Here’s a “word bundle” from artist and dedicated Cree language learner Christi Belcourt, who uses her signature painting style here to enhance a culturally rich word study. We are proud to share it here with thanks to Christi for her permission.
Definition: freedom, liberty, owning/taking charge of one’s own self. It’s a concept, an idea, a state of being. (To pronounce this word try saying it more like this: “DiBAYMsowin“)
To say “they are free, liberated, they own themselves,” you would say “otipêyimisowak.”
To say “we (all of us) are free, liberated, we own ourselves, we take charge of ourselves”, you say “kitipêyimisowininaw.”
To tell someone else, another person or nation, that “we” (our people, “us” are speaking about) own ourselves, we are self-determinining, we are free and liberated, to describe ourselves we say “nitipêyimisowininân.”
Context is everything. This word is big. It is a whole “word bundle” – to borrow from Maria Campbell who coined the phrase to reflect how words can be bundles that contain many teachings.
This word tipêyimisowin is a bundle that is full and rich. To know it is to understand who we were, and who we could be again. Its who we are striving to become in a post-colonial world.
This is why it makes no sense to say “WE are otipêyimisowak” because that is literally saying “We are Them” – it doesn’t make sense. We have to say “nitipêyimisowininân” to be speaking about our Nation or our own people.
When we say “We are the people who own themselves” – what are we really saying? To me, we are speaking about being a people who value our freedoms – prior to colonialism – prior to any provincial or territorial borders – prior to the Canadian government. We are land-based independent people, free people, who practice self-government in the truest sense.
This is why our language is so important. Because it brings us to a grounded place to remember who we are as people of the land.