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Learning & Connecting

Follow Up on ”The Cree Language as Referenced by Charles Mair.”

In the first issue of my Sheila's Shenanigans magazine (August 2023) one of the articles I included was ”The Cree Language as Referenced by Charles Mair.” I have a strong interest in a variety of subjects. One of them is the Cree language or nêhiyawêwin to use the proper term.

I live in the Lesser Slave Lake region, where the first negotiations and signing of Treaty 8 took place in 1899. A part of the route taken by the Treaty 8 and Scrip commission along the Athabasca and Lesser Slave rivers, is within a few miles of my house.

This route was also used by trappers, fur traders, survey parties, gold miners, missionaries and others going to and from Edmonton. Some of these people became fluent in nêhiyawêwin and other languages of the region.

The Athabasca River, in my area, would become the border between Treaty 6 & Treaty 8 Territories. According to Mair, when he wrote his journal as the secretary of the Scrip Commission, nêhiyawêwin (Cree) was one of the primary languages spoken in the region.

Mair recorded his spelling and interpretation of many nêhiyawêwin words in his journal. He did not say who was giving him the information, or if he was receiving it from multiple people.

Each word he recorded could have been from any of the five nêhiyawêwin dialects; Western/Plains Cree, Northern/Woodlands Cree, Central/Swampy Cree, Moose Cree, or Eastern Cree. According to Native Languages of the America’s, “some linguists consider these distinct languages, but they are largely mutually intelligible.”

As nêhiyawêwin was not originally a written language, Mair would have been phonetically writing what he heard. I did not expect accuracy in his spelling.

So if I didn’t expect accuracy, why then would I include the list? I had several reasons. The first is that on old maps, the names of places often change. Calling Lake for instance has been called Echo Lake, Quito Lake, Quinto Lake, etc. If we are not knowledgable of the variety of names for a particular place, how then does one connect a person, event, or piece of history to the right area?

Second is that many of the place names we currently use, and that some might consider English, have their roots in nêhiyawêwin; Tawatinaw, Namao, Kinuso, Wetaskiwin, etc. There are 100’s.

Being curious about Mair’s accuracy, I asked a person who is reclaiming her language through a nêhiyawêwin program to come and have a discussion about the words Mair included. We used “Itwêwina - Plains Cree Dictionary” to assist us, although Mair could have been using any of, or a combination of the five dialects.

It only took a few words to confirm that Mair was writing them according to how they sounded. Some he got close and others not so much. As an example, Mair recorded Lily Lake as ‘Ascutamo Sakaigon.’ The word for ‘lake’ was close; the word for ‘lily’ however had us guessing. The nearest definition we could arrive at was marshy lake, or a similar description.

Not only was our conversation a great learning experience, it went well beyond Mair’s use of nêhiyawêwin. What started out as a curiosity of language became a place to develop our relationship, finding multiple points of common ground, and sharing stories and knowledge.

As I reflected on our time together, it occurred to me that in the time period that Mair wrote his journal some settlers and colonizers were encountering Indigenous people for the first time.

Mair, by including the words and descriptions of some of the people he met and the conversations he had with them, was showing his own curiosity and interest in what was likely a unique experience for him.

One would think that 124 years later, we would not be in the same place, but, in my opinion, for some, we still are. Throughout the last century, political, and other factors, created circumstances to keep that line of division alive.

As individuals, many are taking action to chop away at that divide. The time my friend and I were able to spend together reviewing Mair’s word list, was one of those actions. In our debriefing of the time spent I think both of us parted feeling full and satisfied.

It is my wish that when others read what I write, that line keeps disappearing. We can learn from our past to create a better future - together.

~ Sheila Willis

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