Cree language is spoken in several dialects over a very
large geographical area in Canada. The Eastern Cree and
closely related Montagnais and Naskapi are spoken on the
east coast of Canada throughout Labrador and on the eastern
side of Hudson Bay & James Bay respectively. Attikamek
Cree or the “R” dialect is spoken in Quebec.
The Moose Cree or the “L”dialect is verbalized
in Ontario along the James Bay and Hudson’s Bay
region. The Eastern Swampy Cree is also oralized within
the region just mentioned and through much of North Western
Ontario. The Swampy Cree dialect as a whole is known as
the “N” dialect, differences between the eastern
and western Swampy Cree, in Ontario and Manitoba regions
are quite great and the differences are substantial. Plains
Cree or the “Y” dialect is spoken in southern
Saskatchewan and through central Alberta. The woods Cree,
sometimes worded as the Rock Cree, is spoken in Manitoba
and in north-eastern Saskatchewan, it is referred as the
“Th” dialect. The Cree language is also spoken
in parts of north-eastern British Columbia, the Northwest
Territories, and in the state of Montana.
are three dialects of Cree spoken in Saskatchewan, the
‘th’, ’n’ and the ‘y’.
Lac La Ronge Cree Nation, Montreal Lake Cree Nation, and
Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation speak the Woodland Cree.
There is a strong influence of the Woodland Cree spoken
in Sturgeon Lake and the surrounding First Nations reserves
within Prince Albert area. The Swampy Cree spoken by the
members of Red Earth First Nation, Shoal Lake First Nation,
and Cumberland House Cree Nation. The most influential
Swampy Cree speakers are of the Shoal Lake Cree Nation.
The Plains Cree, known as the ‘y’ dialect,
is spoken throughout South Central Saskatchewan. There
are approximately 45 First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan
that speak the plains Cree dialect. Some speakers of the
plains Cree are Ahtahkakóp,
Big River, Canoe Lake, Little Pine, Makwa Sahgaeihcan,
Pelican Lake, Sweet Grass, Witchekan Lake. The Woodland
Cree refer themselves as ‘níhithawak’,
the Swampy Cree refer their language identity as ‘néhinawak’,
the Plains Cree being true to their dialect refer to being
Cree language is a sister language to Saulteaux and Blackfoot,
which belong to the Algonkian linguistic family group.
The Algonkian linguistic family group consists of the
Miq’mak, Naskapi, Montagnais, Algonquian, Chippwa
and Ojibwa. The Algonkian linguistic family is widely
spread throughout North America. South of the Canadian
border there are relations of the Algonkian language family.
They are: Fox, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kickapoo, Menomini,
and Miami. There is also a distant family grouping that
consists of the tribes Lumbee, Wiyot, and the Yurok.
origination of the word ‘Cree’ comes from
the short form of a cross variation of the Ojibwa word
of the north) and the Jesuit equivocal word ‘kristinue’.
This led to the néhiyawak’
to being called the ‘kris’ (Crees).
earliest glimpses of the Cree in the historical literature
occur in Jesuit Relations. The intrepid Jesuits were the
first whites to see the Cree and their reports begin the
story of almost three centuries of contact and relations.
In the early records they were known by several variants
of the Ojibwa name for them; the Kristineaux, Kiristinous,
and the Kilistinous. The Plains Cree called themselves
Nehiawak, a term which cannot be etymologized. In 1640
the term Kinstinon was mentioned and repeated at frequent
intervals in reports over the following twenty years.
The priests had not met any tribesmen, however they learned
from other Indians that the Cree were a very powerful
people. Aside from being nomadic hunters, the Jesuits
learned that the Cree fought the Nadouessis and Dakota.
From 1656 to 1658, four geographical subdivisions of the
Cree were named. The geographical boundaries were Lake
Nipigon, west of James Bay, between Lake Nipigon and Moose
River, and along the East Main River. This is consistent
with the Eastern Cree boundaries outlined in 1656, as
defined by Skinner, who visited them some two hundred
and fifty years later.
Jesuits being trained in the European alphabet used their
alphabet to try and write the sounds as they heard it
spoken in the Cree language. The Jesuits had some success
by turning their attention to a consonant-vowel combination
syllabre. The syllabre came together when the Jesuits
and the Cree people taught each other their culture and
language. The Cree being more artistic than literal, communicated
to one another by drawings, symbolic writing on birch-bark
and pictograph cliff drawings. The Jesuits fathers were
more literal, reading the gospel to the Cree people. Having
lived with the Cree for a long period of time the Jesuits
began learning the Cree language. The Jesuits and the
Cree people combined their communicating styles with each
other thus syllabry was created.
missionary James Evans developed the Cree syllabic writing
system in the 1840s. Syllabic writing was made popular
among the Crees (Iiyiyuuschii) in the last few decades
of the 19th century. This was a direct result of religious
texts being translated Cree syllabics under the direction
of Rev. John Horden.
a year, Rev. John Horden had 40 native students, half
who could read English. Evans himself was becoming familiar
with the local languages. Aside from writing in Ojibway,
in 1830 Evans was preaching sermons in the local Ojibway
language. By 1831, Evans had produced an original orthography
and paved the way for the beginning of a writing system
for Native languages. Through his study of the language,
Evans realized that the Ojibway language could best be
represented through just nine sounds. The nine sounds
represented are: a, ch, k, m, n, p, t, s, and y all of
which can be combined with the basic vowels in four variations;
ai, chi, ki, mi, ni, pi, ti, si, yi. The same can be done
with the vowels e, i, o, u. It was probably also around
this time that Evans first considered a new syllabic writing
system as being the ideal way to render the Algonkian
syllabic writing style was used to translate the bible
into Cree. This opened the door for syllabic writing to
be adopted by other languages (Dene, Inunituk, Blackfoot)
as a means to translate the bible into their Native tongue.
In Saskatchewan, most of the missionary schools were located
south of Prince Albert. This had a strong influence on
the Plains Cree.
were placed in residential schools where they were taught
the English alphabet and how to read English text. 99.9%
of the language taught to the children was not of their
mother tongue. An important fact to recollect is that
geologists who were searching for minerals would write
and name landmarks and waterways as they heard it spoken
in Native languages. In most occurrences Native people
acted as guides for geologists. The guides would pass
on the information in their Native tongue via names of
certain waterways and landmarks. This information was
recorded in the roman characters of the English alphabet.
studying native cultures would also have informants of
Native descent providing them with information, which
would also be recorded in roman characters.
syllabic writing system was used in church environments,
as well as by Native people who were familiar with the
syllabary. Meanwhile in schools, stores and government
offices, the English alphabet was apparent.
The syllabic system was not being taught in schools. Native
children soon started to write their native languages
in the writing system that they were taught in. Ultimately
the roman orthography writing system emigrated.
have been a number of roman orthography writing styles
being used, from using the double vowel (‘oo’)
to represent long vowel sounds, using of voiced phonemes
(g for k), to a combination of constant clusters (htk,
mwh,ch,gt). The end result is that of the standard roman
orthography (SRO), which is now being taught in schools
where the Cree language and other native languages are