All About Colours in Cree

nanâtohkinâkwan masinahikan: This [blog post] has many colours

In English, we learn to name our colours just as we name shapes or animals. Cree works differently. Just as French divides its nouns into “masculine” and “feminine” (and calls that system “gender”), Cree uses gender to divide its nouns into “animate” and “inanimate” groups.* But Cree doesn’t stop at nouns. In Cree, verbs must also change their shape to match the gender of associated nouns. And if a noun is plural, the colour verb must be plural too. Because colour words in Cree are verbs, we need to learn both animate and inanimate forms for every colour, and we need to know whether each noun is animate or inanimate.**

Another way of expressing colour in Cree attaches a special form of the colour word as a prefix to a noun. This happens in special cases where the colour is not just a description, but an important part of the noun itself.

The chart below lists basic colours in each of these three forms. Plural forms are created by adding the suffixes shown in brackets.

Cree Colour Terms

prefix form animate verb form(s) inanimate verb form(s)
wâpiski- wâpiskisiw(ak) wâpiskâw(a)
kaskitêwi- kaskitêsiw(ak) kaskitêwâw(a)
mihko- mihkosiw(ak) mihkwâw(a)
kaskitê-osâwi- kaskitê-osâwisiw(ak) kaskitê-osâwâw(a)
osâwi- osâwisiw(ak) osâwâw(a)
wâposâwi- wâposâwisiw(ak) wâposâwâw(a)
askihtako- askihtakosiw(ak) askihtakwâw(a)
sîpihko- sîpihkosiw(ak) sîpihkwâw(a)
cîpêhtako- cîpêhtakosiw(ak) cîpêhtakwâw(a)
nipâmâyâtisi- nîpâmâyâtisiw(ak) nîpâmâyâtân(wa)
wâpikwanîwinâkosi- wâpikwanîwinâkosiw(ak) wâpikwanîwinâkwan(wa)

In many cultures, people also divide the rainbow differently than we do as speakers of English.

In Cree, speakers may use the word osâwi– for yellow, orange or brown. They may use the word sîpihko– for blue, green, or grey. They may also create new colour words – just as we do in English – by combining the colour words from the chart with each other, or by modifying them with wâpi- (meaning ‘bright’ or ‘light’), and kaskitê- (meaning ‘dark’ or ‘black’).

If you talk to other speakers of Cree, they may use different terms, or combinations of terms from the ones we use here, that are still correct. The colour words used in this chart were selected by one particular speaker on one particular day: on a different day, even he may have chosen differently.

*2021: Beautiful new lessons from the Cree Resource Unit of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band Education (th-dialect):

**This explanation of colours was developed by members of the Cree Literacy Network as introductory text for the Julie Flett’s new board book Black Bear, Red Fox: Colours in Cree coming out in 2016 from Native Northwest (ordering details to be supplied as soon as they are available). Click here to view her counting board book, We All Count – also with introductory text prepared by the Cree Literacy Network:

***[No longer available] The Gift of Language and Culture at Onion Lake provides separate lessons for animate and inanimate colour terms, in material developed by Leda Corrigal. A Youtube video from Moberley Lake (featuring the one and only Art Napoleon as Joe-Louis) teaches a great song for inanimate colour terms. But remember: these terms in the song only work for items that are inanimate and singular!

10 Responses

  1. It is so valuable to have this resource. As a non-speaker of my language I know have a resource and evermore of a reason to learn it. Chi miigwetch

  2. Thanks for the names of colors in Cree! This is my mother’s language that I’m studying.

  3. Hi there,
    I hope you find yourself and your family safe and well during these strange times. I have a question about whether or not it is appropriate for me to reference a Cree word for a colour in a book I’m writing. My character has an Irish father and a Cree mother, who passed away, but she has fragments of her mother’s heritage that she remembers about her mother’s Cree background and keeps these memories close to her. She doesn’t have many references to her culture as I’m writing the character as a descendant of the practice of her mother losing her status after marrying a white man. I don’t want to misappropriate as I do not have any Indigenous heritage of my own, but I want to pay respect to the fact that children of women who were forced to give up their heritage still have some knowledge of their history and cling to what little they do know as this is the part of their identity.
    If you have any recommendations, questions or advice to share regarding this matter, I’d be grateful and happy to correspond with you.

    Thank you for taking the time to consider my situation; I look forward to hopefully hearing back from you.

    Lisa Miszczak

    1. Hi Lisa,
      I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about referencing a particular Cree word in your English text.

  4. Thanks for this post! I wanted to comment that there is a song by Brian Macdonald you can find it free on YouTube called mihkwaw, kaskitewaw, wapiskaw, osawaw. In that song he sings about using animate and inanimate forms of the colors.
    It’s a helpful tool.

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