The Cree Literacy Network was created in 2010 to promote Cree language and cultural literacy, in oral form, and through literacy materials (in Cree and English) that use Standard Roman Orthography. We believe that Cree language literacy can be learned better and spread farther – all in support of living oral language – when everyone shares the same, consistent writing system. We also believe that authentic Cree language materials (both oral and written) can work even better to support language when presented side by side with English translation, to promote cultural literacy, even among those who read only English.
Through the essential tool of standard spelling, the Cree Literacy Network supports the fundamental right of Cree speakers to understand and be understood.
Cree literacy refers to much more than just reading. Cree literacy also means awareness of Cree history and culture, living tradition and ancient ritual. It means understanding the depth and scope of damage from past wrongs, and the need to fight to see them righted. In these challenging days of the 21st century, it also means being aware of Cree political issues past and present, and working to preserve the “home on Native land” that we all share.
Who are we?
This network is made up of a small but determined circle of dedicated speakers, writers, students, teachers and linguists, whose collective commitment to Cree language and culture spans decades in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Building on the substantial living legacy created by Honorary Founders, Dr Jean Okimâsis and the late Dr Freda Ahenakew, we work hard to strengthen connections throughout the Cree-speaking communities of the prairies. We offer meaningful support to those who share our passion for retention and revitalization of the Cree language (in spoken and written form), and of Cree culture. We want to see the language flourishing in spoken and written form, working as the everyday tool it should be within a vibrant and flourishing culture.
Why focus on spelling?
In a traditional setting, spoken language is learned naturally by osmosis. Children are natural sponges, who soak up everything they hear. But – in any language – reading and writing are skills that have to be taught. Within a residential school system determined to kill the languages themselves, no such teaching was ever offered. Nor was it offered anywhere else – until the 1970s when it began to be taught in universities.
Standard spelling is an essential building block in developing truly fluent reading and writing skills, but consistent spelling does not come naturally. Learning the rules can be annoying, and even distressing for people who have had bad school experiences. But unpredictable spelling makes things tough for language learners:
- unpredictable spelling often leaves readers guessing about what was intended
- similar-sounding words are easily confused
- words can’t be found in a dictionary when they’re spelled differently
- computer tools can’t work with made-up spelling either, so they can’t help
- books printed in made-up spelling are a nightmare for students to use
SRO is the spelling system that is mostly widely used for print publications in Cree, and has the greatest number of published reference resources. As of 2010, SRO is taught and used in a Cree language programs in schools, colleges and universities across the prairies.
The Cree Literacy Network seeks to build on this solid, tested foundation by increasing awareness of SRO, and using it as widely as possible to help carry the Cree language – and with it, Cree culture – forward into the 21st century.
What about Syllabics?
Whether you believe syllabics were invented by the Methodist missionary James Evans in the 1840s, or that syllabics was a gift directly from the Creator to the Cree people, educational research shows that syllabics is neither better nor worse than SRO for reading and writing Cree. Some research even shows that it may be easier for beginners to read. Perhaps this is why syllabic literacy spread so quickly following publication of the first syllabic bible. But syllabic literacy outside of the church was another casualty of the residential school system.
Although many Cree speakers learned to read and write in syllabics through the late 19th century, very few of their handwritten documents and journals have been preserved. Printing presses remained within the hands of the churches, where they were used almost exclusively to print prayer books and hymnals. Today, special computer software makes syllabics more available on computers and smart phones, but it still takes considerable expertise to set them up for ordinary users, and the collection of non-religious reading materials and reference sources remains very small.
Members of the Cree Literacy Network respect and value the efforts of all individuals and communities working to speak or write Cree in any form. We hope to encourage a spirit of cooperation among Cree-speaking communities that will help to fill bookshelves with high quality Cree language material suitable for all readers. We hope those who are committed to syllabic literacy will see our library as a resource that can help support them in preparing publications of their own.
United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The UN adopted this resolution in 2007. Canada removed its “objector status” to the document in 2016. In 2018, Romeo Saganash (a native speaker of East Cree) introduced a private member’s bill (C-262) to have Canadian laws brought into harmony with the document. Conservatives in the Canadian senate obstructed its passage. The fight continues.
Articles 13 and 14 of the UNDRIrefer specifically to language rights:
Cree language revitalization can’t afford to wait for “the state” to take action. Please consider a donation to help us continue our work.