Nearly 25 years ago the remains of a Cree woman were found in South Indian Lake — nearly 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The body was 350 years old and she was believed to have been around 25-years-old when she died. Now she is helping to preserve the Rocky Cree language. 

Her story was brought to life in 2013 by Cree Elder William Dumas, with the help of the University of Winnipeg. 

"We often hear of these finds in the hills, mountains of Europe," said U of W professor and former Canada Research Chair in Young People's Texts and Cultures, Mavis Reimer. "To realize we actually had this ancestor that had been found in northern Manitoba, I had never heard the story."

Dumas approached Reimer about creating a picture book about the finding in South Indian Lake. At first she said "no" because her field of research was studying picture books, not producing them, but then realized she couldn't turn away from this opportunity. 

"I felt that the significance of what he was asking me to do, I had no choice, I had to say yes, it was my responsibility to say yes," she said.

Now that book, Pisim Finds her Miskanow, will become part of a series of six picture books and digital storybooks about the Asiniskow Ithiniwak, or Rocky Cree.

Reimer and her team were awarded a $2.5 million Partnership Grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their project Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak: Reclamation, Regeneration, and Reconciliation.

Mavis Reimer

Dr. Mavis Reimer is the lead researcher of Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak: Reclamation, Regeneration, and Reconciliation, a seven year project at the University of Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/ CBC)

Reimer said the project is targeted to young people and aims to preserve and regenerate the language, which is spoken by five First Nations along the Churchill River in Manitoba. 

"This is not a dying language at this point, but it is a language that of course needs to be made relevant to the young people of the communities," she said.

Reimer calls the books hybrid fiction/non-fiction because each will contain historical facts, Rocky Cree words and translations, as well as a fictionalized story about the past.

Each book will be turned also be turned into a digital app so readers can interact with the material. The digital version of Pisim Finds her Miskanow is expected to be completed by spring.

"Young people will actually be able to hear it in Cree and see it in the syllabic form," Reimer explained.

Reclamation, Regeneration, and Reconciliation

The project is slated to last seven years and will involve 169 students over the course of the research.

Reimer said she believes it could be research for reconciliation.

"Our group of researchers are Indigenous and non-Indigenous, community researchers and scholarly researchers," she said. "What we really are trying to do is find our way back to that mutual respect that characterized the first relations of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Canada."

She said team currently consists of 12 primary researchers, 12 additional researchers and 10 community partners, including Asiniskow Ithiniwak Mamawiwin, a group of Rocky Cree knowledge keepers.

"They are working very systematically to record the knowledge they hold in common," she said. "We have been working with them for several summers now to collect information that will give us the context for the stories."

Two other partners include Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre and the Indigenous Inclusion Directorate of the Manitoba Government, which will eventually put the books in Manitoba schools.