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.
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.
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.