Cree-language application challenges SSHRC

Congratulations to Elder Leona Makokis and the Social Work team from the University of Calgary for challenging the status quo of academic funding. Their funding application, written entirely in Cree, was recently turned down by SSHRC, because SSRC was unable to evaluate it. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is the federal research funding agency that promotes and supports research and training in the humanities and social sciences. All applications are reviewed by “peers” – that is, by people with expertise in similar disciplines who are able to assess the value of the proposal and probability of its success. Since the 1970s it has funded many Cree language projects, including many of those completed by our honorary founder Dr Freda Ahenakew.

This application is a bell that can’t be un-rung. More such applications – in Cree and other Indigenous languages – will surely follow.

For those of us who focus daily on language revitalization, the obvious next question is: What will it take to have such an application accepted? The most obvious need is for a community of scholars who speak Cree. Beyond that, they must also be able to read and write in Cree, fully and fluently. And that entails use of standard spelling and high editorial standards for Cree – equivalent to those used for French and English. English and French applications to SSHRC (from my own experience) are diligently polished to perfection, because the highly competitive evaluation system scrutinizes each and every application. Unclear writing and typos in English or French may call the proposal into question, or even be disqualifying,

A Cree Literacy Network colleague edited the project’s title into SRO, the most widely read writing system for Plains Cree. The differences are interesting to see:

  • “isihcikewin e apatak ka natahîwe: atoskatamik tanisi kesi pîtos kiskinohamake”
  • SRO: isîhcikêwin ê-âpatahk ka-nanâtahiwêhk: (ê-)atoskâtamihk tânisi k-êsi-pîtos-kiskinwahamâkêhk.

We will be watching and waiting with great hopes for the next Cree language challenge, and we wish Elder Leona Makokis and her colleagues – and anyone else who follows this path – every success as they keep ringing this bell. As the song says, “Change is gonna come.”

Historic University of Calgary proposal in the Cree language challenges how Indigenous cultures are studied

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