mitoni niya nêhiyaw: Sarah Whitecalf

Have you ever noticed the Cree caption at the top of Cree Literacy Network posts?

miywâsin, kîspin ta-kakwê-nisitohtamêk êkwa mîna a-kakwê-mitoni-wîcihisoyêk anima, ôma nêyihawêwin kîspin kinôhtê-kiskêyihtênâwâw.

There is value indeed in trying to understand the Cree language and also in trying to study it in earnest if you want to learn it.

It’s a quote from The Cree Language Is Our Identity / kinêhiyâwiwininaw nêhiyawêwin: The La Ronge Lectures of Sarah Whitecalf, published in 1993. This book and all of its sister volumes that flowed from the partnership of Freda Ahenakew an H.C. Wolfart are some of the best reasons I know for learning to read in Cree.

Sarah Whitecalf was a great friend and supporter of Dr Freda Ahenakew and the work she did with linguist H.C. Wolfart recording, transcribing and translating the words of Cree Elders, and presenting them in print for future generations with exquisite care. It was my great honour to work with both of them, too, so I can say with some certainty how proud Freda would be to finally see this new volume of Sarah’s texts in print (though it’s taken longer than she would have liked!)

Congratulations to all who worked together to make this happen: H.C. Wolfart, University of Manitoba Press, and Sarah’s son Ted Whitecalf (who wrote the preface and supplied photographs of his late mother).

mitoni niya nêhiyaw / Cree is who I truly am. A life told by Sarah Whitecalf, edited and translated by H.C. Wolfart and Freda Ahenakew, preface by Ted Whitecalf will be available as of 8 April 2021.

Pre-order your copy from their website now

The late Sarah Whitecalf (1919-1991) spoke Cree exclusively, spending most of her life at Nakiwacîhk / Sweetgrass Reserve on the North Saskatchewan River. Her experiences and reactions throw fresh light on the lives lived by Plains Cree women on the Canadian prairies over much of the twentieth century.

#nêhiyaw #Cree #Memoir #IndigenousMemoir #IndigenousStudies #PlainsCree #ReadIndigenous #History #Autobiography #Linguistics #Prairies #NorthSaskatchewan

Posted in Cree Books, Our Elders Speak | Leave a comment

Not a Pretendian: Solomon Ratt (th-dialect)

[Photo: Solomon Ratt with his parents, William and Alice Ratt, 1978]

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about “pretendians” of various kinds. There seems to be consensus that the “real deal” will be able to name their family and home connections, and their claims will be backed up by family or community. Sol composed this introduction to illustrate one model of how a “legit” Cree person might describe their personal lineage. (The same outline works, in Cree or English!)

Coincidentally, he also realized that today, 6 April 2021, would have been his late mother’s 98th birthday, so it’s particularly fitting to share this post with love today. 

Solomon nitisithihkâson. âmaciwîspimowinihk ohci nîtha. William John Ratt (osowathîkis) kî-itâw nohtâwîpan, ohtâwîpana Patrick (oskâtâsk) kî-itimâwa, âmaciwîspimowinihk ohci. Alice Emily Ratt (pahkahk) kî-itâw nikâwîpan, okâwîpana Maggie McKenzie kî-itimâwa, mistahi-sâkahikanihk ohci.

ᓱᓬᐅᒧᐣ ᓂᑎᓯᖨᐦᑳᓱᐣ᙮ ᐋᒪᒋᐑᐢᐱᒧᐏᓂᕽ ᐅᐦᒋ ᓃᖬ᙮ William John Ratt (ᐅᓱᐘᖩᑭᐢ) ᑮ ᐃᑖᐤ ᓄᐦᑖᐑᐸᐣ, ᐅᐦᑖᐑᐸᓇ Patrick (ᐅᐢᑳᑖᐢᐠ) ᑮ ᐃᑎᒫᐘ, ᐋᒪᒋᐑᐢᐱᒧᐏᓂᕽ ᐅᐦᒋ᙮ Alice Emily Ratt (ᐸᐦᑲᕽ) ᑮ ᐃᑖᐤ ᓂᑳᐑᐸᐣ, ᐅᑳᐑᐸᓇ Maggie McKenzie ᑮ ᐃᑎᒫᐘ, ᒥᐢᑕᐦᐃ ᓵᑲᐦᐃᑲᓂᕽ ᐅᐦᒋ᙮

