I often meet people who ask me about my Cree language. Friends of mine here in northern Ontario have also asked me to translate syllabics they have come across and sometimes they question me on Native words they have heard. When it comes to reading the language I am capable but certainly not an expert. I also speak a more modern version of my traditional Cree language. In fact, my vocabulary is somewhat limited. Although I am happy to be working as a writer in the English language, I don’t have much time or opportunity to practice my traditional Cree.
I think that learning a language has a lot to do with exposure, time and the place we inhabit. In a traditional setting on the land, there is plenty of opportunity to learn many different facets of the Cree language. When I am on the land, every activity that my people have followed for generations relates to words, descriptions and phrases that are unique to our language. However, when I am mostly surrounded by a modern, southern world, it is easier to describe thoughts, ideas and things with the predominant English language. There are only a few people locally who actually speak Cree.
When non-Native people bring up a Cree word or phrase, I am sometimes surprised at what I learn. Recently, a friend of mine, Don Paquette queried me about a word he learned years ago in the army reserves. This was during his time with the reserves in the 1940s when he was associated with the Algonquin Regiment in the Tri Town area. The regiment taught him and other troops the motto “Nee Kah Nee Tah”, an Algonquin word that when translated means “We lead, others follow”.
I was very surprised to hear Don repeat this phrase that he had learned more than 60 years ago. He spoke it with gusto and enthusiasm as that is the manner he used it with while marching with his troop in the reserves. Although Don learned this phrase that was borrowed from the Algonquin language, I immediately knew what it meant as my Mushkego Cree has pretty much the same phrase.
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to meet many different Native Elders and leaders. I had the chance to speak to them and most of the time I found that I could understand much of what they said when they spoke in their own Native language even though it was not Muskego Cree.
In northeastern Ontario, many different First Nation language groups converge. There are the Algonquins to the east and south, Ojibway in the west and the Cree to the north. OjiCree is also present as a mix of Ojibway and Cree and is spoken in parts of northern Ontario. My knowledge of the Cree language helps me to understand these languages when I meet people who speak in their traditional tongues.
I have grown accustomed to describing to my friends that the differences in Native languages can be compared to what exists in modern Europe. The French and Spanish cultures, for example, are uniquely different but they share many similarities and roots in their languages. Even inside the country boundaries, different regions have unique dialects. In Spain, I have heard different dialects of the language as I have travelled the country. Here in northern Ontario the same situation exists in that when I travel this part of the province I run into many different dialects of Cree, Ojibway and Algonquin.
When you look at a map of Canada, the largest identified language group that covers most of the country is called the Algonquin group. There are several different explanations as to where the name Algonquin comes from and who it applies to, but the fact is that this group would be considered in comparison to European languages as our Latin base. Inside this group are cultural sectors such as the Cree, Ojibway, Blackfoot and MicMac.
Throughout this vast area, from my point of view and my knowledge of the Cree language, there are many similarities. Examples of this connection can be seen in the place names of waterways and landmarks that you can view right from the TransCanada Highway which runs across the country.
The Cree word for water is “Nipi” and the word for river is “Sipi”. Many traditional Native-named waterways in the central plains and in northern Ontario and, as a matter of fact, throughout North America refer to the word sipi. The most famous example relates to the legendary Mississippi River, which translates in the Algonquin language as “big river”. Missi or Mishi means big and sipi refers to river.
Although we speak different languages, a little research shows that we are all connected to our neighbours in the words we speak. We traditional Native people today take pride in our unique language. Sadly, many of our young people are losing their traditions and cultures and the language is in jeopardy of fading.
As we become more proficient in communicating in the English world, we are losing out on our connection to our traditional languages. Thankfully, First Nation leaders and Elders have realized this is happening and currently there is a great effort taking place on First Nations in the education sector to make sure that Native children are being taught their traditions and cultures. I always feel comforted and proud to have the opportunity to speak in my Cree language.