Iyiniw Names For Your Baby

The following is an edited version of a small book originally published in 2010. The names presented here are from the Southern Inland East Cree dialect. Cree names in this dialect that are originally of European origin have already been presented in a previous post and can be read here.

To give a child a name is an honour burdened with great responsibility. The gift will follow the recipient throughout their life and although many names are of no consequence, others may be of benefit, while others still, a nuisance. As Iyiniw (Cree) people living in a world dominated by English and French, it has become all too normal to bestow names in these languages to our children, but these are nonetheless foreign names that can be a source of difficulty for our elderly monolinguals. Stories of my late grandmother calling my sister ᓇᒣᓴ instead of Melissa are still a source of laughter in my family. My own name, common enough in the English-speaking world, was consistently mispronounced ᑫᐱᓐ by this same grandmother. But aside from these minor inconveniences, these foreign names are an omnipresent reminder of the pressure colonialism exerts on our people, a reality of which the younger generations are becoming increasingly cognizant. Names in our own language are therefore not only be a pleasure for monolinguals to pronounce, they also serve as a reminder of who we truly are as a people.

So why not give the child a name in the language they will likely first learn to speak? In fact, most parents give their children multiple names. Why not make at least one of those a name in our own language?

For the most part, Iyiniw people have always had Iyiniw names. However, the propagation of Christianity altered our naming practices such that names in our own language often depreciated to the level of nickname. Iyiniw names such as ᒨᐦᑯᑖᑲᓐ and ᒦᑾᓐ slowly disappeared from the historical record, only to be replaced by multitudes of Joseph’s and Mary’s. Some Iyiniw names survived as family names, sometimes translated into English by Anglican ministers, while others were simply ignored on paper, only to be used in familiar settings. Iyiniw nicknames continue to be common in most communities, leading at times to mistaken identities and comical misunderstandings. Many years ago, I recall overhearing a story of a Waswanipi man who had killed a moose. Those unfamiliar with this man’s nickname, ᐋᐱᑯᔒᔥ, were humorously bewildered by the idea of a mouse killing such a large animal!

The purpose of this post is twofold – to provide parents with a variety of choices for the baby’s name and to help them make an informed decision as to its spelling. As you take note of the names that may be interest to you, consider reading them aloud to the elders in your family for their opinion. The list of names in this post is by no means exhaustive and you may not find that perfect name for your baby here. But the list may nonetheless prove useful in helping you put the incredible productivity of our language to work to find the right name.


The misspelling of a name can cause great difficulty to those trying to pronounce it. To avoid this, the names in this post will consistently be spelled in an accurate manner in both the syllabic and alphabetic orthographies. Accuracy here refers to the careful speech of elderly monolingual speakers, which best reflects the phonology and morphology of our language.

It is important to understand that the Iyiniw language has its own sound system worthy of its own orthography. Take the word for ‘north wind’ in Iyiniw. We here encourage the syllabic spelling ᒌᐌᑎᓐ, but we admit that an alphabet-based spelling is often desirable, and sometimes necessary for official records. It is not enough, nor accurate, to write the language using English or French spelling rules. We therefore present an alphabetic spelling based on rules internal to the Iyiniw language itself, not based on English or French. In the case of ᒌᐌᑎᓐ, the alphabet-based spelling is here presented as Cīwetin, not the English-based Cheewaydin or the French-based Tshiuetin. However, a standard has yet to be accepted in some parts of Cree country and so some variation is expected. For example, the Cree School Board promotes an intermediate spelling system that is recognizable and usually reasonably accurate. In their system the above word would be spelled in two acceptable ways, Chīwetin and Chiiwetin. The names in this post will be presented in three orthographies for convenience. Note that the Cree School Board variant spelling will only be presented if it differs from the standard, and will always be listed third.

Girl or Boy?

As a general rule, Iyiniw names are not gender specific. However, certain types of names were traditionally more commonly assigned to one gender or the other, from what we can gather from the memory of our elders and from historical records. Names that allude to strength, such as the north wind or names of trees, will usually be given to boys while names that make reference to the south wind or delicate things, such as feathers and flowers, will usually be given to girls. Similarly, the names of birds or prey are traditionally assigned to boys while those of song birds – to girls. That being said, there is no rule that prevents one from doing the opposite and no embarassment would follow the name-bearer. My own late grandmother was strongly in favour of naming my third child Cīwetinoskwew, which is the word for ‘north wind’ followed by a suffix meaning ‘woman.’ By adding such a suffix, a name traditionally associated with men was feminized. I should note that this daughter of mine, as many know, ended up with a different name for a remarkable reason. 


The names found in this post were gathered from a variety of sources. The Cree Beneficiary List is one such source that allowed a look at present day Iyiniw names, most of which are included in this post. A cursory look at the Hudson’s Bay Company records located many names as well, but many indecipherable due to their inconsistent English-based spellings. Older and more reliable sources examined were the Catholic baptism registries from the 17th and 18th centuries where Jesuit priests consistently listed the persons’ Iyiniw names as well as their newly appointed European names. In addition to these written sources, elderly monolingual speakers were also questioned about names used in the past and their suggestions for new names were also accepted. Finally, the Iyiniw names of our elders, most of which are originally of English or French origin, were also included in their own section.

Cree Names of French or English Origin

Personal names of French or English origin were quite common in recent generations in our communities. These names came to be simply due the inability of monolingual Cree-speakers to pronounced certain sounds specific to these European languages. Since the residential school era, most of us have become bilingual, and in some cases trilingual, and we now tend to give our children French or English names and pronounce them in their language of origin, without good reason.

It is entirely natural for names to be adapted as their are adopted from foreign languages. Most English and French names themselves are of foreign origin, often biblical Hebrew. Names such as Joseph, Jean or John, Maria, Marie, or Mary are all of Hebrew origin, yet they are pronounced in an English or French manner when borrowed into these languages. Cree is no different. It is unfortunate that in becoming bilingual we have largely abandoned not only genuine Cree names, but also Cree versions of foreign names.

The following is a list of personal names originally of French of English origin and is by no means exhaustive. Every one of these names is used in our communities, though they are sometimes preceded by ᒥᔥᑕ or ᒋᔐ, indicated seniority or eldership. Names can also take a diminutive form for familiarity, endearment, or as a way to mark juniority. The following are spelled how they are pronounced in the Southern Inland East Cree dialect.

ᐁ ᐯᒋ ᐱᒥᔥᑳᔮᐦᒡ

ᓂᒌ ᒋᔅᒋᓄᐎᔨᑯᓈᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ, ᐊᒐᐦᑯᔕᒡ ᒫᒃ, ᒣᒀᒡ ᐁ ᒌ ᑯᔅᐸᐦᐊᒫᐦᒡ ᐐᓂᐯᑯᐦᒡ ᐅᐦᒋ᙮