My name is Solomon. I am from Stanley Mission. William John Ratt (osowathîkis) was my late father’s name, his late father’s name was Patrick (oskâtâsk), from Stanley Mission. My late mother’s name was Alice Emily Ratt (pahkahk), her late mother was Maggie McKenzie from Lac La Ronge.

Posted in Audio (th-dialect), Cree Cultural Literacy, Solomon Ratt | 3 Comments

Play and Learn with Playing Cards

pêyakopêhikan(ak): Playing Card(s)

A recent discussion on FaceBook sent me hunting for card-playing terms in Cree. So did Dawnis Kennedy at Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre with her delight in using games to teach Anishinaabemowin. Even the simplest card game uses basic numbers and counting, turn-taking and cooperation, simple commands and physical response. Not a bad way to work on some basic vocabulary! 

Thanks for collaboration to Simon Bird who reviewed my notes and nudged me to share this little collection of terms, which also includes additions from Arok Wolvengrey, Robin McLeod, and Dr Kevin Brousseau (and even some corrections from Solomon Ratt).
(I hope it goes without saying that we’ll all be grateful to anybody who takes the time to comment with additional terms or corrections!)

For “playing cards,” the itwêwina dictionary gives three different forms:

  1. tênikanak
  2. têhamânak, and
  3. pêyakopêhikanak

In th-dialect, Simon Bird and Robin McLeod both use tîhamânak, but you can turn these y-dialect forms into th-dialect simply by changing the ê to î).

 There are three corresponding verbs (of course!) 

  1. tênikêw s/he deals (cards)
  2. têhamâw s/he plays card
  3. pêyakopêhikêw s/he plays cards

 pêyakopêhikan can be one card, one deck of cards, an Ace, or a card game. (Again: turn these y-dialect forms into th-dialect simply by changing the ê to î.) 

Cards & Playingy-dialectth-dialect
playing card(s)tênikan(ak)tînikan(ak)
playing card(s)têhamân(ak)tîhamân(ak)
playing card(s)pêyakopêhikan(ak)pîyakopîhikan(ak)
deals (cards)tênikêwtînikîw
plays cardstêhamâwtîhamâw
plays cardspêyakopêhikêwpîyakopîhikîw

Four suits:

We might expect the suit names to be literal translations from English into Cree, but in fact, the names of the suits reflect their four simple shapes. As Arok Wolvengrey explains: 

 cîpopêhikan lit., “drawn/written pointed” – a diamond is a pointed shape

pihêwisit lit., “prairie chicken foot” because of the three prongs like chicken toes. Another form for club is pihêwayasit, but it still includes the prairie chicken!

misipîk comes from Cree misi- “big” and the French word (le) pique borrowed as -pîk. misipîk probably first referred just to the Ace of spades and then was transferred to the whole suit.

wâyinopêhikan (th: wâthopîhikan) for “hearts” comes from an element that refers to “turning back around” that is variously pronounced as: wâyonî-/wâyinî-/wâyino-. It refers to a shape drawn to return back on itself. 

Here’s where things get interesting in different dialects. Robin McLeod (th-dialect) uses mâskicôs for “heart” (lit.: “a little bum”). And while this seems a little funny, Kevin Brousseau says this same “little bum” form is used in Innue for “spade.” Kevin also says that in Moose Cree (l-dialect),  the word for “spade” is borrowed from English (rather than French), as ispêt. Simon Bird says ispêt is also the term he grew up with both for the suit, and for the gardening implement (so he would literally call an ispêt an ispêt!)

