Another version of Cree Literacy: The Cree story of Syllabics

The role of James Evans in the creation and popularization of syllabics is described in dozens of articles that show up in a Google search. One particularly attractive one was published in June 2020 via CBC:

I don’t believe any of them name his Cree collaborators in Norway House, such as the many-times-great-grandfather of our friend and colleague, Ken Paupanekis, who was a member of Evans’s congregation at Norway House in the 1840s. Paupanekis family history recalls a respectful collaboration and cooperation between Evans’s and that ancestor. Perhaps one day Ken will share more of that important family story.

For many Cree people, Evans deserves credit not as the inventor of the script, but rather as its popularizer. In the same way that the printing press helped spread European literacy, Evans’s translation and printing of the scriptures in Cree had a substantial hand in helping to spread Cree literacy. And it spread like wildfire in its first ten years, as Cree people rapidly taught each other to read and write.

Some people believe the origin of the writing system is uniquely Cree, a gift of the Creator long before Evans arrived on the scene. Here is one version of the story, told by Winona [Wheeler] Stevenson.

Winona [Wheeler] Stevenson – Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, 19/20 (1999-2000), pp. 19-24.

7 Responses

  1. I researched the origins and evolution of syllabic characters for Cree, Inuit and Dene languages, producing a MEd thesis at the University of Manitoba in 1981. Although James Evans, the Wesleyan Methodist missionary played a part in the first printings in syllabics at Norway House, He was not the person who was the most instrumental in the writing systems conception and spread. During my research I visited archives as well as Aboriginal communities in the Boreal Forest as well as the Eastern Arctic. Missionaries George Barnley, John Horden, Jean-Nicolas Laverlochère, Edmund Peck and Jean Baptiste Thibeault all arrived to Cree, Inuit and Dene nations who were already able to read and write in the system. A more complete history can be found in my 1981 thesis, Syllabics A Successful Educational Innovation

    1. Hello John!
      I am Ahab’s Spence grandson. I would really like to talk to you about syllabics and your thesis. I am doing a masters degree at Concordia at the moment and the same way my grandfather has helped you I am asking for your help. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.


      1. Hi Sêbastien – tânisi. I’ve put your comment up, but I’m not directly in touch with John Murdoch. If he sees this comment, I hope he answers!

  2. I too have read and wrote versions of the Written Cree Syllabics from an early age, and as a middle-man between Elders who either were too old to write, or had never been thoroughly schooled in writing in itself. Nevertheless, I have never tried to change the Cree Syllabic system as it was and as I was taught prior to any Western schooling. My purpose in those days was to write and read for the Elders’, letters received or send from their friends or relatives from distant Places. Evan’s Chart is different from what I learned in a time before People realized that we were in danger of losing our Cree, and therefore our Nehiyawewin. The two were inseparable. From there the next part of my education was to learn the Natural Laws as Codified within the Original Format. When it is written the way Evan’s wrote the Syllabics, the written Teachings from Creator to Calling-Badger is not possible, or to decipher, whereas; the Core Reason for the “Gift of the Syllabics” was that Natures’ Laws could be consulted as needed. It was the primary tool for preserving our Language and Cultural Identities.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Clifford Cardinal MPH! I hope we’re not talking about changing the syllabic system itself – though it’s important to acknowledge that it’s used in many different ways across the Cree language continuum. For example, some communities put the w-dot on the left (instead of the right), and some use differently shaped finals. Sometimes it’s limiting to focus on the purity of form: the only languages that don’t change are the dead ones, and we definitely don’t want Cree to be amongst those!

  3. Edlarote? I’m a “newbie” to learning the Dene Syllabics system. I just compared the Cree chart to the Dene one and the symbols are exactly the same representing the same vowel sounds. Anyone fluent with the Dene syllabic system, that may be able to help me become more fluent in writing and reading it? Marci cho. Janette

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