ᓂ ᒌᒫᓂᓈᓐᐦ ᒌ ᐱᒫᔥᑕᓐᐦ ᐅᔅᒋᒋᐯᒡ᙮

ᓂᒌ ᐐᒋᐦᐃᑐᓈᓐ ᐁ ᐱᒥᔥᑳᔮᐦᒡ, ᒥᓯᐌ ᑕᐦᑐ ᐊᐌᓐ ᐁ ᑎᐯᔨᒥᑎᓱᑦ᙮

ᓂᒌ ᓇᒣᐦᑖᓈᓐ ᒥᓯᐌ ᔮᔦᐤ ᐁ ᐃᔅᑯᔥᑎᑴᔮᒡ ᑐᐌᐎ ᓰᐱᔾ᙮

ᒥᓯᐌ ᐁ ᑕᐦᑐᑌᐎᓯᔮᐦᒡ ᓂᒌ ᒫᑎᓇᒫᑐᓈᓐ ᑳ ᐌᔫᑕᐦᒡ ᒦᒋᒻ ᑳᒌ ᒥᔅᑲᒫᐦᒡ ᐊᓐᑌ ᓅᐦᒋᒦᐦᒡ᙮

ᐁ ᐅᑖᑯᔑᒡ ᒌ ᒋᔨᑲᐎᐦᑖᑾᓐᐦ ᓂ ᓂᑲᒧᐎᓂᓈᓐᐦ ᐁ ᒪᑗᔭᐌᒡ ᑲᔭᐹ, ᓂᒌ ᑑᑖᑯᓈᓐ ᒫᒃ ᒉᒌ ᒥᔪ ᐸᐙᒧᔮᐦᒡ ᐁ ᑎᐱᔅᑳᒡ᙮

ᒦᓐ ᐁ ᒉᒋᔐᐹᔮᒡ, ᓂᒌ ᒥᔯᔨᐦᑌᓈᓐ ᐁ ᐊᑎ ᐃᔑᒋᒣᔮᐦᒡ ᐊᓐᑌ ᐁ ᒦᒋᒥᔅᑳᒡ ᓂᑦ ᐊᔅᒌᓈᓂᐦᒡ᙮

ᐁ ᐃᔥᒀ ᓃᐱᐦᒡ ᒫᒃ, ᓂᒌ ᐋᐦᑐᒉᓈᓐ ᐲᑐᔥ ᐗᔦᔥ ᒉᒌ ᐊᔦᔅᑲᐐᔥᑕᒫᐦᒡ ᒉ ᐱᐳᐦᒡ᙮

ᓂᒌ ᒥᔪ ᑲᓇᐌᔨᒥᑯᐙᓈᓐ ᐅᑲᒉᐦᑖᐌᔨᐦᑕᒧᐎᓂᐙᐤ ᓂ ᒋᔐᔨᓃᒥᓈᓇᒡ᙮

ᓇᒪᐐᔾ ᐐᔅᑳᑦ ᓅᐦᒋ ᒋᐱᐦᑐᐦᑌᓈᓐ ᒣᒀᒡ ᐁ ᑑᑕᒫᐦᒡ ᐊᓂᐦᐁ ᒫᐗᒡ ᐁ ᐃᔅᐱᐦᑌᔨᐦᑖᑾᐦᒡ, ᒨᔥ ᐊᐗᔥᑌ ᐙᐦᔭᐤ ᐁ ᐐ ᐃᑐᐦᑌᔮᐦᒡ ᒣᒀᒡ ᐁ ᔖᐳᔥᑲᒫᐦᒡ ᐆᐦᐁ ᐊᔅᒋᔾ ᑳ ᒫᒪᔅᑳᑌᔨᐦᑖᑾᐦᒡ᙮

The above is a poem by Louis Bordeleau titled Voyage dans le temps. It was translated at his request into Cree by the author of this blog, Kevin Brousseau.


Cree Months


Months in the Cree language are a recurring topic of conversation in our communities as these have mostly been supplanted by English or French names. It is quite natural, in fact, to hear elderly monolingual speakers make use of the English or French names, often followed by the Cree ᐲᓯᒽ, meaning ‘month.’ There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is the variability from one community to another that complicates communication when the calendar is involved. This is largely because months are often named after seasonal phenomena that naturally vary from region to region. As a result, certain names that are common to multiple dialects may not always refer to the same month.

Below, you will find a comparison of the names of the months in six Cree dialects, those spoken at Attawapiskat (eastern Swampy Cree, an N-dialect), Moose Factory (Moose Cree, an L-dialect), Waskaganish (southern coastal East Cree, a Y-dialect), Waswanipi (southern inland East Cree, a Y-dialect), Opitciwan (Atikamekw, an R-dialect), and Pessamit (southern Innu-aimun, an L-dialect). The names will be spelled phonologically using syllabics to facilitate the comparison. It is important to note that only the first four dialects are officially written using syllabics. The others have adopted Latin script orthographies.


Attawapiskat ᑭᔐ ᐸᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ
Moose Factory ᑭᔐ ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ
Waskaganish ᒪᑯᔐ ᒌᔑᑳᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐗᔭᐐᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᑳ ᒋᓄᔑᑦ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᑫᓄᓯᑦ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᒋᔐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᑭᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᑭᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᑳ ᑕᐦᑯᑯᒋᐦᒃ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᑳ ᑕᐦᑯᔑᑦ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐊᑯᐦᑲᒌᔥ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐁᐱᔑᒥᓂᔥᑴᐤ


Attawapiskat ᒥᑭᓯᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᒥᑭᓯᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒥᒋᓯᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒥᒋᔑᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᒥᑭᔑᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᓂᑭᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐐᓇᔥᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᓂᔅᒋ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᔒᔒᐱ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᓂᔅᑭ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᑳ ᐙᓯᑲᑐᑦ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᔒᔒᑉ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐊᓃᑭ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐊᓖᑭᔑ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐋᔑᒸᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒸᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᓂᔅᓯ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᓵᑭᐸᑳᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᓵᑭᐸᑳᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒧᔖᐌᐦᔮᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᔖᒋᐸᑳᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᓇᒣᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐅᑌᐦᐃᒥᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐙᐱᑯᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ, ᐸᔥᑰᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐅᐸᔥᑰᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒣᒀ ᓃᐱᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᐅᑌᐦᐃᒥᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᒥᐦᑯᒥᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᔐᑖᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐦᐸᐦᐆᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐦᐸᐦᐆᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᒥᔕᑳᒣᐦᔮᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐊᑎᐦᑌᐎᒥᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐅᑕᐦᑕᐦᑯᓐ ᐲᓯᒻ
Pessamit ᐅᐴ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐌᐦᐌᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐌᐦᐌᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐌᐦᐌᐤ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐊᑎᐦᑲᒣᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᑳᑯᓀ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐅᔥᑰ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐅᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Moose Factory ᐅᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ, ᐱᒪᐦᐊᒧᐎ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐐᔖᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐱᓈᔅᒌᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᐐᔖᑯ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᓇᒣᑯᓯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᐙᔅᑌᔅᓰᐤ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓂᓯᐤ
Moose Factory ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓂᓯᐤ
Waskaganish ᑲᔥᑲᑎᓐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᒪᔥᑲᐗᑎᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ
Opitciwan ᐊᑎᐦᑲᒣᑯ ᐲᓯᒽ
Pessamit ᑕᒀᒋ ᐲᔑᒽ


Attawapiskat ᐸᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ
Moose Factory ᐲᐧᐋᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ, ᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ, ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᒽ, ᐹᐦᐲᐙᐦᑕᑭᓇᔑᔥ, ᒪᑯᔐ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waskaganish ᐲᐦᒉᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᓯᒽ
Waswanipi ᐲᐦᒉᒪᑲᓄ ᐲᔑᒽ, ᒪᑯᔐᒌᔑᑲᓐ ᐲᔑᒽ (F)
Opitciwan ᐲᐦᒋ ᐱᐳᓐ
Pessamit ᐲᔑᒧᔅᔅ

Sources for the above are as follows: Attawapiskat, Angela Sheesheesh (Facebook post, 2020); Moose Factory, Dictionary of Moose Cree – 3rd edition (2019); Waskaganish, Annie Whiskeychan’s Lexicon (1973); Waswanipi, Waswanipi Realities and Adaptations: Resource Management and Cognitive Structure (Feit, 1978), Jane Saganash (2020), Allan Saganash (2020), Maggie Gull (2020), and Emma Sagansh (2020); Opitciwan, Atikamekw Morphology and Lexicon (Béland, 1978) & Dictionnaire atikamekw (online, 2020); and Pessamit, Dictionnaire français-montagnais (Drapeau, 1991).

