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
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 “kistanowak”(people
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
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.
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 languages.
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
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 taught.