Speakers of Cree are wont to point out the different greetings and salutations from one dialect to another. Without historical insight the differences can often be puzzling. In a previous post on this blog, which can be read here, we took a look at the historical record to better understand some of the various greetings. In what follows, we will take a brief look at what the historical record has to offer regarding salutations.
Growing up, I can distinctly recall people using the English “bye” when parting with somebody. This salutation, equally used in French, was used even by monolingual Cree-speakers. The Cree “ekote,” could also be heard when ending a conversation or visit, but would often be followed by “bye” as a more definite conclusion. This word then has truly become a trilingual term in these parts, a region now known as James Bay in English. And although “ekote” is occasionally used on its own as a kind of salutation, it originally means ‘that is where…,’ and has acquired a meaning over time that is equivalent to the English “okay.”
Imagine my surprise then during a visit from a friend from Mistissini (originally Mistassini) when he saluted me with the word “miyâwit.” Having never heard this word, he explained to me how this was the way people in Mistissini say goodbye. I was intrigued – I had never heard a Cree salutation other than the unlikely “ekote.” Of course, I had heard the English loanword “wâciye” as both a greeting and salutation in coastal James Bay communities. So naturally, I wondered if this “miyâwit” was a loanword or an original Cree greeting.
After asking around, I realized some people from Mistissini pronounce this word as “niyâwit,” providing me with two variants to investigate. I also learned from another friend that the very same word was used all the way in Pessamit, where another Cree dialect was spoken. There, the word is pronounced largely the same, but is spelled “niaut” in their local orthography. A similar form, spelled “niame” is also used there, and is pronounced without the initial n- in dialects further east. The salutation was therefore widespread, so I turned to the written record.
It turns out these salutations are compound forms based on a simpler “niyâ.” In a manuscript dictionary compiled by the Jesuit Antoine Silvy in the 1680s, the form is recorded along with a few compounded forms as “nia; niakȣte; niakȣ” and glossed as “va ton chemin, adieu.” (Note that the ȣ character is an abbreviated form of the modern French “ou.”) More variants are included on the following line, as “niaȣte; niakȣ ȣte” and again glossed as “adieu, allez à la bonheur.” The forms suggest two basic forms, “niyâ” and “niyâkᵂ,” the former used for singular subjects, while the latter for plurals subjects.
In the 1690s, in another manuscript dictionary, this one compiled by the Jesuit Bonaventure Fabvre, similar forms are recorded as “Nia, niakȣte, niakȣ, niaȣt” and “Niagȣte, niaȣte,” again with similar glosses. These dictionaries corroborate that the word “niyâ” and their derivatives were historically in use in what is now the Saguenay watershed.
The historical record explains the presence of this term in present-day Mistissini, Pessamit, and communities to the east. But the absence of this term in dialects to the north and west was puzzling. Perhaps this was simply a regional word that was originally a loanword from some neighbouring language, perhaps Iroquoian.
Imagine my surprise then when reading through Watkins’ 1865 dictionary one evening I find the entry “Neah, v. def. imper. s. Go thou, pl. Neak, go ye.” These forms, despite being written in a different orthography, match exactly those found in the dictionaries from the 1600s. However, Watkins compiled his dictionary partially in Chisasibi, a region where the northern East Cree dialect is now spoken, and partially in Manitoba where the western Swampy Cree dialect is now spoken. While it is unclear in which community he heard this word, either place is much further west than the Saguenay region and its periphery. What about further west?
In Lacombe’s 1874 dictionary of the Plains Cree dialect, the word does not appear in the alphabetic listing of the Cree-French index. However, under the entry for “aller” on the French-Cree index, we find the example, “va, niyân, allez, niyânk;” where the intrusive “n” likely marks a nasalized previous vowel, as in French. This is not unheard of in Cree. For example, the vowels in the word “ehe,” meaning ‘yes,’ is more often than not nasalized by speakers of various dialects. Excluding this, the words again are identical to those listed in Watkins, Fabvre, and Silvy. It was therefore a nice bit of supporting data when the same word was located in Arok Wolvengrey’s dictionary of contemporary Plains Cree as “niyâ,” and glossed as “go ahead, go on, be off.”