Clubspihêwisit pithîwisit
Spadesmisipîk misipîk; ispêt

Face values:

Numbers should be pretty straight forward, but some communities use diminutive forms (according to Arok, and to Robin McLeod) for the face values. Robin grew up using diminutive forms for the lower numbers (one to seven): adding -s on the end, and replacing the t-sound with a c-sound. When diminutive endings are attached to nouns, they usually make things sound smaller, younger or cuter. Sometimes they can imply a pejorative or pitiful meaning instead.

Face Values y-dialectth-dialect
Two (Deuce)nîsonîso (dim: nîsos)
Threenistonisto (dim: niscos)
Fournêwonîwo (dim: niyos)
Fiveniyânanniyânan (dim: niyânos)
Sixnikotwâsiknikotwâsik (dim: nikwacwâsik)
Seventêpakohptîpakohp (dim: cîpakohp)

Actions and Counting: 

There are likely quite a few more words we could collect with card-game actions and counting, but we’ve provided a “starter set” within the table below (along with the terminology above). You can print out this post to use as a cheat sheet, if you like. But whatever you do: Just don’t cheat at cards!  

Dealtênamawêisowîpinik tiyamânak
Flip face up (lit., uncover)pâskinpâskin
Flop face down (lit., roll s.t. over)otîhtipinotîhtipin
Cut the cardskîskisokkîskisok tîhamân(ak), kîskisikî
Play s.o. (card) kîskiswêkîskiswî
Put in / Betascikêascikî
Discard (lit., abandon) wêpinikanwîpinikan
Two pairnîsôskânniswâyîk
Three of a kindnistôskânnistonikîw
Four of a kindnêwônikiwnîyonikîw
Wins big misi-otinikêwmisowîpicikîw
Rakes in the winocipicikî
Full house (lit., s/he whips)pasastêhikêwpasastîhikîw
High card (trump)nitôwinnitôwin
Short on betiskwâcamo (notâscikiw)
Flush (3 hearts) nisto wâyinopêhikan nisto maskicosak
Flush (3 diamonds)nisto cîpopêhikanaknisto cîpopîhikanak
Flush (3 spades)nisto misipîkwaknisto misipîkwak
Flush (3 clubs) nisto pihêwisitaknisto pihîwisitak
Straight (lit., counting) akihtâsowinakihtâsowin
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Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Take My Hand for a While” sung in Cree by Tammy Lamouche

This post is a little gift for Buffy Sainte-Marie from all of us at the Cree Literacy Network. It’s a little late for her birthday, but it’s still 100% sincere because we think the world of her!

The translation is the work of Solomon Ratt (a th-dialect speaker from northern Saskatchewan). The recording features Alberta Cree singer Tammy Lamouche with guitar and sound engineering by Vanessa Beaudry (Vanessa and Tammy both speak Alberta northern y-dialect). The translation is in the Plains y-dialect that is spoken by Buffy’s Cree relations at Piapot. The photo of Tammy (above) is the work of Daena Crosby. Gathering up all the pieces and making the connections is my contribution. Together, we are tremendously proud to use the Cree language to honour Buffy, and to create another example of Cree language activism in her honour.

Buffy first recorded this exquisite song of love and loss in 1968. When she gave Sol her blessing to translate, he went hunting for a karaoke track. He claims he couldn’t find one,  though some of us think he was just a little shy about singing for Buffy. 😉

Together, we hope Buffy will enjoy this recording, and we hope that maybe others will be inspired to learn it as well, as part of their personal Cree language reclamation.

sâh-sakiniskêninTake my Hand for a While
kîhtwâm wâh-wîhtamawin
wiya ohci ninpîkotêhêh
Take my hand for a while
Explain it to me once again
Just for the sake of my broken heart
itâpi niskîsikohk, nika-nisitohtên
sâkihiwêwin namôya astêw
êtikwê takî-sâkihiyan
kimiskawin ê-wâh-wanîhoyân nitêh
î-sâkaskinîk ta-kî-nîsonitoyahk
Look into my eyes and maybe I will understand
How love I counted on was never there
You see, I thought that you might love me
So you caught me it seems off balance with a heart
So full of love and pretty dreams that two should share
êkosi ê-mwayî-sipwêhtêyan
kîhtwâm wâh-wîhtamawin
wiya ohci ninpîkotêhêh
And so I know but please before you go
Take my hand for a while
Explain it to me once again
Just for the sake of my broken heart
translation by Solomon Ratt (y-dialect) Buffy Saint Marie