Note that the Waswanipi is a mixed dialect transitioning towards Southern Inland East Cree. The speech of elders speakers of this dialect contains many features of the dialect directly to the south, that of Opitciwan. There are thus a variety of month names collected in this community. Terms followed by (F) were unknown to speakers consulted and are therefore only found in Feit, 1978.

Fieldwork in the six dialects undertaken by the author of this blog informs the above phonological spellings.


ᐯᔭᒀᐤ ᐁ ᑎᐱᔅᑳᔨᒡ ᒌ ᐸᐙᒧᐤ ᓈᐯᐤ᙮ ᐁ ᒌ ᐃᔑᓇᐦᒃ ᐌᔅ ᐁ ᐐᒋ ᐱᒧᐦᑌᒫᑦ ᑎᐯᔨᐦᒋᒉᐤᐦ ᐊᓐᑌ ᔮᔦᐤ ᐁ ᔦᑳᐗᓂᔨᒡ᙮ ᓴᔅᒋᑯᒡ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᒌ ᓅᑾᓂᔨᒡ ᐅᐱᒫᑎᓰᐎᓐ ᐊᓐᑌ ᒌᔑᑯᐦᒡ᙮ ᑕᐦᑣᐤ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᒌ ᐙᐸᐦᑕᐦᒃ ᐅᐱᒫᑎᓰᐎᓐ, ᒌ ᐙᐸᐦᑕᒻ ᐁ ᓃᔑᑣᐤ ᐁ ᐱᒥᔅᑲᓇᐌᑣᐤ ᐊᓐᑌ ᔦᑳᐦᒡ, ᐐᔾ ᐊᓂᔨᐤ ᐯᔭᒄ, ᐁᒄ ᐊᓂᔨᐤ ᑯᑕᒋᔨᐤ ᑎᐯᔨᐦᒋᒉᐤ᙮

ᐃᔥᑯᑕᒃ ᒫᒃ ᒫᐦᒋᑌᔾ ᑳ ᐙᐸᐦᑕᐦᒃ ᐅᐱᒫᑎᓰᐎᓐ ᐁ ᐅᐦᒋ ᓅᑾᓂᔨᒡ, ᒌ ᐋᐸᓵᐸᐦᑕᒻ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᐁᑎᔥᒌᐎᓐᐦ ᐊᓐᑌ ᔦᑳᐦᒡ᙮ ᒌ ᐱᓯᔅᑳᐸᐦᑕᒻ ᒫᒃ ᒥᐦᒉᑣᐤ ᐊᓐᑌ ᑳ ᐃᔥᐱᔑ ᐯᒋ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᑦ ᒥᒄ ᐁ ᒌ ᐯᔭᑯᔅᑲᓇᐌᒪᑲᓂᔨᒀᐤᐦ ᐁᑎᔥᒌᐎᓐᐦ᙮ ᑲᔦ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᒌ ᐱᓯᔅᑳᐸᐦᑕᐦᒃ ᐆᔨᐤ ᐁ ᒌ ᐃᔅᐸᔨᔨᒡ ᐊᓐᑕ ᒫᐗᒡ ᑳ ᒌ ᑕᐸᐦᑌᔨᒧᑦ ᑲᔦ ᐊᓐᑕ ᒫᐗᒡ ᑳ ᒌ ᒪᒉᔨᐦᑕᐦᒃ ᐅᐱᒫᑎᓰᐎᓂᐦᒡ᙮

ᓈᔥᒡ ᒌ ᒥᑯᔥᑳᑌᔨᐦᑕᒥᐦᐃᑯᐤ ᐆᔨᐤ᙮ ᒉᒃ ᑳ ᑲᑴᒋᒫᑦ ᑎᐯᔨᐦᒋᒉᐤᐦ ᐁ ᒌ ᐃᑖᑦ, ᐯᔨᐦᒋᒉᔭᓐ, ᐁ ᒌ ᐃᑗᔭᓐ ᒫᒃ ᒌ ᐗᔦᔨᐦᑕᒫᓀ ᒉᒌ ᓅᓱᓀᐦᐅᑖᓐ, ᒨᔥ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᐸᐹ ᐐᒉᐎᔭᓐ᙮ ᒥᒄ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᐙᐸᐦᑕᒫᓐ ᐊᓐᑕ ᓈᔥᒡ ᐁ ᒪᒋᐸᔨᔮᓐ ᓂ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᐎᓂᐦᒡ, ᒥᒄ ᐁ ᐯᔭᑯᔅᑲᓇᐌᒪᑲᐦᒀᐤᐦ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᐁᑎᔥᒌᐎᓐᐦ᙮ ᓇᒪᐐᔾ ᓂ ᓂᓯᑐᐦᑌᓐ ᐊᓐᑕ ᒫᐗᒡ ᐁ ᓇᑕᐌᔨᒥᑖᓐ ᑖᓐ ᒋᐸ ᒌ ᐃᐦᑑᑌᓐ ᒉᒌ ᐯᒋ ᓇᑲᔑᔭᓐ᙮

ᑎᐯᔨᐦᒋᒉᐤᐦ ᒌ ᓇᔥᑴᐗᔑᐦᐃᑯᐤ, ᓂᑦ ᐊᐙᔑᔒᒻ ᑳ ᒥᔥᑕ ᔕᐌᔨᒥᑖᓐ, ᒋ ᓵᒋᐦᐃᑎᓐ᙮ ᓇᒪᐐᔾ ᒫᒃ ᐐᔅᑳᑦ ᒋᑲ ᒌ ᓇᑲᑎᑎᓐ᙮ ᒣᒀᒡ ᑳ ᑲᑴᒋᐦᐃᑲᐎᔭᓐ ᑲᔦ ᑳ ᓇᓀᐦᑳᑌᔨᒧᔭᓐ, ᐁᑯᑕ ᒫᒃ ᑳ ᐅᐦᒋ ᐱᒥᐎᔨᑖᓐ᙮

The above is a translation of “Footprints,” a popular Christian poem of disputed authorship. This translation is from the late Margaret Paddy from Oujé-Bougoumou and was edited by the author of this blog upon her request, as she was in the habit of having the spellings of her later work revised by him, some of which included translations of Moose Cree hymns.

Thorny Translations

I love seeing multilingual signage in public places, especially when Indigenous languages are included. In certain regions of Cree country this is more than mere tokenism as our language continues to be spoken by the majority and speakers are often literate. This is particularly true of elderly monolinguals who must often travel south for medical services. For these people, providing Cree signage is a small price to pay to make them feel welcome in a world where their ability to communicate is severely restricted. How difficult is it anyway to accommodate our people linguistically? 


Signage at Timmins & District Hospital (2020)

As it turns out, the most difficult part is often the translation itself as Cree language translators are often faced with thorny problems that lack eloquent solutions. For instance, translating between European languages is usually fairly straightforward. This is because most European language, barring Basque and the Finno-Urgic Languages, share a common ancestor and are therefore typologically quite similar. What’s more, they all make use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, a set of shared specialized vocabulary for all things scientific and many modern inventions. Cree, on the other hand, is neither related to, nor typologically similar to European languages and no consensus exists concerning the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary.