We therefore have evidence for the use of a word across Cree country and spanning centuries in the historical record. The evidence suggests “niyâ” is in fact an Old Cree word as opposed to a loanword. While in the east it is used as a typical salutation, it appears the western dialects may use it more as an imperative nowadays. Unfortunately, there are dialects in which the word could simply not be located in my cursory research. If you recognize this word and its use in your dialect, feel free to comment below. But more importantly, feel free to salute a friend with any one of the above forms!
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.
In part 1 of this post we discussed the nature of orthography and orthographic standardization, using the history of French orthography as an illustration. In this post, we will summarize what has been accomplished to date in Cree country with regard to orthography, summarizing the development of three types of Cree orthographies. The first part of this post will summarize the evolution of a Cree orthography based on the French spelling conventions, which culminated in a standard for the a number of dialects spoken in eastern Quebec and Labrador. We will then summarize the development of the English-based orthography. Lastly, the advent of Cree-based orthographies, both syllabic and alphabetic, will be briefly summarized. In part 3 we will expound on the latter and propose some improvements to the consistency of their use by presenting a principled approach to standardization.
The earliest extant example of an attempt to write anything in Cree goes back to Samuel de Champlain’s reports of his voyages in eastern Cree country, roughly the St-Lawrence region around what is now Québec City. In 1632 he notes the name of a headman likely named Mahîhkanâhtikw, which his report notes as “mahigan aticq.” In the same year, we find a more substantial attempt with the publication of a set of prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, by the JesuitÉnemond Massé, again in an eastern dialect. The first phrase of the prayer, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ is translated in Massé’s publication as “Novtavynan ca tayen ouascoupetz.” While the intrusive pe might have erroneously crept in during the printing process, his spelling reflected French orthographic conventions from the early 1600s. For instance, his use of v, which has since become u in modern French, the use of the letter c to represent a [k] when followed by an o or a, and the use of the digraph ov to represent the sound [u], which modern French now spells ou. When the spelling is brought into line with standards that will be discussed in the following post, this phrase becomes a clear Nôhtâwînân kâ ihtâyan waskohc.
Around the same time, the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune provided a first brief description of Cree grammar in his Relations of the mid-1630s. By the late 1600s, Jesuits such as Antoine Silvy and Bonaventure Fabvre would leave us the earliest extant dictionaries of the Cree language. These Cree-French dictionaries, manuscripts that were not published at the time, presented an orthography based on French conventions of the mid-1600s, the biggest change from Massé’s work being the replacement of the v by u, and the use of the ligature ȣ (commonly represented in modern transcriptions by the numeral 8) for the digraph ou. Their works reflect other peculiarities of French orthography, including the occasional use of tto represent the sound [ts] when followed by i, a common feature of modern Canadian French where a word like petit is pronounced [p(ə)tsi]. They would also make use of the digraph ch to represent the sound [ʃ] and tch to more consistently represent [ts]. These works are nonetheless quite impressive, with a high degree of accuracy despite the awkardness of French orthographic conventions. A key feature missing in these works is vowel length distinction proper to Cree, but lacking in French orthography.
By the 1720s, the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure compiled a French-Cree dictionary and translations of prayers by working closely with a Cree-speaking woman named Pechabanoukoue (his spelling). His orthography would closely approximate those of the 1600s, except for his replacement of ȣ for the letter u. By the 1760s, the last Jesuit assigned to Cree country, Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse, would start compiling his Cree-Latin dictionary and would also publish religious literature. While still relying on French spelling conventions, which were yet progressing towards modern French conventions, La Brosse does appear to make an effort to update the orthography by making it more consistent. He replaces ch by sh, tch by tsh, and also attempts to do away with the use of the letter t to represent [ts], spelling it tsh instead. For instance, the earlier spelling of asti was standardized by La Brosse to astshi (a dialectal form of the word for ‘earth,’ askiy).
By the 1800s, the Oblates had taken over for the Jesuits, two of which, Flavien Durocher and Charles Arnaud, would compile dictionaries of their own. The orthographies in these dictionaires closely mirrored the orthographic conventions set by La Brosse in the century prior.