Posted in Audio (y-dialect), Solomon Ratt, Songs in Cree | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, kohkom Sophie: National Indigenous People’s Languages Day 2021

iyiniw pīkiskwēwin kīsikāw = Indigenous People’s Language Day

Thanks to Andrea Custer for agreeing (on this National Indigenous People’s Language Day) to share this reflection on her kohkom’s birthday with all of us. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate!

(The photo, taken by Andrea’s sister from HB Photography and used with permission – shows Andrea (far left), ohkoma Sophie Custer (centre front), okāwiya Julianne, otānisa Sky, Alyse ikwa Scarlett (with kitty ears), ikwa okosisa Tyler ikwa Andrew (on kohkom’s knee).

anohc kā-kīsikāk ī-mithwīthītamahk ithiniwi-pīkiskwīwina ōta kānata kā-isithihkātīk ninohtī-wīcihānān Andrea Custer ta-wī-mitho-tipiskamithit ohkoma. “mitho-tipiska kahkithaw kititinān Sophie!” mistahi kīkway ki-mīthinān ta-mithītamahk ohci ikwa kitatamīhīnān.

Today as we celebrate Indigenous Languages here in what is called Canada, we would like to join Andrea Custer in wishing ohkoma (her grandmother) a Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday from all of us, Sophie! You give us so much to celebrate and you make us proud.

anohc nohkom tipiskam, ayinānīmitanaw nīwosāp ikwa itahtopiponīw. mitoni ninanāskomon ithikohk kinwīsk ī-pī-mīthikawasiyāhk nohkom. iyako awa nitīhinān awa okāwīmaw, kwayask mistahi mitho-kīkwātho nipī-mīthikonān

Today is my grandmother’s birthday, she is 84 years old now. I am so grateful for all the time she has been gifted to our family. She is our heart and matriarch who has given us so much.

kā-kī-apisīsisit kī-sipwītahāw ayamihāwi-kiskinwahamātowikamikohk (residential school) isi, nīwo poko ī-kī-tahtopiponīt. ikota ī-kī-kitimākisit kinwīsk. mitoni māna ī-pīkotīhiyān kā-māmitonīthītamān ī-apisīsisit ithikohk ikwa ī-kitimahācik nohkoma. māka kiyāpic kā-kī-kīsi-opikit ī-kī-mitho-ohpikihācik nimosōmipan asici piyakosāp awāsisa. mitho-kīkwātho ī-mīthācik tapiskōc nīhithaw pimātisiwin, maskawātisiwin, sōhkitīhiwin, tāpowakīthihtamowin ikwa nīhithaw pīkiskwīwin.

When she was small, she was taken to residential school, she was only four years old. There she suffered so much for a long time. My heart breaks when I think of her being so small and them treating her so bad. Still, when she was grown, she, with my late grandfather, were able to raise 11 children in a good way. They gave them good things like Cree way of life, strength, faith and Cree Language.

anohc ikwa tahto-kīsikaw ninanāskomāw kisī-manitow wītha ohci. mithotīpiska nohkō, kisākihitin kākikī mīna kākikī.

I am so grateful to Creator today and every day for her. Happy Birthday grandma, I love you always and forever.