Take for instance the above image. A glance at both English and French translations will reveal a largely shared vocabulary. But while diagnostic imaging is rendered word for word as imagerie diagnostique in French, it is translated as ᔕᑄᐸᒋᑲᐣ (ᔖᑆᐸᐦᒋᑲᓐ) in Cree, a word coined decades ago that literally translates as “(thing used for) looking through.” This word, however, is quite common in Cree and would be readily understood by most speakers of the dialects spoken around both coasts of James Bay. A Cree translator would not have had any difficulty translating that word. However, the following makes me wonder just how long the translator had to ponder before deciding on this translation.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 7.26.44 PM.png

I must admit, I read this one twice before properly parsing it, but it turns out to be quite easy to understand. Despite this, the word is not likely to be in common use given its length and morphological complexity. While elevator and ascenseur are both nouns that each contain two morphemes (or word-parts), the Cree translation is a verb that contains no less than five morphemes and is conjugated in the third person passive of the conjunct indicative neutral – now that’s mouthful! Let us break it down and gain a better appreciation of the issues translators face. We will use the alphabetic spelling of this word in order to clearly illustrate its internal components.

kâ kospâhtawîwâpihkepaniwâkâniwahk

This word was obviously provided by a translator fluent in a dialect linguists call Swampy Cree, but it should be intelligible to speakers of other dialects, especially after we parse it here together. Here is the same word, colour coded to display its internal components.


Whoever came up with this translation clearly flexed those brain muscles! It translates to something along the lines of “roped platform which is used to automatically ascend.” Let us get started. The grey w‘s in the above word carry no meaning, they are simply connectors linguists call epentheses. The purple parts that surround the word are third person singular conjunct indicative neutral inflexions – simply put, they provide the word with the sense of “that which is.” The black portion of the word above is a passive inflexion of an underlying verb of the following form.


This word literally means “he or she uses something akin to a roped platform to ascend automatically.” Let us break it down further. The turquoise part of the word is an instrumental morpheme – it adds the sense of “using something for a particular task” to an underlying verb. If we remove this, we are left with the following.


The remaining word now means “he or she ascends automatically on a roped platform.” The final part refers to the automatism of the action, the green portion refers to the use of a rope or something rope-like, and the red portion refers to any movement done on a surface above ground. Finally, the blue portion refers to ascent. We can further remove the two last parts and end up with the following verb.


Now the word literally just mean “he or she ascends on a surface above the ground.” This is a verb often used for climbing stairs or any other platform, but would not be used for climbing a slope or a mountain.

The complexity of Cree verbs, amply illustrated by this example, is often recruited to translate words that are otherwise quite simple in English or French. This complexity, however, also means there is no guarantee the intended audience will fully understand what is referred to at times. And while putting up signage in our language is indeed an important task, Cree translators are often baffled by the task at hand, often resorting to calling one another for advice. A Cree language commission could eventually work on providing guidelines for the creation of neologisms or even explore the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, but until then translators are on their own, solving linguistic puzzles whose complexities few can truly appreciate.

Cree Folk Etymologies

A folk etymology is an attempt to explain the origin of a word or its internal structure by using more familiar words or word parts. It is often an innocent attempt at drawing a deeper meaning from a word that is otherwise morphologically opaque to the speaker. Sometimes, the folk etymology seems so logical that it even becomes the accepted form, pushing the original word into disuse. Take for instance the English word, crayfish. This word came into use in the 16th century from a reanalysis of the Middle English word crevis, originally a French loanword akin to the modern French écrevisse. Reanalyzing it as crayfish must have seemed more logical to speakers of 16th century English as it turned what was originally a French loanword into something much more English-sounding. Another example of a folk etymology that eventually prevailed over the original loanword is muskrat, as explained below.

Screen Shot 2020-03-29 at 7.17.30 PM.png

Folk etymologies are common to all languages, including Cree. In this post, I will discuss some common folk etymologies from four different dialects: Northern Coastal East Cree, Southern Inland East Cree, Southern Coastal Innu, and Plains Cree. As the Southern Coastal Innu speakers tend to speak French as a second language, the section dealing with words from their dialect will be written in French for their convenience. In order to clarify the origin of words and dispel their folk etymologies I will draw on cross-dialectal comparisons as well as the history of our language, always spelling using the standard orthography that consistently represents the phonology and morphology of our language, but will also include syllabic spellings except for the Southern Coastal Innu dialect as syllabics are not, and have never been, used in this dialect.

Northern Coastal East Cree

In this dialect there is a common assumption that the origin of the word meaning ‘eagle’ is the word meaning  ‘ugly’ or ‘dirty.’ Let us compare the two words in this dialect.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly

By comparing both words one can easily appreciate why the assumption is common. The confusion arises because of two features proper to this dialect that distinguish it from Old Cree. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree vowels a and i, both of which are pronounced as i in this dialect. The second feature is called palatalization, which is the change of the consonant k to a c (the c is a consonant that often sounds like the ch or ts in English) when the latter is followed by the vowel i. These features mean that words pronounced differently in Old Cree may have become homophonous in this particular dialect. Let us replace these lost vowels and consonants and compare these words again. To compare, the Old Cree forms will be placed in brackets at the end of the entries.

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw na eagle [Old Cree mikisiw]

ᒥᒋᓯᐤ micisiw vai 1) s/he is dirty 2) s/he is ugly [Old Cree macisiw]

We can expound further on the internal construction of these words, but the Old Cree forms are sufficiently different to make the case here.

Southern Inland East Cree

As with the previous dialect, there are features in this one that obfuscate the origins of certain words. One such feature is the loss of distinction between s and š (the š sounds like the sh in English, or the ch in French) In this dialect, s is pronounced š, except by certain speakers when these consonants are in proximity to a c or t, in which case both s and š are pronounced s. Because of this, speakers of this dialect will say iškwew for ‘woman,’ but will say âpatisiw, not *âpatišiw, for ‘s/he works,’ maintaining the s in this situation due to the proximity of the t.

A second feature of this dialect is the loss of short vowels when these occur between consonants that are either identical or pronounced in the same region in the mouth (i.e. homorganic consonants). These features help elucidate the following examples.

The first example is the word for ‘thundering,’ which many people pronounce as follows:

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder

Many suggest this word is a contraction of nimisciw, ‘thunder’ and šikâw, ‘day.’ The latter is used in compounds to designate weather in common words such as maci‑cîšikâw and miyo‑cîšikâw. However, the above form is in fact a reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, a word composed of nimisciw, ‘thunder,’ and the final of abundance ‑skâw.

ᓂᒥᔅᒌᔑᑳᐤ nimiscîšikâw vii there is thunder [reanalysis of nimiscîskâw, Old Cree  nimiskîskâw]

Another popular folk etymology in this dialect is the origin of the word Nemiska, the name of a historical summering ground as well as a modern community. The word’s original form has been preserved throughout the centuries and continues to be written as follows in syllabics:

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ Nemiskâw ni, place name Nemiska

In trying to explain this word, people often suggest it means ‘place with lots of fish.’ This of course compels them to suggest it comes from the Old Cree word namêsiskâw, which speakers of this dialect pronounce as namešškâw, due to the above mentioned features of this dialect. Naturally, this is false. The problem here is the presence of an archaic component that obscures the meaning of the word. In fact, the word is composed of ne-, ‘point’ and the archaic form ‑miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water).’ The latter is a common component of place names and is found in the name of another well-known lake in this region, Lake Opémisca or Opimiskâw in Cree, meaning ‘underwater strait’ or ‘narrow channel.’ In the modern dialect, the form of this component is ‑âmiskâw and words based on this component are readily used and understood by fluent speakers. This â preceding the component is termed a ‘pre-medial accretion’ in Algonquian linguistics. A feature of Old Cree is the absence of this vowel where it is found in many modern Cree dialects. Nemiskâw then really refers to an ‘underwater point,’ a feature that would be extremely useful for a community of fishermen who set nets for a living!