All of the above works were of dialects spoken along the St-Lawrence River and up the Saguenay River. The orthography developed by these missionaries was based on French orthographic conventions. Centuries later this same French-based orthography would heavily influence the orthographic standardization of descendent dialects spoken in roughly the same regions, now referred to as Innu dialects, as well as the Atikamekw dialect. It should be noted, however, that Mashteuiatsh, politically considered an Innu community, has not endorsed this standard orthography now in use in other Innu communities, though it continues to use a French-based orthography.
A brief note will suffice regarding other French-based orthographies outside of the region described above. Louis-Philippe Vaillancourt in 1991 published a French-Cree dictionary of the dialect spoken in Eastmain, which is mixed coastal East Cree dialect with features of both the northern and southern dialects. His intended audience were French-speaking, and his orthography reflects that fact. We should also note that the Catholic missionary Albert Lacombe published a dictionary of the Plains Cree dialect in 1874 that used a French-based orthography. His fairly consistent representation of vowels and consonants would influence the development of a Cree-based orthography, which will be discussed below.
Since contact with the English-speaking world in the 1600s, employees of the Hudson’s Bay company routinely noted down Cree names and words in their journals. A few, such as Henry Kelsey in the early 1700s, James Isham in the 1740s, and Alexander Mackenzie in the 1780s made early attempts at gathering word lists. These lists, as with most early examples of Cree written by English-speakers, are barely decipherable largely due to the reliance on English spelling conventions. They stand in stark contrast to early documentation by French-speaking authors largely because of the quirky nature of English orthography and a not so insignificant thing called The Great Vowel Shift. For instance, commenting on James Isham’s spellings of Cree words, Pentland noted in 1977 that Isham “spelled nikotwās(ik) ‘six’ as Cutte wash, cut ta wash ick and Coote washick; he wrote Neish cock, neishcook and neishcoock for niskak ‘geese,’ but Nish ko for the singular niska ‘goose.’
The Great Vowel Shift was a change in the way English was pronounced that spread from dialect to dialect beginning in the 1400s in southern English and influencing all dialects by the 1700s. However, English orthography has largely been standardized by the 1500s, resulting in spellings that deviate considerably form modern pronunciation. It also resulted in multiple pronunciations for a single consonant or vowel, further complicating the picture. Take for instance the words bat, bad, bate, bathe, calm, and calamity, a series of six words with six different vowel sounds; [æ], [æ:], [e], [e:], [ɑ:], and [ə], respectively. Consonants are not any better. Consider the digraph gh in the words aghast, enough, and daughter, each treated differently with the first two pronounced [g] and [f], respectively, and the third example simply left unpronounced. This inconsistencies caused by the Great Vowel Shift and other changes to the language after the orthography had been largely settled also resulted in words spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently. Take for instance the words sow, ‘to plant seeds’ and sow ‘a female pig,’ or lead, ‘a type of metal’ and lead ‘to show the way.’ There are countless examples of this type in this language.
It is no surprise then that early attempts by English-speakers to write Cree were quite frankly terrible. However, by the mid-1800s Anglican missionaries such as John Horden and Edwin Watkins made advances in standardizing their English-based orthographies. Though yet imperfect, what they achieved was remarkable considering the obstacles. Watkins would publish a dictionary in 1865 which continues to be used especially in its second edition revised by Faries and Ahenakew and published in 1938. A Cree grammar publish in 1948 by H.E. Hives illustrated well the evolution of this orthography. However, this English-based orthography is not without problems. It occasionally obscures relationships between certain words and also obscures common processes such as vowel-lengthening. And while it represents certain vowels well, it does poorly at representing the distinction between short and long vowels in many instances.
The problems inherent in using English-based spelling conventions to devise an orthography for the Cree language, and the shortcomings of what has been achieved compelled linguists in the later half of the 1900s to start looking at creating an orthography based on the Cree language’s own sound system.
By the 1840s a new Cree-based orthography emerged that did away with the Latin alphabet and made use of what has come to be term syllabics. This limited set of characters, based on the unlikely marriage of Devanagari and Pitman shorthand, spread like wildfire due to its ease of use. By the early 1860s, the Anglican John Horden and his team would improve the system by removing the Pitman derived finals, replacing them by smaller versions of the Devanagari derived syllabic characters. This change greatly facilitated the use of this spelling system, though for unknown reasons it would only be endorsed by publications of the Anglican church and the people in the communities around James Bay that this denomination serves. Throughout Cree country, from James Bay to the prairies, an impressive number of books would be published in syllabics throughout the later half of the 1900s.