Posted in Andrea Custer, Audio (th-dialect), Birthday | Leave a comment

National Indigenous People’s Language Day, 2021

askiy kitohtâpamihikonaw;
yôtin kitohtâyêhyêhikonaw;
iskotêw kitohtâkîsôwihikonaw;
nipiy kitohtâminihkwênaw;
kipîkiskwêwininawa, kitâtayôhkêwininawa, kiwâhkômitowininawa, kimâmawinitowininawa
kahkiyaw ôhi kitohtâpamihikonaw, kahkiyaw kipimâcihikonaw.
ᐊᐢᑭᐩ ᑭᑐᐦᑖᐸᒥᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ;
ᔫᑎᐣ ᑭᑐᐦᑖᔦᐦᔦᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ;
ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ ᑭᑐᐦᑖᑮᓲᐏᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ;
ᓂᐱᐩ ᑭᑐᐦᑖᒥᓂᐦᑵᓇᐤ;

ᑭᐲᑭᐢᑵᐏᓂᓇᐘ, ᑭᑖᑕᔫᐦᑫᐏᓂᓇᐘ, ᑭᐚᐦᑰᒥᑐᐏᓂᓇᐘ, ᑭᒫᒪᐏᓂᑐᐏᓂᓇᐘ
ᑲᐦᑭᔭᐤ ᐆᐦᐃ ᑭᑐᐦᑖᐸᒥᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ, ᑲᐦᑭᔭᐤ ᑭᐱᒫᒋᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ᙮

Earth nourishes us; Wind gives us air to breathe; Fire gives us warmth; Water quenches our thirst;
Our languages, our sacred stories, our kinship systems, our communities
All of these things nourish us, they all give us life.
Thank you, Sol, for this new poem to acknowledge the day, and thank you, Karlee for allowing us to use your beautiful image that captures the four-ways, and their connectedness!
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Inconvenient Skin wins CODE Burt Award for 2020

Congratulations to Shane L. Koyczan, to Solomon Ratt, and to Theytus Books!

Inconvenient-Skin : nayêhtawan-wasakay has won the first ever CODE Burt Award in the Indigenous Language category for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Young Adult Literature, and we are thrilled to see it recognized.


Find video of the whole Zoom event here – learn more about all the award winners, and also about CODE’s world-wide work in support of literacy.

Click here to listen to Toronto’s Elmnt FM podcast via Sound Cloud:

Richard van Camp, whose Mocassin Square Gardens won the English Language category said:

The CODE Burt Award, to me, is a superb example of witnessing and supporting and celebrating the reclaiming happening now in Indigenous communities through literature. I am so grateful for all of the great work CODE is doing for the authors, publishers and communities — who are writing and publishing in Indigenous languages –  it is affirming.”   

Click to order from Theytus or check your local bookseller.

Posted in Book News, Solomon Ratt | 1 Comment

Christi Belcourt: What Adult Learners Need

Thanks to Christi Belcourt for permission to share this graphic (with its unmistakable painted beadwork) – and for allowing us to share the thoughts that give it context as well. As a second (and third!) language learner, Christi’s insights are valuable to other adult learners who tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. I especially appreciate that the centre of the image, so lovingly embellished, is bilingual in Cree and Ojibwe!

Cree kiya (you) = Ojibwe giin (you). 

A couple years ago Brooke Simon, who is a 2nd language speaker and a language teacher at an immersion school was helping me to understand what it takes to become a 2nd language speaker as an adult.

She spoke about how children just need to hear the language to speak it but as adult learners our brains are too hardened so we need more than just listening.

She spoke about how you need to have both input and output to become a language speaker. She said adult learners need to:

1. Improve listening skills and one way is by doing transcribing. She said it “tuned up the ear”. She also mentioned translations as a way to improve listening.

2. Study Grammar. She and other 2nd language learners have all said they had to buckle down and learn grammar.

3. Reading and writing is also an important way to learn for adult learners. She mentioned written translating from English to Anishinaabemowin and also Anishinaabemowin to English as an exercise to help.

4. However…..she said….gii kida….”you will never be a speaker without speaking.” She said you have to speak and push through the feelings of being uncomfortable. And Alan Corbiere just reminded me of that.

I’m taking this advice seriously.

I’m at the point now where I am holding myself back. I have very little experience in speaking and forming sentences within a conversation. I feel scared to speak. I’m having confidence issues and suffering from imposter syndrome. From what I’ve read, this is common in 2nd language learners experiences.

I’m not experiencing fear of mistakes because I have a very healthy way of laughing at myself and don’t mind making mistakes. God knows I’ve made enough of them in my life to be comfortable with mistake making by now lol.

