The cousin terminology of Cree is confusing to many – because it is so different from the way “cousin” is understood in English. The following explanation may be helpful. 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.
The chart (above) for female speakers begins iskwêsis ôma niya.
Our siblings are 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 siblings by gender, but not the younger siblings – younger brothers and sisters are both called nisîm (or nisîmis).
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, 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 their parents are siblings of parallel gender: your father and his brother (both male); your mother and her sister (both female). 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: nistês (my older brother), nimis (my older sister), nisîm/nisîmis (my younger sibling). In Cree, your siblings and your parallel cousins are treated the same. In English, siblings and parallel cousins are not treated the same.
Cross-cousins are the children of your father’s sister or your mother’s brother. They are “cross” cousins because their parents are siblings of the opposite, or “cross” gender. In traditional Cree culture, 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. A third term, used by both men and women, 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 who were considered equivalent to siblings were never allowed to marry. But cross-cousins, who are never considered to be siblings, were potential marriage partners. In English, where cousins are cousins regardless of age, gender and which side of the family, cousins are never considered potential marriage partners.