The beauty of syllabics is that it essentially captured all Cree phonemes well, including representing the distinctive short versus long vowels. In fact, those who created the system were perceptive enough to not mark length on the phoneme /ê/, despite it always being a long vowel, as this one has no distinctive length variation in any dialects of our language. What resulted was a beautiful and accurate orthographic representation of our language that could now move on to the important step of standardization. However, despite the superiority of this spelling system, the task has never taken up. As a result there remain many inconsistencies in this orthography in every Cree dialect that uses it. In fact, inconsistencies have only increased in recent decades due to the gradual deterioration of our language and an insistence by speakers to spell phonetically rather than phonemically. The lack of any real literacy and the absence of official endorsement of standardized syllabic orthographies by influential organizations has allowed this happen, making it now difficult for many to learn how to use what was once the easiest spelling method to acquire.
By the early 1900s, the famed linguist Leonard Bloomfield started gathering data on various Algonquian languages, including Cree, and proposed a first reconstruction of the theoretical ancestral language that would be termed Proto-Algonquian. His transcription of our language set the tone for a use of the alphabet that was neither English-, not French-based, but rather based on phonological features of Cree itself. Michelson, another linguist actively investigating Cree in the 1930s, would also produce phonemic and phonetic transcriptions of Cree, but would also collect impressive amounts of syllabic texts written by Cree-speakers themselves.
As far as we can tell, the first to specifically propose in print the standardization of Cree orthography was C. Douglas Ellis. As a linguist with experience investigating Cree dialects around James Bay, he published his “A Proposed Standard Roman Orthography For Cree” in 1970, proposing an orthography that is based on the internal features of Cree itself. This would be followed up by a 1973 publication by the same author and a 1977 publication by David Pentland, another linguist, titled “Nêhiyawasinahikêwin: A Standard Orthography for the Cree Language.” Louis-Philippe Vaillancourt would also publish on the topic after the publication of his French-Cree dictionary of the dialect spoken in Eastmain. Arok Wolvengrey, another linguist working out west on Plains Cree, and Jean Okimāsis would add to these publications with their own “How to Spell it in Cree: The Standard Roman Orthography,” in 2008.
The proposals outlined in these publications have led to a much-improved representation of the Cree language when using the alphabet, one that is neither based on French or English orthographic conventions. However, the degree to which the proposed conventions are applied varies from dialect to dialect. And while the orthography is intended to be largely phonemic, there continues to be some inconsistencies that are revealed only when tested by using language internal processes.
In the final post we will discuss the proposed standard and compare its application in the real world. We hope to illustrate some of the inconsistencies that should be addressed and will propose ways to do so. A standard syllabic orthography will also be discussed as will the merits of considering its use.
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.
Nôhtâwîpan mekwâc kâ kî pimâtisit mistahi mâna kî âcimow e kî wâpahtahk mîna âtiht e kî pehtahk kekwâyiw. E kî âcimot peyakwâw e kî natohtawak, ekote kâ kî ayâcik pisisikw Nakawiyiniwak kî wîci-ohpikimewak.