ᓀᒥᔅᑳᐤ nemiskâw 1) (obsolete) vii there is an underwater point 2) (Nemiskâwni, place name Nemiska [origin ne- ‘point’ + miskâw, ‘bed (of a body of water)’, akin to modern Cree âmiskâw]

A third folk etymology in this dialect that is quite popular is the origin of the word Waswanipi, the name of another local community. The origin of this word however has already been discussed in a previous blogpost and can be read here.

Southern Coastal Innu

Pour ce dialecte, parlé à Pessamit, nous allons regarder deux étymologies populaires. Comme les dialectes ci-dessus, certains traits de ce dialecte sont propices à ces sortes d’étymologies. Comme le cri de l’est de l’intérieur (Southern Inland East Cree), la distinction entre s et š est perdu dans ce dialecte en faveur de š, épelé sh dans l’orthographe locale. La palatalization du k en c, épelé tsh, est aussi un trait comme dans le cri de l’est. Finalement, il y à aussi question de la perte de distinction entre les voyelles a et i, comme dans le cri de l’est du nord (Northern Coastal East Cree). C’est en grande partie à cause de ces traits qu’on retrouve le type d’étymologie dont on discutera ici. Le premier s’agit de l’origine du mot nashkumeu.

nashkumeu vta il/elle le/les remercie

On entend souvent les locuteurs de ce dialecte suggérer que l’origine de ce mot serait un mot qui voudrait dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Par contre, le mot ci-dessus est dans aucun dialecte prononcer de la même manière que le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’ Tournons nous vers la langue ancestrale pour le comparer avec le mot qui veut dire ‘donner une outarde.’

naskomêw vta il/elle le/les remercie

oniskimihêw vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Juxtaposés, c’est amplement claire qu’ils n’ont pas de la même source. Maintenant pour les décomposer, dans la langue ancestrale bien sûr.

Naskomew est un verbe transitif composé de la racine verbal nasko– et la finale transitive animée de locution ‑mew. Anciennement, la forme inanimée était naskohtamo. Le verbe voulais dire ‘consentir’ ou ‘accepter.’ Dans la plupart des dialectes cris ce sens est maintenu. Dans ces dialectes le verbe peux vouloir dire ‘remercier’ ou sinon, c’est la forme rédupliquée nanâskomew, qui prend ce rôle. Le deuxième mot, oniskimihew est la forme transitive du verbe oniskimiw, qui est la forme verbale de oniskima, qui est la forme possessive de niska, ‘outarde.’

De plus, le deuxième mot est en fait pas utilisé dans ce dialecte. Il est plutôt substitué par le mot suivant.

unishkimikueu vta il/elle lui/leur donne une outarde

Tout cela étant dit, c’est impossible dans notre langue de rédupliquer un nominatif, ce qui est preuve que naskomew et nanâskomew ne peuvent pas venir de niska, le mot ancestral pour ‘outarde.’ Il faut aussi se demander pourquoi un mot voulant dire remercier viendra d’un mot voulant dire donner quelque chose!

La deuxième étymologie populaire est l’origine du mot atamishkueu. L’idée serait que ce mot tire ses origines du mot amishku, ‘castor.’

atamishkueu vta 1) il/elle le/les salue 2) il/elle lui/leur donne un cadeau

Le deuxième sens est propre à ce dialecte. Dans les dialectes de la Baie James ce mot n’est plus utilisé et on le retrouve seulement dans la vieille littérature religieuse et seulement avec son sens original, qui est de ‘saluer.’ On continue, par contre, à l’utilisé dans l’ouest avec ce sens. Dans les vieux dictionnaires des dialectes parlés au Saguenay, des dictionnaires compilés par des Jésuites dans les années 1600s et 1700s, le sens de ‘saluer’ est toujours celui qui est mentionner.

Bien sûr, ce mot n’a rien à voir avec le castor et la forme ancestrale de ce mot nous aide à voir ceci.

atamiškawêw vta il/elle le/les salue

La racine de ce mot c’est atam- suivie par les finales pour ‘contacte avec le corps,’ soit ‑škawew et sont antipassif ‑škâkew. Ces formes sont maintenant ‑shkueu et ‑shkatsheu dans ce dialecte. La racine atam– ce trouve dans un autre mot mentionné dans les anciens dictionaires, atamihew, que le père Fabvre vers la fin des année 1600s a traduit par “faire plaisir, bons offices à qlqn.”

Pour être claire, ‘donner un castor’ serait plutôt utamishkumikueu dans l’orthographe moderne de ce dialecte. Il est amplement claire que ce mot n’a rien à voir avec atamishkueu!

Plain Cree

For this dialect we will discuss two popular folk etymologies before bringing this post to an end. There are two features of this dialect that will help elucidate these etymologies. The first is the loss of distinction between Old Cree s and š, as in so many other dialects. However, in Plains Cree the loss is in favour of s. The second feature is the loss of distinction between Old Cree r and y, in favour of y.

The first first folk etymology we will discuss is the proposed relationship between the Plains Cree words for ‘woman’ and ‘fire.’

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire

The rational behind this, aside from a phonetic resemblance, is that women would have traditionally been the keepers of the home fire. However, the words in Old Cree are not as similar as Plains Cree speakers would have wished when the lost distinction between s and š is reestablished.

ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ iskwêw na woman

ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ iskotêw ni fire [Old Cree iškotêw]

As with the examples from other dialects, the loss of distinction between two Old Cree sounds is often what leads people to reanalyze common words with obscure origins. Another common example in Plains Cree is the endonym, Nêhiyaw, which some people have tried to explain as ‘four-bodied person’ and, alternatively, as ‘precise speaker.’ Of course, this word today simply refers to a Cree person.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person

As with some of the other folk etymologies mentioned above, there is often a bit of romanticizing involved. This is often a telltale sign that the explanation is false. Consider the Old Cree form of this word.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw na a Cree person [Old Cree nêhiraw, ‘a person belonging to one’s tribe, a compatriot’]

The historical meaning of this word is supported by historical and modern sources. For example, foreign tribes allied to our people would be designated by a compound word prefixed by this word, for example the Nêhiraw-kwêtâciwak of  the 1600s (referring to the ‘Allied Iroquois,’ i.e. the Wyandot) or the Nêhiyaw-pwâtak of the plains (referring to the ‘Allied Sioux,’ i.e. the Dakota). Additionally, the word is known to have been used by other Algonquian peoples, including the Anishinabe. In their language the word meant precisely the same thing, but would have been pronounced nî’ina. An 1886 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, compiled by J.A. Cuoq, includes the following words – note the presence of Latin and an old orthography based on French:

NIINA, (2) de notre nation; (note 2 states, “Cf. le latin nostras qui n’est qu’un dérivé de NOS, de même a été formé de NI, signe de la 1ère personne)
Niina ikwe, femme de notre nation ;
Niina masinaigan, livre à l’usage de notre nation ;
Niinawe, parler la langue de notre nation ;
Niina ikitowinan, nostratia verba
niinawinagos, i avoir l’air d’être un des nôtres, un de nos nationaux ;
Niinawisi otenang, à notre village, au village algonquin ;
Niinawisik nongom animisik, ceux de notre nation ont de la peine dans ce temps-ci;
Kotakitok Niiawisik, egent Nostrates.

Going back even further to F. Baraga’s 1853 dictionary of the Anishinabe language, we find on page 284 the word “niinawe, (nin),” which he glosses as “I speak the language of the people with whom I live.” This word is an exact cognate of the Plains Cree nêhiyawêw.

Now that the Old Cree meaning of this word has been explained, let us turn to the folk etymologies. The ‘four-bodied person’ explanation is quite straightforward. Aside from it being odd, it requires a word of the form *nêwiraw to have existed. This word, which would literally mean ‘four-body,’ would then undergo some irregular change of inserting an extra syllable and losing a w, yielding nêhiraw. If this were the case, we would expect to find evidence either in the historical record or in another dialect or related language, yet no evidence for this can be found anywhere. No such word exists in any Cree dialect or related language.

