Otters & Clouds

Today, on a popular social media site, a picture of a cloud seen over Waswanipi was posted. The comment accompanying the picture read, “Hmmm, more weird looking clouds.” Here is the picture.

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“Hmmm, more weird looking clouds,” by Nadia Happyjack Cooper. Shared here with permission.

Granted, these clouds do look kind of weird, they are quite common. In the field of meteorology, this type of cloud is called by the Latin term altocumulus undulatus.

When faced with the need for highly specific words, the English language often depends on Latin. The Cree language, on the other hand, is properly equipped to describe highly detailed features of the natural world, including clouds. This is largely due to a grammatical feature called polysynthesis, which I spoke at length about in an earlier post. In the Cree language of Waswanipi, the altocumulus undulatus cloud is known by the following term:

ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᔅᑾᓐ

This word is a beautiful example of polysynthesis, so let us break it down. The word ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᐗᔅᑾᓐ is an inanimate intransitive verb (i.e., a VII) that features two medials built on the stem of a transitive animate verb (i.e., a VTA). The stem on which the word is built is the following:

ᐸᐦᑯᓐ/

This stem means, “to skin an animal.” To that stem a medial is attached, referring to the animal being skinned. In the case, the animal is an otter and the medial is as follows:

ᐋᒋᑴ/

This medial is derived, through a normal process of medial derivation, from the noun ᓂᒋᒄ. Together, these two components form a new stem, meaning “to skin an otter.” The stem is as follows:

ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴ/

To this stem, another medial is attached. This one means “cloud” and has the following form:

(ᐊ)ᔅᒄ

This medial is derived from the noun ᐗᔅᒄ, a word that is now obsolete in Waswanipi. This medial, however, cannot form a new stem without the addition of a final. The final here adds no meaning to the word, but rather helps form a VII verb. The final is the following:

ᐊᓐ/

Together, these components come to mean “there is an otter-skinning cloud.” This may be a strange description for anyone not accustomed to seeing otters being skinned, but for those who have the choice of word immediately becomes obvious.

When skinning an otter with a bone scraper, the skinner will simultaneously strike the subcutaneous tissues while pulling the skin away from the area being struck. Doing so repeatedly creates a lumpy texture in the otter’s fat, reminiscent of the aforementioned cloud.

While many of us nowadays tend to imagine puppies and kittens in the shapes of clouds, evidently hunters and trappers see things quite differently! So the next time you see an altocumulus undulatus you can help keep a beautiful and meaningful word in use by calling it what our people have called it for centuries, ᐸᐦᑯᓈᒋᑴᔅᑾᓐ.

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A Cree Knock-knock Joke

The creativity of children never ceases to amaze me. Linguistically, they find ways to play with the languages they speak that make us laugh while simultaneously saying much about where they are from. Here’s a funny example I once overheard from young children playing together in my home.

Knock knock!
 Who’s there?
Scooby-doo!
 Scooby-doo who?
Enh! You just said “doo who!”

Sadly, the comedic value of this joke only reaches the few Cree communities where doo who, properly spelled tôhow or ᑑᐦᐅᐤ, is known. I also expect some of these kids would have been scolded by their parents for using a word that refers to male genitalia. As a linguist, however, I could not help but laugh at what was a great example of humorous code-switching!

Waswanipi

The following blogpost was originally published on October 13, 2014 on another blog of mine. Save for a few typographical modifications, the post is presented here in its original form.

Only recently have I noticed how Waswanipi’s community emblem was changed from its original design. This must have happened years ago, but somehow it managed to escape my attention. I can distinctly remember the original emblem from my youth, with its torch suspended over the water. But the torch has now been replaced by the moon, which appears to be a better fit for the common, but erroneous, translation of ‘light on the water.’ For those not familiar with the design of the original emblem, here it is on a pin.

99802_Waswanipi_Logo1

The above emblem evidently pointed to the meaning of the name, which must have naturally been understood by those who designed it. The name, spelled Wâswânipiy using a standard orthography, literally translates into ‘torch-fishing lake,’ in reference to a traditional method of luring fish with light, hence the central position of the torch in the community’s emblem. The meaning, however, has largely faded into obscurity as the practice it describes was abandoned, probably in favour of more productive harvesting methods. Already a distant memory in the minds of elders in the 1970s, the practice of fishing by torchlight was eventually forgotten by the community who instead adopted a simplified “light on the water” translation for the community’s name. The result is a new emblem where the moon figures centrally over a lake, obscuring the original meaning of the name.

