Olivetti’s Cree Typewriter Consultants, 1973

Look closely: this photo features some mighty language warriors, hard at work creating tools, fifty years ago.

It’s probably been two or three years since I first saw this photograph, but I wasn’t quick enough to keep a copy safe. Samara Harp’s recent publications through Library and Archives Canada set me back on the hunt, and – after many fruitless trips down the rabbithole – I was finally rewarded when it reappeared in the collection of the University of Winnipeg. The story and photo are featured in the Indian Affairs newsletter, Indian News of which they hold a complete collection, from 1954 to 1982. The article-with-photo is found in Volume 15, number 8, page 10, March 1973.

As I looked through the photo’s caption, I spotted a number of significant names in Cree language retention. It seemed like a good moment to create a bit of a “Who’s Who” to acknowledge the significant contributions of those whose work I know we’re all still using (some I even know or knew in real life!) Of course, if anyone can add detail about the other contributors, I’d welcome it in the comments!

  • In the upper left corner is Ahab Spence, whom I knew as the head of the Department of Indian Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (what is now FNUC) in the 1980s. Ahab was also a mentor of Solomon Ratt. His widow, Bette Spence, who celebrated her 105th birthday in Winnipeg last month, remains the Cree Literacy Network’s honorary Elder.
  • Fifth from the left, we have Rev. Stan Cuthand, whose life work focused on translating the Bible into Plains Cree. His son, Doug is a well known Saskatchewan Phoenix columnist and historian.
  • Fifth from the right is Xavier Sutherland, a speaker from Peawanuck, an isolated community south of James Bay, whose fourteen sacred stories from the region feature prominently in C. Douglas Ellis’s 1995 text collection. Find audio recordings of those fourteen stories here. Sutherland – probably the youngest in the photo – was serving his community on an Ontario Royal Commission when he died in a plane crash in northwestern Ontario a mere three years later.
  • Fourth from the right is emeritus McGill University linguist C. Douglas Ellis – a môniyaw (or wemištikošiw) now approaching his hundredth birthday in Ottawa. If you follow the link on his name, you’ll discover a whole website devoted to his work that includes audio of stories, and lessons and more. Mrs Ellis is seated in in the front row at the far right. (In the early 1990s, I learned a great deal about Cree narrative – and about editing Cree-bilingual publications – through my own work on his Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay.)
  • In the front row, third from the left, we have Ida McLeod, a teacher of Plains Cree who authored numerous books during her tenure with Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College. A founder of Saskatchewan’s Cree Language Retention Committee, some of us know her best as the friendly force that helped launch the career CLN honorary founder Freda Ahenakew. Her husband John R. McLeod stands immediately behind her, sixth from the left. They were also the grandparents of Neal McLeod.
  • Front row, second from the right, we have Sister Nancy LeClaire of Edmonton, whose 25-plus years of work on a contemporary dictionary of Plains Cree went on to become the backbone of the Alberta Elders’ Dictionary.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you Arden for sharing this incredible photo. kinanāskomitin. It is absolutely a rich history and invaluable legacy that has impacted me through the connection of Freda Ahenakew. I was a little boy in my community school of Southend, never interested in anything outside of my reservation. We all spoke Cree and people would compliment our community, the people and the lake we lived in as a rarity. These people were out of towners, my dad did abit of travelling and he confirmed that our community had so much going for it. But what got me so interested in the outside world was the Cree lessons my teacher was sharing. I would have so many questions as a th dialect speaker and often stumped my teacher. She would go south to ask and the following week she had a good response why and how there were differences in the y dialect and th dialect. My Cree teacher’s teacher was the late Dr. Freda Ahenakew. I was about 10 years old when my Cree teacher introduced our community to formal Cree material (plains Cree material), SRO, Syllabics and words we didn’t use in my own community. This is an absolute foundation of my on-going social media project today.

    1. These language warriors are our ancestors, Simon. Yours and mine, and we share them with everyone else who contributes to language revitalization. I hope they’d be proud of us!

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