In the early nineteen hundreds, prior to the residential school era, the Cree language was in a good state of vocalisation. When the residential school era came into affect, children were taken away from their families and placed in schools many miles away from their homes. Cree children were forbidden to speak their language and severely punished if they did. Psychologically, the children placed in residential schools were brainwashed into thinking that their First Nation culture and language were evil. Many residential school students went back to their home reserves not wanting any part of their First Nation culture or language. The residential school staff made the children’s lives quite difficult. Students were ashamed to speak their language or felt ashamed to hear it spoken. A language census survey was distributed to all the bands in Saskatchewan. Many bands completed the survey, some have yet to complete it, while others did not participate at all. At this time the survey is inconclusive.
In the Qu’Appelle areas, the language is seldom heard or spoken. In the central part of Saskatchewan, the language is spoken within a limited vocabulary. In the Meadow Lake area, the language is articulated a bit more than what is heard in central Saskatchewan. Within the Prince Albert area, the language is heard on a regular basis. The language is spoken more fluently in the north-eastern part of Saskatchewan in areas such as the Lac La Ronge and Creighton localities.
Today, First Nation people believe that language is their identity and it is what keeps the culture strong. When there is no First Nation language, there is no First Nation culture. Language is the lifeblood that feeds the striving identity of First Nation people. Once the language is lost, there is no hope of retrieving it. The plain and simple reality is that there is no motherland where First Nation people can go to retrace and relearn their language, for this is our motherland. The French language in Canada is quite prominent. If the French language was to be lost in Canada, the language speakers could pick it back up from the motherland of the French language. If the Ukrainian language was forgotten here in Canada, the Ukrainian language would still exist in the motherland of the Ukraine. The same cannot be said of the Bella Bella in British Columbia, or the Beothuk language in Newfoundland, or any First Nation language in Canada.
The 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 spoken in Ontario along the James Bay and Hudson’s Bay region. The Eastern Swampy Cree is also spoken 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 referred to 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.
There 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, and Witchekan Lake. The Woodland Cree refer to themselves as ‘níhithawak’, the Swampy Cree refer to their language identity as ‘néhinawak’, the Plains Cree being true to their dialect refer to being ‘néhiyawak’.
The 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.
The 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 being called the ‘kris’ (Crees).
The 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.
The 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.
Methodist 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. http://www.creeculture.ca/e/language/syllabics.html
After 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.
The 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.
Children 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.
Anthropologists studying native cultures would also have informants of Native descent providing them with information, which would also be recorded in roman characters.
The 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.
There 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.