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The word wâswânipiy is composed of wâswân, meaning ‘torch-fishing place’ and …piy, a contracted form of nipiy used in reference to lakes (examples include mašcekopiy, ‘a pond surrounded by muskeg’ and amiskopiy, ‘a beaver pond’). Wâswân is itself a noun derived from the verb stem wâswe-, meaning ‘to fish by torchlight using a leister.’ In the not-so-distant past, this traditional fishing method was common throughout Cree country. The word is recorded as early as the late 1600s in manuscript dictionaries of the Cree language compiled by Jesuits Antoine Silvy and Bonaventure Fabvre. In the early 1700s, the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure again notes the word, translating it as ‘je vais au flambeau pêcher…’ But it is the Jesuit Paul LeJeune’s description from the Relations in the earlier 1600s that deserve attention. The following is a translation of LeJeune’s description, taken from page 311 of volume 6 of the Thwaites edition of the Relations.

This harpoon fishing is usually done only at night. Two Savages enter a canoe,—one at the stern, who handles the oars, and the other at the bow, who, by the light of a bark torch fastened to the prow of his boat, looks around searchingly for the prey, floating gently along the shores of this great river. When he sees an Eel, he thrusts his harpoon down, without loosening his hold of it, pierces it in the manner I have described, then throws it into his canoe. There are certain ones who will take three hundred in one night, and even more, sometimes very few. It is wonderful how many of these fish are found in this great river, in the months of September and October; and this immediately in front of the settlement of our French, some of whom, having lived several years in this country, have become as expert as the Savages in this art.

Aside from his questionable use of the word ‘Savages,’ LeJeune’s description beautifully details the performance of this nocturnal harvest, which Paul Kane captures on canvas in 1845.

Paul Kane

‘Fishing by Torch Light’ is an 1845 oil-on-paper sketch by Paul Kane (1810-1871).

While fishing with leisters is a tradition that has continued into modern times, the practice of doing so at night using torches has been lost in Waswanipi, as in most of Cree country. There are regions, however, where the practice has been remembered, and others where the practice has continued. In fact, the online Innu Dictionary continues to list vocabulary associated with the activity. In 1995, our relatives in what is now called Labrador took some students out on the land to experience our traditional culture. Included was torch-fishing with leisters. The following is a photograph of the students learning this age-old tradition.

Nutshimiu Atusseun Program: students salmon spearing at Tshenuamiu River 1995. Photo: Anthony Jenkinson

Nutshimiu Atusseun Program: students salmon spearing at Tshenuamiu River 1995. Photo: Anthony Jenkinson

This picture perfectly illustrates the meaning of Wâswânipiy, a lake where our people fished with leisters by torchlight. With the growing interest in our traditional culture, now might be the time to reintroduce this tradition. Either way, putting the torch back on the community’s emblem would be a good start!


A Glossary for Torch-Fishing

anihtokan. noun (inanimate); the barbed point of a leister

anihtoy. noun (animate); a leister

anihtoyâhtikw. noun (inanimate); the wooden handle of a leister

tahkamew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he spears it

wâswâkan. noun (inanimate); a torch used for night-fishing

wâswâkanaškway. noun (inanimate); a birchbark torch used for night-fishing

wâswân. noun (inanimate); place where people fish by torchlight using leisters

Wâswânipiy. place name; lake where people fish by torchlight using leisters

wâswâniwiw. verb (intransitive, inanimate); people are fishing by torchlight using leisters

wâswetotawew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he harvests it by torchlight using a leister

wâswew. verb (intransitive, animate); s/he fishes by torchlight using a leister

 

Moose Factory Cree: In Memory of Daisy Turner

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As the days grew shorter this year, almost symbolically it seemed, our nation saw the passing of Daisy Turner, a woman whose contribution to our language was known largely from the publication of her Moose Factory Cree in 1974. One year shy of becoming a centenarian, Daisy Turner had spent the last couple of years of her life in a elders’ home in Timmins, only to briefly return home to Moosonee before ‘going to sleep,’ as we sometimes say in Cree.

While preparing the second edition of the Dictionary of Moose Cree, published in 2015, I decided I should try to meet Daisy. My opportunity came when, heading home from Moose Factory, I had a few hours to spend in Moosonee before my plane landed.

Daisy greeted me at her beautiful home and cleared the kitchen table. She brought out her Moose Factory Cree and told me all about its origins. She then generously entertained my thoughts and answered some questions about the local dialect as we discussed the publication of the new dictionary, a project she supported wholeheartedly. What touched me most about our exchange, however, was her personal account of learning the language.

