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.

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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.

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Memew

Memew

I went snaring this past weekend and noticed this bird watching me. Its name in Cree is ᒣᒣᐤ (memew). In English it is called the Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).

The Jimiken Report

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Lawrence Jimiken, 1949-2015 (photo by Mélanie Chaplier at Old Nemaska, July 2010)

Anyone who ever had anything to do in Nemaska would probably have had the good fortune of having to speak to Lawrence Jimiken. This walking encyclopedia, as many people described him, would often be an intermediary between Nemaska and the outside world as he graciously shared his time and thoughts with anyone who needed him. Those who may never have met him in person nonetheless benefitted from his role as our nation’s Chief Electoral Officer, a position he held for many years that had him assuring the democratic process was respected during elections. Lawrence benefitted our people in many ways. In fact, he even contributed to our knowledge of the Cree language. This being a blog on the Cree language, I thought I’d honour his memory by sharing the little I know about this contribution of his.

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Lawrence Jimiken, 1949-2015 (photo by Patricia Raynault-Desgagné, August 2014)

Pedagogical materials for teaching the Cree language were basically non-existent in the 1970s before the establishment of the Cree School Board. In 1973, an enterprising school principal in Waskaganish, John Murdoch, decided to do something about this. Along with Gertie Murdoch, he started what became known as the Cree Way Project in an attempt to address this lack of pedagogical materials. The scope of the project was impressive. Within a few years, hundreds of booklets dealing with numerous topics were written by people from various Cree communities. One of the well-known contributors to this project is the late Annie Whiskeychan. A lesser-known contributor is Lawrence Jimiken.

The Jimiken Report on Cree Geographic Terms would be published in 1974 by the Cree Way Project. Authored by Lawrence with the assistance of Peter Denny, a linguist that specializes in Algonquian languages, the Jimiken Report would introduce students to the complex morphological structure of Cree geographic terminology. The report presents vocabulary associated with land forms spelled according to their underlying morphology rather than their pronunciation. This practice is a vital key to teaching the Cree language and should naturally form the foundation of any standard Cree orthography. Despite being ahead of its time in this respect, however, we continue to endorse orthographic practices based on phonetic spellings that occasionally obscure the meanings of words.

Patricia Raynault-Desgagné was one of the lucky southerners who benefitted from Lawrence’s endearing ways (July 2011)

The format in which the vocabulary is presented is also of immense pedagogical value. Lexical roots are listed first, followed by a series of word endings consisting of verbal medials, finals, and inflexions. The goal is to visually demonstrate to the student the various combinatorial possibilities of the Cree language. On page 5, for example, we find the lexical root ᐱᔅᒄ followed by a series of word endings with which it can be combined:

ᐱᔅᒄᐋᑯᓇᑳᐤ [a bump in snow]

ᐋᐱᔅᑳᐤ [bump of rock (rocky place)]

ᐊᑎᓈᐤ [high hill (quite high)]

ᓯᒀᐤ [bump in the ice]

ᐋᐗᐦᑳᐤ [bump in sandy place]

Awareness of this combinatorial feature of the Cree language is crucial to acquiring strong language skills. To help students acquire this awareness, the report would propose various exercises for teachers to use or adapt. Unfortunately, our local schools have yet to adopt an effective curriculum for teaching the Cree language and insightful details of the Jimiken Report remain largely ignored, 41 years after its release.

Our collective ability to recognize, acknowledge, and utilize the contributions of intelligent and industrious Cree individuals will be the key to moving our nation forward in future years. Lawrence was one of those individuals. Let’s all cherish his memory and honour him by recognizing, acknowledging, and utilizing his useful contributions as we assiduously work at building our Cree nation.

ᒋ ᓇᓈᔅᑯᒥᑎᓈᓐ Lawrence!

Lawrence Jimiken, 1949-2015 (photo by Patricia Raynault-Desgagné, July 2011)

Travelling Exhibit on the Cree Language

 

IMG_3969The Canadian Language Museum recently launched its newest travelling exhibit, Cree: The People’s Language, at the University of Toronto. While browsing six beautifully designed panels and an audio station, visitors can become acquainted with the most widely spoken indigenous language in Canada. The colourful bilingual panels feature information about the various dialects of Cree, some idiosyncrasies of its grammar, information about its various spelling systems, along with other interesting linguistic facts. Browsing the audio station, one can actually listen to clips from the various dialects of Cree and get a sense of what is written on the panels.

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Having been invited to contribute to the content of the exhibit it was great to attend the launch and finally see the end product in person. Elaine Gold and her team at the Canadian Language Museum did a wonderful job at crafting eye-catching displays that are sure to please even the less linguistically inclined. In fact, the exhibit proved to be a great conversation starter as visitors pondered linguistic traits such as animacy and polysynthesis. I certainly enjoyed my evening conversing with the curious!

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The Canadian Language Museum plans to have their exhibit travel the country and will be presenting it at the Pan-Am games in Toronto this summer. Be sure to visit this stimulating exhibit if it comes to a town near you or contact the museum directly if you would like to host it for a special event!

(Cree: The People’s Language was launched on March 25, 2015. The images above were provided by Andrew Tomkins.)

Ililîmotâw!

As a Cree language teachers at Moose Factory's Ministik School, Claudius Hughie is teaching his second grade class how to use the locally produced Dictionary of Moose Cree

As a Cree language teacher at Moose Factory’s Ministik School, Claudius Hughie is teaching his second grade students how to use the locally produced Dictionary of Moose Cree. A second edition of the dictionary and a grammar are presently in the works for the coming year. (Photo by Jimena Terraza)