The second folk etymology is that of ‘precise speaker.’ This explanation is meant to apply to the verb nêhiyawêw in Plains Cree.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree

The idea behind this one is that the word would be based on the root nah-, meaning ‘favourable’ or ‘proper’ and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. However, combining these components would yield *nahiwêw, a non-existent word, rather than nêhiyawêw. For this explanation to therefore make sense, we would first need to ignore the fact that the initial vowel of nêhiyawêw does not match the vowel in the root nah-. Additionally, we would need to ignore the whole middle section of the word! Fortunately, the actual derivation of this word is actually straightforward – it is composed of nêhiyaw and a component referring to speech that is common to all dialects of Cree, ‑w. The original meaning of this word is therefore quite clear.

ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐁᐧᐤ nêhiyawêw vai s/he speaks Cree [Old Cree nêhirawêw, ‘s/he speaks the language of the tribe’]

The real issue behind these folk etymologies is the difficulty people have of accepting that the word nêhiyaw in Plains Cree is really just a single word with a straightforward meaning. In fact, this word exists in most Cree dialects, but never with an initial component nêw-, meaning ‘four,’ as proposed by the first etymology, nor with the initial root nah– as in the second. The historical, cross-dialectal, and cross-linguistic data is amply clear about both the original form of the word and its meaning.

Folk etymologies are always quite interesting as they reveal ways in which people perceive certain aspects of the language they speak. There are many other folk etymologies in Cree, but this initial survey will hopefully have peaked your interest in the subject. Stay on the look out for interesting explanations of Cree words and feel free to share any you may have heard in the comments below!

Typing in Cree

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 8.46.43 PM.png

With the release of the Canada 150 Typeface in 2015 I decided to contact its designer, Raymond Larabie, about an error in the orientation of certain characters in its Cree syllabics. Fortunately, Mr. Larabie knew lots about typeface design and he soon realized the error resided with Unicode, the information technology standard for consistent encoding and representation of text in most of the world’s writing systems. He quickly contacted Debbie Anderson, Technical Director at Unicode, and together we worked to rectify the error for the release of Unicode 9.0.0.

Since then, default typefaces for syllabics, such as Euphemia, have yet to be updated and typing in syllabics continues to be frustrating, especially over the internet where the typeface is set in stone, so to speak. Thankfully, there are a number of typefaces designed by those in the know that avoid Unicode’s previous errors, my favourite being BJ Cree by Bill Jancewicz. When I switched to a Mac a number of years ago I appreciated that he had designed a keyboard that could easily be installed and used without Keyman, the cumbersome program used to type in syllabics on a PC and cellphones.

I immediately noticed a few differences between BJ Cree on my Mac, when compared to the PC version. For one, the W-series on the Mac consists of one Unicode character when compared to the PC version where the dot representing the W is a separate character from the syllable that follows. Naturally, this causes problems when searching for text that was originally composed on a PC, but this problem is more of a nuisance than a obstacle.

Two years ago, however, I noticed another mistake that would have gone unnoticed for years were it not for the fact that we had just published a pedagogical syllabics chart for Moose Cree. Only after printing the charts did I notice that the character representing RE pointed in the wrong direction, showing up as ᕂ (U+1542) instead of ᕃ (U+1543). This puzzled me at first and had me wondering if I had been using the wrong character all these years when writing by hand. My uncertainty lied in the fact that the R-series is rarely written as the sound does not exist in our dialect, so only words of foreign origin require it. However, a quick check in the the literature made it clear that the keyboard was wrong. Unfortunately, the syllabic charts had already been printed and all there was for me to do was to update the syllabics chart featured on this website.

For some reason I had not thought of contacting the designer of this typeface and keyboard. After all, I was right in the middle of my medical studies at the time. But as luck would have it, a casual conversation last week with Arden Ogg, Director and Chair of the Cree Literacy Network, led to her e-mailing Bill Jancewicz on the subject. A week and a half later, he informed me that he had corrected the keyboard error. However, upon testing it, another error that was noted to have inadvertently crept in. I informed Bill Jancewicz of the error and we discussed other changes that could be made to improve its function. I suggested a narrow no-break space (U+202F) could be added to keep grammatical and lexical preforms closer to their hosts. This suggestion resulted from a conversation Arden Ogg and I had had about how awkward large spaces look in syllabics when these are used between preforms and their hosts. Incredibly, Bill was gracious enough to include this narrow no-break space on the new keyboard and placed it on the dash key, which would normally be used when typing in the alphabetic orthography in these situations.

I would like to thank Bill Jancewicz for taking the time to correct the above mentioned error on his Mac keyboard and for including the narrow no-break space. Although modern technology still offers some resistance to the use of our written language, he is among those who make it possible for us to do so. I encourage all Cree speakers to get involved and to use the language as much as possible on modern media. The resistance we encounter today will eventually vanish as we progressively improve our tools.

For those interested in downloading Bill Jancewicz’s typeface and keyboards, they can be found here. Note that it may take a few days for the corrected version of his Mac keyboard to be uploaded.

Strengthening our Language & Culture Through Literacy

Keynote Address presented by Dr. Kevin Brousseau at the Cree School Board’s Annual General AssemblyFebruary 26, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 11.50.30 AM

ᑴᔾ, ᒋ ᐴᔔᐦᑳᑎᓈᐙᐤ ᒥᓯᐌ᙮

ᓃᔥᑕᒻ ᓂᐐ ᓇᓈᔅᑯᒫᐗᒡ ᐊᓂᒋ ᑳ ᓇᑐᒥᑣᐤ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᐊᔭᒥᔮᓐ ᐆᑕ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ᙮ ᐃᐦᑖᒉᓂᒡ ᐆᑕ ᐊᐌᓂᒋ ᐁᑳ ᐁ ᒋᔅᒉᔨᒥᑣᐤ ᐊᐌᓐ ᐃᔮᐎᔮᓐ᙮ ᐙᔂᓂᐲᐎᔨᓂᐤ ᓃᔾ, ᕕᓐ ᕉᓴᐤ ᓂᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᓱᓐ᙮ᑲᓈᔥ ᓀᔥᑦ ᒋᓐ ᓂᑑᑌᒪᒡ᙮ ᐊᐗᓯᑌ ᓃᔥᑕᓇᐤ ᐱᐳᓐ ᓂᑦ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᐦᑲᐦᑌᓐ ᒋᑦ ᐊᔭᒥᐎᓂᓇᐤ᙮ ᓂᔮᔭᓄ ᐱᐳᓐ ᒫᒃ ᐊᔅᐱᓐ ᓂᒌ ᐴᓂ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᓐ ᐆᑌ ᐅᒉᐳᑲᒨᐦᒡ ᒦᓐ ᒉ ᓇᑕᐎ ᐃᔅᑰᓕᐎᔮᓐ ᓇᑐᐦᑯᔨᓐ ᒉᒌ ᐃᑖᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ᙮ ᐁᑾᓐ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᐁ ᐃᑖᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ ᐊᓐᑌ ᑎᒥᓐᔅ᙮ ᐊᓐᑌ ᒫᒃ ᓃᑳᓂᐦᒡ ᓂ ᐸᑯᓭᔨᐦᑌᓐ ᑳᐤ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᒌᐌᔮᓐ ᐃᔨᓂᐤ ᐅᑌᓈᐦᒡ ᒉᒌ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ᙮

ᒉ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᐃᑕᑯᒡ ᒫᒃ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᓂᑲ ᐌᒥᔥᑎᑰᔒᐎ ᐊᔭᒥᓐ ᐁᑕᑕᐤ ᒉᒌ ᐸᔭᐦᑌᐦᑖᑯᐦᐃᑎᓱᔮᓐ᙮ ᐁᑯᑌ᙮

As many of you know, my family and I lost our beloved matriarch this past year, my grandmother Mary Jane Kitchen. From a young age, I had been especially close to this grandmother as she would often spend time with us in our home along the highway between Senneterre and Val-d’Or. In fact, as a child I had always been close to both my grandmothers and the two of them have gifted me with many beautiful memories of my childhood. I can certainly say they’ve had a lasting impact on the development of my character and my values as a man today.