Moose Factory Cree

Published in 1974 by the now defunct Highway Book Shop

As she related during our conversation, Daisy had not acquired the Cree language in her own home. Speaking Cree, she told me, was not encouraged by her parents, both of whom were Cree-speakers, but who were also wemištikôšîhkân. This word, which literally means ‘made European,’ is how people of biracial parenting (and their children) are referred to in Cree.

The wemištikôšîhkân typically occupied a higher social status in the world of the fur trade, partly due to their ability to act as intermediaries between our people and Europeans. And while a man of biracial parenting might reasonably be expected to work at the trading post, speaking both Cree and English, and potentially marrying a Cree woman, a woman of similar parenting was often expected to approximate the European woman, speaking English, and marrying White, so to speak, if possible.

Such stories are common in our communities, but Daisy had a different idea in mind. She could not stand the idea of not being able to speak Cree. As she put it, she would leave her part of the village to visit the tents occupied by Cree families summering on the island. And while her friends were busy playing, she explained how she would often sit with their monolingual Cree elders and revel in their stories as she gradually acquired the language.

1935

Moose Factory in 1935 – Daisy would have been 17 years old back then

This is what makes Daisy’s story so interesting and inspiring. In a world where the state of our language is increasingly precarious, a world saturated by English that continuously insinuates the demise of our language, Daisy’s story reminds us that if we care enough to make the effort we can make a difference. After all, Daisy not only learned to speak Cree, but helped countless people by using her language skills to interpret for them during their encounters with medical professionals. And then of course there is her little book. Published in 1974, it joins the Cree Way Project in marking the 1970s as the beginning of our locally driven efforts to publish in our own language.

Daisy’s contribution to the Dictionary of Moose Cree can be counted as 615 entries, but her legacy as a Cree woman cannot be measured.

Sleep well Daisy, your rest is well-deserved.

Lost in Translation: Prostate Exams

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Since I began medical school, every module has inspired me to investigate anatomical and medical vocabulary in Cree. Given that we have been learning about the genitourinary system these days, I’ve been calling elders weekly with questions. Recently, while speaking to a septuagenarian from Moose Factory, I decided to ask him about prostate exams. Clearly aware of the subject, he chose to relate a story about his late father.

“A doctor used to come here long ago,” he said. “I guess people weren’t too fond of him – you could tell by the name they gave him,” he added.

Of course I asked him to continue and he said, laughingly, “My father used to call that doctor ᑳ ᓂᐦᑖ ᐴᐦᒋᑎᔦᓂᑫᑦ.” Of course I broke out laughing as well, but he had some advice for me. If I wanted to avoid being named in such a fashion, I should remain wary of appearing too zealous about things like prostate exams!

ᐴᑑ ᑳ ᒌ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᓈᐯᔑᔥ

ᐗᔭᐐᑎᒥᐦᒡ ᐁ ᒌ ᒣᑕᐌᔨᑯᐸᓀ ᐅᑯᓯᓴ ᐊᓂᐦᐁ ᐃᔅᑴᐤ, ᒌ ᐴᒣᐦᐁᑯᐸᓐ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᒌᐌᔨᒡᐦ᙮ ᒌ ᐯᐦᑖᑯᓯᐤ ᒫᒃ ᐁ ᑌᑆᑖᑦ ᐊᓂᑌ ᐗᔭᐐᑎᒥᐦᒡ, ᑑ! ᐁᑯᓐ ᒫᒃ ᑳ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᑖᑦ ᐅᑯᓯᓴ – ᐁ ᒌ ᐴᒐᐎᔑᔑᔨᒡᐦ ᑲᔭᐹ᙮ ᑑ ᐋᔥᑕᒻ! ᑑ ᐋᔥᑕᒻ! ᐁ ᒪᑗ ᑌᑆᑖᑦ᙮

ᓂᒧᔔᒻ ᒫᒃ ᑳ ᐐᑕᐱᒫᑯᐸᓀ ᓅᐦᑯᒻᐦ ᒌ ᐯᐦᑕᐌᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᐃᔅᑴᐤᐦ ᐁ ᒪᑗ ᑌᐺᔨᒡᐦ᙮ ᐁ ᐹᐦᐱᑦ ᒫᒃ ᒌ ᐃᑌᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤᐦ ᓅᐦᑯᒻᐦ, ᒉᒀᔨᐤ ᐊᓂᔨᐤ ᑳ ᐴᑕᐙᔥᑕᓂᔨᒡ?

