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:

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.

8 Responses

  1. Cree is like English… they say words in Queen’s English is a lot different from how they say the same words in Australia, or in the Southern States. In Asutralia they even spell them differently e.g. tire-tyre……so When I see or hear the different forms of it..I look for the sameness which I can usually figure out.

    1. Yup. Some words sound completely different in Australian versus Canadian English. Some have minor spelling differences. Sometimes they even have different words. But English standard spelling is the solid foundation that lets all of us English speakers share written material. We can work out minor differences with context if the basic foundation is the same.

  2. Thank you very much for the information you provide here! I am using part of it for a lecture on languages of the Americas. Hope that’s okay. I am giving you credit.
    Thank you!

  3. I was curious about what this map was about. I had seen it in one of my groups. Very informative about how the map began and it’s path to the present and hopes for its future. It illuminates the importance of spelling words correctly and knowing the reasons why has helped.

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