the 1850s. When the first syllabic books were printed, Cree people began teaching other to read using the tables printed at the front of bibles and hymnals. There was a time in Canada when there were more people fluent in Cree than there were literate people in all of Ireland. But that was before Residential Schools.  

At the Cree Literacy Network, we treat syllabics and standard roman spelling as two sides of the same coin. When you spell well in one system, we can use computer tools to create the other, and that’s a big advantage for accuracy.

In a recent FaceBook discussion, Cree speakers from many different communities presented at least 10 different spellings for hay-hay - the same simple form for thank you. And you could write it just as many different ways in syllabics! Twenty different spellings of the same word! To me, this is a good example of how to promote confusion.
In a study of Cree place names in the Moose River Basin that I’ve been working on, I found at least six different spellings of the word wâpos meaning rabbit naming different lakes and rivers. When the same word gets written six different ways, it hides what they have in common. It hides the picture of a broader community and connected identity. It breaks down the enormous community of Cree people into tiny, separate cells.

It kind of makes me think of the way Sir John A MacDonald laid out the reserves of Treaty 6, and how he used the Pass system to enforce the separation.

We might even argue that made-up spelling undermines the Cree claim to territory – where standard spelling might actually help support it.

But this is not a land claims map!

The vision I’m presenting to you is not my own, and it isn’t new. Nor is it from outside of Cree culture (as people sometimes claim). The vision of Cree language that the Cree Literacy Network pursues follows the lead of the late Dr Freda Ahenakew. Freda’s work followed that of the late Ida McLeod, and they both followed the work of Freda’s great uncle, the Reverend Canon Edward Ahenakew who wrote Cree language newsletters, and worked with linguists in the 1920s to create the Watkins Faries Cree Dictionary.
So the ideas aren’t mine, but promoting them seems to be what Manitoba elder William Dumas might call my mêskanaw – my path. The late Freda Ahenakew once told me it’s what I’m meant to do.

So here I am, badgering all of you about reading and writing in Cree. Because very few fluent speakers of Cree have ever been given a chance to learn to read and write. Some people expect it to come naturally to them as speakers, but for every language on earth, reading and writing are skills that need to be taught. So one of the purposes of the Cree Literacy Network is to assemble and distribute resources that might enable people to learn to read and write on their own.

SRO is also the standard that is being taught in University Cree language classes in Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton by fully fluent first language speakers like my Cree Literacy Network colleagues: Jean Okimâsis, Solomon Ratt, Dorothy Thunder, Ken Paupanekis, Cynthia Cook, Dolores Sand and others. Each one is a a First-language speaker of Cree, and a modern Language Warrior. Imagine the great work they could do if the students who came into their classes were already fluent readers!

The thing is, standard spelling offers the same advantages for Cree that it did for English when the first English dictionary was published 500 years ago. When a community comes to agree on spelling:
Speakers can become a fluent readers when the words look the same way every time
Reading theory tells us that fluent readers understand more of what they read

It works for English. The thing about English, though, is that we’ve had 500 years to get used to it. Everybody hates English spelling, but we keep using it. Because it works. Sadly, Cree hasn’t got 500 years to wait!

And maybe the single biggest benefit of sharing a single spelling system:
Speakers of different dialects can read and understand the same books
Knowing standard spelling means you’ve got all the tools you need to read every book in the library (including the dictionaries and reference books that will help you move on to more sophisticated ideas)

Here are some of those books – dictionaries, language texts, and books of transcribed oral history and general wisdom from Cree elders, told in their own words and published in editions where the Cree and English are laid out side-by-side to help support language learners.

Some communities that speak different dialects resist books like these – again, often believing they’re protecting their own dialect - but let’s stop to imagine what the nearest public library would look like if all the books in other English dialects were excluded!

While these covers are scrolling – let’s visualize a library of English books in our home community. Only all the Australian books have been eliminated. And All the American books, and all the British books. And all the books from other communities except our own. The shelves look pretty bare!

Now let's ask ourselves: Which is better? To go without books, or to learn whatever we can from all the books - no matter what dialect?

Which finally brings me to Article 13 of the UN Declaration. How can a map like this one strengthen Cree identity – and Cree literacy - in the 21st century?
1. First of all, this map brings together many smaller pieces and builds them into a much bigger picture.
2. This map becomes a home where this information can be maintained (through the Cree Literacy Network)
3. Many Cree communities have already re-introduced their own Cree names. Perhaps this collection will help other communities to take similar steps in de-colonization.
4. This map is a graphic reminder for Cree people of how wide-spread their cultural community really is in Canada. (I like to think this would make Sir John A roll over in his grave).
5. Learning the Cree names of their home communities or those of their ancestors is a matter of pride for Cree people generally, but especially for language learners.
6. Using the same spelling systems to record the names makes connections easier to see: What they have in common is far more important than details that keep them apart. When similar names show up, it is easier to see the connection between them, and that’s empowering.
7. This map can help users to build reading and writing skills as they compare community names, and SRO versus syllabic spellings.
8. This map teaches some basic vocabulary because Cree place names are typically reflections of the natural environment. Even casual users will quickly learn words such as sîpiy for river, or sâkahikan for lake.
9. Google maps are fun to work with, and easy to share. It’s a great thrill for me when people write in or send photos to add to their home community, but it also pleases people to see their own contributions become part of something bigger as well.

Over the years, I’ve heard beloved elders in language meetings argue with the best of intentions that kids in immersion programs don’t need words for bathrooms and light switches and Halloween costumes because those things aren’t traditional. I know their intentions come from a genuine desire to preserve and protect their language. I honour the struggle this has represented for each one of them. But it seems unfair to me to ask little kids to function in a 21st century world without words for 21st century necessities. And we need to remember, too, that the Internet, and Google have become 21st century necessities that kids need basic skills to use.
And I think of Smith Atimoyoo and the coloured markers. And I think of the late Freda Ahenakew who worked so hard to create resources for her own grandchildren, and for everyone else’s grandchilden, too. I think of the teachers who guided her, going back 100 years. I believe these ancestors of ours would be proud to see Cree people embracing the new technologies to help support language and identity, and to help support one another. These ancestors are the visionaries that the Cree Literacy Network tries to honour, by bringing their work – and the Cree language with it – into the 21st century.

Posted in Identity, Place Names | 4 Comments