My late grandmother instilled in most of those who knew her a deep respect for our language and culture, and this is certainly the case for me as well. In fact, my main motivation for learning to speak our language, as many of you know I did not speak Cree as a child, was to be able to communicate in Cree with my Cree grandmother in the same way I could communicate in French with my French grandmother. I’m glad to say I achieved that goal.

My earliest memories of my late grandmother, surprisingly, were not of her setting snares, though there are certainly many of those memories. They also were not of her beading, though she certainly beaded on nearly a daily basis. My earliest memories were not of her ᐋᔭᐦᑯᓈᐤ, nor her ᓰᐹᔾ. In fact, my earliest memories of my late grandmother were of her reading. This is because my grandmother, who spoke only Cree, read on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. I can still see her, every night before bed, pulling out her Bible or prayer book and reading. She would often sound out the syllabic characters for me as I sat next to her. In fact, this is how I learned how to read Cree before I even understood what I was reading. I can still remember telling her about this book I had found one day titled ᐸᐹᒧᐦᑌᐤ ᐁ ᐱᒥᐱᒋᑦ. This work of fiction, published in 1886, was a Moose Cree translation of John Bunyan’s 1678 book titled Pilgrim’s Progress. It was translated by Thomas Vincent, a Cree clergyman of the Church of England. What struck me about this memory was how my grandmother already knew of this book and had in fact read it as a young woman. She proceeded to tell me what it was about and explained how she managed to get her hands on a copy years ago and how her late brother had also read it.

But she was not the only one with a love of reading – my late great aunt Meliy-ânish Saganash once told me about how the men long ago would carry their prayer books in specially made book bags on hunting or trapping expeditions. They would bring the books along to have something to read during their breaks and evenings while on these long trips. Clearly, reading was appreciated by many in the older generations.

My own grandmother’s love of reading was likely transmitted to my mother. Although she reads in English, she does so every evening before bed and has done so for as long as I can remember. I can only imagine the number of books my mother has read in her lifetime, but it is likely only surpassed by the number of baby blankets she’s made over the years. I can tell you, however, that she would likely be unhappy were she unable to continue reading. In fact, she tells me her late father would discipline her by hiding her Archie comics as a young woman. Ever the joker, he once hid her books by tying them above her bed, which she only discovered when she lied down for sleep that evening.

As a result, I grew up in a home where books were present and reading was expected. As children, my mother would often read books to my siblings and I. She tells me how I once told her, at 3 or 4 years old, that I couldn’t wait to start reading on my own. I can now confirm that being an avid reader over the years has definitely been the key to my success. And I have passed on this love of reading to my own children.

But I mention these memories for another reason that I think is relevant to our present situation. You see, we often speak of our language and culture as things divorced from education, generally, and literacy, specifically. How many times have we heard this notion that our culture and language belong in the bush? Or that we have an oral tradition? Certainly those statements are correct, but they also imply a restricted perspective. If our culture and language belong in the bush, do they not also belong in our communities and in our schools? And if we have inherited an oral tradition, should we not write our thoughts down in Cree? It is almost as if we use these statements to permit the encroachment of non-Cree culture and language into our homes and communities. An equally correct statement that would be more expansive is that our culture and language belong wherever we are as Cree people, whether in the bush, in the community, in the office, in the school, or anywhere else we chose to be.

But more unsettling notions that surface from time to time are that the culture and language are partly responsible for the poor performance of students in our schools – that their presence in our schools somehow takes away from the rest of the curriculum. Consider a nation state such as India, where numerous languages are spoken, each with its own dialects. In this particular country, the linguistic curriculum teaches the local regional language, whether that be Punjabi, Gujrati, or Malayalam, but also teaches the national language, in this case Hindi, along with English as an international language. Presently, in Timmins, there are hundreds of international students attending the local college, most of them from India. How is it that these students arrive in this country speaking English, along with two other languages? Why are their schools successful at providing a trilingual education, yet we struggle with simply providing a high-quality bilingual environment?

I would advance that there are numerous factors involved, true, but that an important one is undoubtedly this restricted perspective we often endorse regarding our own language and culture. We often speak of these things as belonging to the bush, as I previously mentioned, but also as things that are frozen in time – things that do not, or should not, change.

Yet, by definition, all cultures and languages must change. They must adapt to changes in technology. They must adapt to changes in the economy. They must adapt to changing political systems. Yet even without all of these forces, cultures and languages do change from one generation to another as dictated by personal idiosyncrasies and human innovation. Our ancesters were certainly responsible for changes in our language and culture over the last few centuries of contact with European peoples.

The adoption of the gun, the outboard motor, cloth clothing, and glass beads are all examples of changes in technology that have become fully integrated into our culture. These examples of foreign technology all came to us through a realignment of our trading partners, from indigenous peoples in the south to European traders from across the ocean. Aside from technology, this change from the previous economic system led to many changes in our language. In addition to having to name new technology, such as the items I just mentioned, European words were also adopted and adapted into our language. Older greetings such as ᑴᔾ, a testament to our trade relationships with indigenous partners to the south prior to arrival of Europeans, were replaced along the coast by ᐙᒋᔦ, a word derived from an old British greeting, and near French communities by ᐴᔔ, derived from bonjour. Thus, we now greet one another with ᒋ ᐙᒋᔦᒥᑎᓐ or ᒋ ᐴᔔᐦᑳᑎᓐ, both words being ultimately derived from English and French, respectively. And as Europeans increasingly settled in these lands, so did our political system change, leading us also change the way we speak about governing ourselves in our own language. None of these changes to our culture and language come as any surprise to any of us today – we all accept these changes as part of who we are. In the same way, our ancestors embraced literacy – both reading and writing – to such an extent that it has been estimated that the overwhelming majority of the adult population in the pre-residential school era could read in Cree. How things have changed today.

We would not be talking about strengthening our language and culture at this general assembly if we did not believe that their futures were uncertain. But the problem cannot be the culture, or the language itself, for both of these things have proven, over the last few centuries, to be perfectly adaptable to our ever-changing realities as Cree people. However, we must acknowledge that the integrity of our language and culture has suffered through the great social upheaval that began with the residential school system, where children were robbed of their traditional education in favour or an assimilatory agenda imposed by the Canadian government. As we all know too well, this tragedy did not leave us unscathed. But in the years that followed we nonetheless managed to empower ourselves as a distinct nation in order to forge through the colonial status quo that continues to fetter too many indigenous peoples in this country. In the process, we managed to establish our very own Cree School Board, a powerful entity with so much potential that unfortunately continues to be underestimated and underappreciated by many of our own people. This needs to change, for the Cree School Board will be the fulcrum of our future success or failure as a nation.

Despite this heavy burden, most of us also expect the Cree School Board to have a part to play in the transmission of our culture and language. In this regard, I believe too little attention has been placed on crafting a high-quality curriculum that leads to the acquisition of a Cree literacy that is on par with the education our students receive in English and French. But why so much talk about literacy? It’s quite simple really – in this era of information I believe literacy in English, French, and Cree will be that which will tip us towards success as individuals and collectively as a nation. Literacy will not solve anything in and of itself, but it will produce thoughtful and knowlegeable individuals who will. And although our culture, as any other culture, cannot be simply transmitted by the written word, so much of what is presently in danger of being lost can. Around the world, literacy is a key component of culture and language – why would it not be so for us as well?