Mâcika peyakwâw, itwew, peyakw kiseyiniw kî otihkwatimiw peyakw nâpewa, mâka namawîya ohci-sâkihew. Pisisikw kî kakwe-mâyi-tôtawew. Peyakwâw e kîsikâk kî wîsâmew kita mâcîcik, mâka ekospi kîskitâsa piko kâ kî isihocik kayâsi-iyiniwak mîna e kî mohci-kîsowahpisocik tastawic oskâtiwâhk. Ekosi mâcika kî kapesiwak etokwe, itwew, mohci-kotawânihk. Ana nâpew kî kehcikonam otâsa mîna omaskisina, ekosi mistikw mâna kî cimatâwak ispimisihk iskotêhkânihk, ekota e akotâcik maskisina mîna mitâsa kita pâsteki. Mekwâc e kwâhkotek iskotew kî kawisimowak e ati-tipiskâk. Kî kiskeyihtam mâka ana nâpew kita asweyimât osisa ekâ kita mâyi-tôtâkot. Ana kiseyiniw, e ayeskosit, semâk kî nipâw, mâka ana nâpew kî otinam otâsa mîna omaskisina. Pâtimâ, kiseyiniw kî koskopayiw. E kî nipâsit aciyaw kî waniskâw, ekwa kâ ati-pasikôt, e ati-otinahk anihi maskisina, mâka namawîya kî kiskeyihtam wîya ôma otâsa kâ otinahk. Macosteham iskotehk. Iteyihtam otihkwatima otayâniyiwa. Ispi e kiskeyihtahk e iskwâteyiki kî wîhtamawew otihkwatima e itât “Sawâskitew kekwây!” Mâka ana nâpew wîhtamawew âsay wîya e kî otinahk otayâna. Ekwa ana kiseyiniw kâ papâsiniket, âta e wî otinahk otayâna, mâka âsay kî mestihkahteyiwa. E kekisepâyâk kisâtinew otihkwatima, mâka ana nâpew kî kîwew e kî âcimot kita nâtimiht osisa. Mistahi mâka kî mâkohisow ana kehte-nâpew mîna kiskinohamâsow ekâ wîhkâc mîna ekosi kita tôtahk!
Ekosi ôma kâ isi-âcimot nôhtâwîpan.
The above story was told in clear Plains Cree by William Harris and was published in 1948 in H. E. Hives’ A Cree Grammar. The story is a particular episode of the evil father-in-law myth, one that is common across Cree country with only minor variations. In this well-known episode, the father-in-law tries to burn his son-in-law’s leggings and moccasins while camping overnight on a winter hunting expedition. The son-in-law, being quite clever, turns the tables on his father-in-law.
Hives’ transcription is quite clear, though it is based on English phonetics. The above transcription is therefore an adaptation written in the contemporary Cree orthography, which is both phonologically and morphologically informed. Punctuation was modified to improve the clarity of the story and two changes to the original wording were done, one being a correction of what was assumed to be a misspelling and the other an omission of a short string of words that appeared out of context. The changes made are as follows:
1. In the original, “â iskotâyike” is assumed to be “e iskwâteyiki” and was spelled as such.
2. In the original, “wekataw-âkwu-âtokwâ,” which appears to be “wî kâtâw ekwa etokwe,” was omitted. Hives translated this as “later on, it seems.” As it did not seem to make sense in the the context of the sentence, nor the story, it was omitted in favour of clarity.
Few constellations can be said to carry the same name across the various dialects of the Cree language. But one such constellation is the Big Dipper, known across Cree country as ᐅᒉᒃ ᐊᑕᐦᒄ, meaning ‘fisher constellation.’
The fisher, called ᐅᒉᒃ in Cree, is a kind of marten that is also known as the pekan in English. The second word in the compound, ᐊᑕᐦᒄ, literally means ‘star,’ but is synecdochically applied to the constellation itself. This constellation’s name was certainly inherited from Old Cree given its wide distribution and the fact that the second word in the compound has since undergone changes in most dialects in all instances except within the compound itself. For example, a star is now known in the East Cree dialect by the diminutive form ᐊᒐᐦᑯᔥ.
The mythological origins of this constellation was recorded by Harald Pommerehnke in the 1950s. Pommerehnke was a German immigrant who spent the first couple of years in Canada in Senneterre, a town that bordered the territory of the Waswanipi Cree. It was there that a Cree person related the following story, which he published in 1996.
The Big Dipper was created according to the Cree when a group of hunters chased a fisher. But the fisher escaped high up into a tree. They tried to shoot him down with arrows, but arrows would not reach him. So they went to get the best marksman who came and hit the fisher in the tail with an arrow and broke his tail. That is why today we see the Big Dipper with a slightly broken tail after his escape into the heavens.
Pommerehnke, Harald (1996) Experiences and Observations Among the Lake Simon Algonkin and the Waswanipi Cree: Early 1950’s. Manuscript donated to the Museum of Civilization, Hull.
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 recognize that only the first four dialects are officially written using syllabics. The others have adopted Latin script orthographies. Note that month names in Opitciwan are Cree adaptations of Anishinabe month names from the dialect spoken at Lac Simon.
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.