Anyhow I’m sharing because others might read this and relate to it.

Thanks, Christi: miigwech, kinanâskomitin! 

Posted in Literacy and Learning | Leave a comment

Water Keeps Us Alive: International Water Day, 2021

nipiy kipimâcihikonaw : ᓂᐱᐩ ᑭᐱᒫᒋᐦᐃᑯᓇᐤ
Water Keeps us Alive

(Thanks to Solomon Ratt for this magical photo of a beaver swimming in sunlit Wascana Creek.)

Water is fundamental to life: we can’t exist without it. Simon Bird (#CreeSimonSays) recently built an analogy around water as a connector that feeds the survival of Cree communities and culture. And maybe language, too. It seems particularly relevant today.

Simon began with this image of three puddles: Imagine for a moment these puddles are like our indigenous communities today. Compare how these communities were once connected by the water. This was the reality of how people were connected once. The primary mode of transportation for most indigenous people was the canoe, prior to the arrival of the horse, prior to the arrival of European people.

Traditionally, people would work hard in the winter to survive, then travel by water in summer to camp together in a larger community where they could fish and feast and celebrate, share ceremony and news, and sing, and dance, and talk together – unimpaired by dialect differences – in the language they shared.

Simon continues: The once free flowing rivers are now dammed, community members don’t know their neighbours, and we don’t know who or how we are related. Our people have become intolerant of others: the mentality is to look at each others’ differences, and not what we all have in common. … Traditionally our indigenous people valued human connection, spiritual connection and our connection to the land and animals.”

So how does flowing water relate to language? Think again of those puddles. Without a continuous source of water to keep them renewed and replenished, puddles dry up and disappear. When ducks nest in puddles that dry up, their ducklings are unlikely to survive. Sadly, the same thing is happening right now in Cree-speaking communities that choose to focus on differences – their unique vocabulary, their unique pronunciation, their unique spelling. As they fight to preserve and protect these differences, the unintended result is isolation. As they isolate themselves from the larger Cree-speaking community, from closely-related books and classroom materials, from essential tools like dictionaries, their puddle just keeps shrinking. In some communities, language is being protected right out of existence.

International Water Day reminds us that water is essential to life. By analogy, free-flowing connections are also essential for maintaining and revitalizing Cree as a vibrant, living language. Because like water, language also sustains us.

Posted in Audio (th-dialect), Audio (y-dialect), Literacy and Learning, Simon Bird (#CreeSimonSays), Solomon Ratt | 2 Comments

Shane L. Koyczan: Inconvenient Skin, translated into Cree by Solomon Ratt (y-dialect)

There are many, many reviews to be found on Google praising this 2019 publication from Theytus Books. The book remains shortlisted for the 2019 CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Young Adult Literature – the awarding of which was postponed by the arrival of Covid-19. CBC provided another significant review.

Shane L. Koyczan began writing it as commentary on the Indigenous experience of Canada’s 150th birthday “celebration.” His poetry is visually underscored by artwork provided with the blessing of the artists themselves: Kent Monkman, Joseph M. Sanchez, Jim Logan and Nadya Kwandibens.

On YouTube, you can find a beautiful July 2017 reading of the poem in English by poet Shane.L.Koyczan accompanied by Tanya Tagaq and Kym Gouchie:

The theme is crucially important; the book itself is beautifully produced. But for those of us who remain focused on Cree, the most significant part of the whole production may be the paragraph-by-paragraph, image-by-image translation provided by Solomon Ratt, allowing the Cree language to provide a layer of restoration and recovery.

My favourite quote comes from p.27:

the winds of change
do not show up in our weather reports
and yet they blow from sea to sea

namôya nôkwan ita kâ-âtotamihk kâ-isiwêpahk
âta yôtin kihcikamihk ohci isko kotak kihcikamihk 

Sincere thanks to Theytus Books for providing a review copy: maybe if we’re lucky, Sol will provide us a recording of his own one day in Cree.



Posted in Book News, Cree History, Poetry, Solomon Ratt | Leave a comment