I would like to emphasize that much has been done in the way of developing literacy in our language since we have taken control of our own education. The Cree Way Project, for which the late Annie Whiskeychan was known, did great strides at providing school children with reading material. Following that, numerous authors from every community have also contributed to the Cree School Board by writing their stories for students. A need for proper reference materials led to the production of dictionaries of our own dialects, a project that has spanned a few decades and which required the collaboration of speakers from many communities. Yet, despite all this effort the average child who makes it through our school system is not comfortably literate in Cree, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Facebook. Some may laugh, but I think we can safely say we have succeeded when our language starts taking precedence over English and French in public spheres, including social media.

Our culture and language are of utmost importance if we are to persist as a distinct nation. So let us not be discouraged! Each and every one of us can be an ambassador for the culture and language. And each and every one of us holds a piece of the solution. No one here knows every word in our language. No one knows every single ᐋᑕᔫᐦᑳᓐ. And no one knows every bit of local history or every single traditional skill, though some certainly seem to come close. Strengthening our culture and language, and transmitting it to the next generation, is something we must do together – for it is when they are experienced together, as families, as communities, and as a nation, that our culture and language mean the most.

What Cheers?

Most outsiders visiting Cree communities around Wînipekw (aka James Bay) have heard or have been taught the Cree salutation ‘wâciye’ without any mention of its origins or history. It may surprise many to know that this salutation is actually of English origin and that it has not always enjoyed such a widespread distribution. Its popularity has led to the decline of other salutations in the Cree language, leading even some young Cree people looking puzzled when they hear some of these other words. In this blogpost we will explore the history of Cree salutations.

The word ‘wâciye’ can be heard in all Cree communities around Wînipekw and is typically spelled in a variety of ways, depending on the type of orthography and dialect. In syllabics, it is spelled either ᐙᒋᔦ  or ᐙᒋᔮ, the latter being the dialectal form used in the northern east coast communities. Some may even spell it ᐙᒋᔮᐦ in the northern dialect, following a more recent trend of marking all final aspirations in Cree. Using the alphabet, the word may also be seen spelled as ‘wâchiye,’ ‘waachiye,’ ‘wâchiyâ,’ ‘wâchiyâh,’ ‘waachiyaa,’ or ‘waachiyaah.’ There are of course some flagrant misspellings, but these will be ignored for the purposes of this post.

The word itself is actually an English borrowing. Watkins, an Anglican missionary, wrote in his Cree dictionary of 1865 that “The expression, ‘what cheer?’ has been adopted by the Indians and is used both at meeting and at parting, answering in the former case to ‘how do you do?’ and in the latter ‘good bye.’ It is generally doubled, ‘what cheer? what cheer?'” He also wrote that the English expression is “the common seaman’s salutation” and that it had become “thoroughly naturalized into Cree.” He even provides us with the word’s plural form, ‘wâciyekw,’ spelling it “whatcheâk” in his dictionary.

The English expression “what cheer” appears to have a continued existence in English as well, albeit in contracted forms. The Oxford English Dictionary provides us with two entries, “wotcher” and “wotcha,” stating their etymologies as “late 19th century: corruption of what cheer?” The words are therein glossed as informal British greetings.

Interestingly, the use of this word in Cree, although entirely naturalized by the mid-19th century, has not always extended outside of the coastal communities. Inlanders can often recall the first time they heard the word, usually in the context of meeting coasters. The word appears to have begun spreading inland in the 1970s, a time of social upheaval as our people negotiated the JBNQA and eventually settled in our contemporary communities. For inlanders, the more popular salutation has been ‘kwey,’ not ‘wâciye.’

‘Kwey’ has generally enjoyed a much broader distribution than ‘wâciye,’ being used in Cree dialects such as Southern East Cree, Atikamekw, and Western Innu. Aside from Cree, the word is also used in the Anishinabe dialects spoken in Quebec, as well as in the Eastern Abenaki languages. This has led many to suggest it is a loadword from Anishinabe, but the fact remains that only the dialects spoken in the region that straddles the Ottawa river and Abitibi Lake use this term. Further west, the word is replaced by ‘aanii(n),’ literally meaning ‘how.’ This then begs the question, where does ‘kwey’ come from?

The earliest mention of ‘kwey’ in a Cree language document appears to be in Charles Arnaud’s 1856 manuscript dictionary of the dialect spoken at Essipit and Pessamit. Arnaud, an Oblate missionary, lists the word as “Bonjour Kuaï Kuaï.” Earlier manuscript dictionaries curiously omit the word, suggesting it may in fact have been borrowed from another language between the time of the early manuscript dictionaries and Arnaud’s time. In fact, the earliest textual examples we have of this word are from the Jesuit Relations, but they do not refer to the Cree language. Two such examples of the word show up in 1636, both reported by the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf when speaking of the Wyandot people. Despite the loss of their language due to the epidemics, war, and relocation, their close relatives the Mohawk continue to use this word as a greeting in the community of Kahnawake. The word may therefore actually be a Iroquoian loanword that spread into Algonquian communities after the displacement of the Wyandot to Quebec City in the mid-17th century.

So if both ‘wâciye’ and ‘kwey’ are loan words, what was the original Cree salutation? The Plains Cree dialect appears to have preserved the original word, spelled “atamiskawêw” in Arok Wolvengrey’s dictionary of Plains Cree, published in 2011. Being a verb, it can be translated as ‘he or she greets him or her.’ In fact, the word is present in literary sources from dialects spoken around Wînipekw in the mid-19th century, including Bible translations and even Watkins’ dictionary mentioned above. It also shows up in early manuscript dictionaries, including one from the 1680s, compiled by Antoine Silvy, a Jesuit stationed in the Saguenay region who is also known for having travelled all the way to the region of present day Waskaganish. In the Jesuit Bonaventure Fabvre’s dictionary from the 1690s, the phrase “kit atamiskâtin” is found, followed by the gloss “je te salue.” This then appears to have been a widespread expression that has fallen out of use as ‘wâciye’ and ‘kwey’ increasingly gain popularity. But they are not the only words used nowadays.

ᑮ ᐊᑕᒥᔅᑲᐌᐤ

Luke 1:40, “And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.” (1876, Moose Cree translation)

In Southern East Cree and certain Innu dialects, the French word ‘bonjour’ has been adopted and is pronounced as ‘pôšow.’ Depending on the orthography used, it can also be seen spelled as ‘pûshû,’ ‘puushuu,’ or ‘pushu.’ This salutation has also been turned into verbs that replace the original word mentioned above. In Southern East Cree the verb is ‘pôšôhkawew’ while in the Innu dialects it is ‘pushukateu.’ These words generally mean ‘he or she greets him or her,’ but are sometimes interpreted as referring to handshaking, which has always been part of the traditional Cree salutation. In the same way, ‘wâciye’ has also been turned into a verb of the same meaning along the coast of Wînipekw. Here the verb is ‘wâciyemew.’

Whether one uses ‘wâciye,’ ‘kwey,’ or ‘pôšow,’ one should understand that all three of these loanwords are now part and parcel of the Cree language. They are not English, Wyandot, or French words anymore when pronounced in the Cree manner. In fact, the ability to accommodate loanwords, to a certain extent, is a sign of linguistic vitality. The English language would not be what it is today without its plethora of loanwords, including words of Algonquian origin such as ‘skunk,’ ‘toboggan,’ ‘moccasin,’ and ‘pow-wow.’ What is most important is that we simply continue speaking our language. And with that, I salute you all with a wâciye, kwey, and pôšow!