Syllabics and the Unicode Consortium

When the Canadian government announced the release of the Canada 150 Typeface last year, I was immensely pleased to read that it would support Cree syllabics. In our communities, however, it is common knowledge that syllabic typefaces based on the Unicode Standard contain a number of errors in the sh-series that make typing in Cree quite a hassle. Fonts designed either locally or by linguists in the know have been used for years to circumvent this problem, but this requires that one manually change the font selected whenever typing in syllabics. Therefore, with the release of Canada 150, I immediately wanted to verify its Cree syllabics to see if the errors had been corrected.

Sadly, the errors had not been rectified and this prompted me to contact the designer of the typeface, Raymond Larabie. He was surprised to hear that the Unicode Standard contained such errors and immediately offered to help get the message across to the Unicode Consortium. We worked together to identify the erroneous glyphs and sent them examples of how the glyphs should be oriented. Eventually, the consortium replied and paid the matter the attention it deserved. A few months and emails later, the Unicode Consortium informed us that they had published a new errata notice to publicize the corrections that will take effect with the release of the Unicode Standard 9.0.

Barriers related to the use of our language need to be identified and removed if our language is to survive its uncertain future and perhaps even thrive once again. A font related problem might not seem that significant, but this little hassle has served as a disincentive for many people who would have otherwise embraced pairing our language with modern technology. I would therefore like to acknowledge and thank Debbie Anderson, Unicode Technical Director, and Raymond Larabie for their assistance in solving this problem.

It will take a while for typefaces to catch up with the corrections. In the meantime, those wishing to type in Cree can download and install the BJCree typeset provided freely here. It can be used on word processors, but not on social media. For the latter, we will simply have to be patient as we wait for the world to catch up to the Unicode Standard 9.0.

The errors and corrections can be seen below in the consortium’s latest errata notice.

Errata Unicode

Rapping in Cree

N’we Jinan, stylized from niwîcinân/ᓂᐐᒋᓈᓐ, meaning ‘we live (in a certain place)’, is a music initiative that provides a platform for Indigenous artists throughout Canada. Having gained in popularity since the release of their 2014 compilation album, they have since produced songs and albums for a variety of Indigenous artists, many of them Cree youth from the east coast of James Bay.

What caught my ear recently was a verse from their latest song. This verse, a rap by Gary Jolly from Nemaska, is performed entirely in Cree. Although he wouldn’t be the first to attempt such a feat, he certainly gets credit for exhibiting a style and cadence appropriate to the genre.

It should be noted that his rap features many contractions typical of the East Cree dialect as spoken by youth in Nemiska and can therefore be quite difficult to follow if one is not accustomed to it. As such, I have transcribed the lyrics below the video for those interested in seeing what he is saying. Enjoy!


ᒬᐦᒡ ᐁᑳ ᒥᑐᓐ ᐁ ᐱᓯᔅᑳᑎᑲᐎᔮᓐ ᐁ ᐃᑌᔨᐦᑕᒫᓐ
ᓲᐦᒃ ᒫᒃ ᓂᑲ ᑯᒋᐦᑖᓐ ᐆᑕᐦ ᐊᔅᒌᐦᒡ ᒉ ᐱᒧᐦᑌᔮᓐ
ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᒋᑲ ᐯᐦᑕᐎᓈᐙᐤ ᐁ ᐊᔮᔑᐦᑴᔮᐦᒡ
ᒬᐦᒡ ᐊᓐᑌ ᐁ ᐗᓂᔑᓂᔮᐦᒡ ᑖᓐ ᐁᔑᓈᑯᓯᔮᐦᒡ ᐁ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒌᐎᔮᐦᒡ
ᒥᒄ ᓂᑖᐺᐦᑌᓐ ᐯᔭᑯ ᒌᔑᑳᐤ ᒉ ᐸᓯᑰᑣᐤ
ᒨᔾ ᓂᐐ ᐙᐸᐦᑌᓐ ᓇᑕᐐᔨᔾ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᑣᐤ
ᒉ ᓂᐦᑖᐎᒋᑣᐤ ᐁ ᓃᑳᓂᔥᑲᐙᑣᐤ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒋᐤᐦ ᑲᔦ ᐐᔭᐙᐤ
ᒉ ᑑᑕᐦᒀᐤ ᑖᓐ ᑳ ᐃᑕᔓᒥᑯᑣᐤ ᒋᔐᒪᓂᑑᐦ

Cree Notions of Manhood

ᓂᒌ ᑖᐦᑳᐱᐦᒉᓇᒪᐙᐤ ᐅᑖᑯᔒᐦᒡ ᒋᔐᐃᔨᓂᐤ ᐊᓂᑌ ᑳ ᐐᒋᑦ ᒨᓱᓃᐎ ᒥᓂᔥᑎᑯᐦᒡ ᐁ ᐐ ᑲᑴᒋᒪᒃ ᒉᒀᓂᐦᐃ ᑳ ᒫᒥᑐᓀᔨᐦᑕᒧᒃ᙮ ᒣᒀᒡ ᑳ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᐃᑐᔮᐦᒡ ᒌ ᒋᐦᑖᑐᑕᒻ ᐌᔥᑲᒡ ᑳᒌ ᐃᑖᑲᓂᐎᔨᒡᐦ ᓈᐯᐤᐦ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᐦᑖᐐᒫᐎᔨᒡᐦ᙮

ᑭ ᑭᔅᑫᓕᐦᑌᓐ ᓈ ᑖᓂ ᐁᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᓈᐯᐤ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᐦᑖᐐᒫᐎᑦ ᐁ ᐅᑯᓯᓯᑦ ᒫᑲ? ᓂᒌ ᑲᑴᒋᒥᒄ᙮

ᓇᒪᐐᔾ᙮ ᓂᒌ ᐃᑖᐤ ᐁ ᓇᔥᑴᐗᔑᐦᐊᒃ᙮

ᒨᓚ ᐁᔥᑾ ᑭ ᓈᐯᐎᓐ! ᐃᑖᑲᓂᐎᐤ᙮ ᓂᒌ ᐃᑎᒄ ᐊᓂᐦᐁ ᒋᔐᐃᔨᓂᐤ᙮

ᐁᒄ ᑳ ᑲᑴᒋᒪᒃ, ᑖᓐ ᒫᒃ ᐁᑖᑲᓂᐎᑦ ᐐᔾ ᐅᔥᑲᒡ ᐁ ᐅᑖᓂᓯᑦ?

ᐋᔕᔾ ᒫᑲ ᑭ ᓈᐯᐎᓐ! ᒌ ᐃᑗᐤ ᐁ ᐹᐦᐱᑦ᙮

An Oral Tradition with a Written Past

Pierre-Michel Laure (1731)

Map of Cree country made by the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure in 1731

As a child I couldn’t help but notice that my grandmother read a certain book every night before bed. You see, I loved books – dictionaries in particular – and would spend countless hours staring at their contents, much of which was cryptic to my young mind. So seeing my grandmother settling into bed one evening, I climbed up next to her in hopes that she would pull that book out and read.

She did, of course, but not before leafing through the pages to show me every little flower, leaf, and picture she’d inserted at random places to adorn this object that was obviously much more than a simple book to her. As she replaced the picture of an unknown relative, she finally began reading.

I sat next to her as she sounded out each arcane symbol in a reverential tone. It sounded so strange to my young ears. I had heard her speak Cree before – it was, after all, the only language I ever heard her speak. But this was different. It was Cree, but different.

What exactly made it different would eventually become abundantly clear. She was reading the New Testament, a book translated into our language over 140 years ago by Bishop John Horden, whom my grandmother always called John Moosonee. My grandmother sounded different as she read from the New Testament simply because it had been translated into a dialect spoken over 140 years ago at Moosonee – quite a stretch from the Waswanipi dialect she spoke in the 1980s.

NT John Horden

The book my grandmother read on most nights before bed

Though there were obvious dialectal differences, I was never made to think that this was a different language. In fact, the thought that the written form could sound so different from our spoken language would plant a small seed in my young mind that later grew into an interest in the history of our language. It was only a matter of time before I realized I could combine this interest with my love of dictionaries into a lifelong obsession with lexicography.

Over the years this obsession has had me seek out any written source on our language I could find, but historical sources in particular have always captured my attention. There is something fascinating about the existence of Cree-language documents written centuries ago – and these aren’t only religious texts. While the latter are obviously quite numerous, word lists, dictionaries, grammars, and maps also figure among the surviving examples of the historical language. While studying these priceless documents I cannot help but wonder who the indigenous informants were. While the historical narrative has provided us with a few names and stories, like that of Pešâpanohkwew – the woman responsible for Pierre-Michel Laure’s 1726 dictionary – most have not been named, let alone thanked, for their assistance.

Regardless, many historical documents have survived and now have their own stories to tell. Their original religious and colonial purposes may have been insidious,  but their continued existence will determine whether or not we chose to redeem them for our own purposes. I certainly have found much joy in studying their contents, almost religiously, reminiscent of my grandmother’s daily reading of the John Moosonee’s New Testament.

For those interested, historical documents relating to the Cree language can be viewed online at www.massinahigan.ca, a website conceptualized and built by John Bishop, Head of Toponymy for the Cree Nation Government and a good friend of mine.