Friday June 24, 2016

Neal McLeod's mission to help the Cree language thrive, one Star Wars reference at a time

In 100 Days of Cree, poet Neal McLeod is documenting Cree language - past, present and future. (Author photo: University of Regina Press)

In 100 Days of Cree, poet Neal McLeod is documenting Cree language - past, present and future. (Author photo: University of Regina Press)

Listen 9:28
"I thought it [Obi-wan Kenobi] almost sounded like a Cree name. I honestly thought he was Cree." - Neal McLeod, co-author of 100 Days of Cree

In some ways, Neal McLeod's 100 Days of Cree has been in the works since 1977.

"It all goes back to my childhood," he tells Brent Bambury on CBC Radio's Day 6. "I remember when I first saw Star Wars. I was 7 years old. And I asked my Dad, 'How do you say light sabre?' And he said, 'I have no idea.'"

100 Days of Cree: Star Wars Chapter, Page One

There's a whole chapter devoted to Star Wars in Neal McLeod and Arok Wolvengrey's new book, '100 Days of Cree.' (University of Regina Press)

"As a kid, I remember being naturally curious about how you would describe the world in Cree."

McLeod is an indigenous poet from the James Smith Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan. He co-authored 100 Days of Cree with Arok Wolvengrey. It combines traditional Cree words and phrases with newly-invented vocabulary for the modern age. Many of those newly-coined Cree words were crowd-sourced on Facebook, with Cree speakers across Canada contributing their own vocabulary. 

Entries run the gamut from the traditional word for 'Grandfather' -- to Cree words for things like poker and Johnny Cash lyrics. McLeod even translated all the songs from Nirvana's album "Nevermind" at one point. 

But there's also a lot of Star Wars, owing at least partially to McLeod's early affinity for Obi-wan Kenobi.

Neal McLeod 100 Days of Cree, Star Wars Chapter page 2

Page Two from the Star Wars chapter of Neal McLeod and Arok Wolvengrey's new book, '100 Days of Cree.' (University of Regina Press)

"I thought it [Obi-wan] almost sounded like a Cree name," he tells Bambury. "I honestly thought he was Cree."

And when it came to retrofitting Cree words for Star Wars, there was lots to draw from.

"All the old, great, epic stories like the epic sagas of the Icelanders or the Vikings, the way they would describe those characters, we could use those descriptions to describe a story like Star Wars," he says.

"Of course all the old stories are the source of our power. But to survive, we have to describe the contemporary world as well."
- Neal McLeod

So a Cree word that translates roughly as someone who is powerful was a good stand in for someone who is strong in the force.

Similarly, Wi-Fi relies on two pre-existing Cree words that together translate roughly to "information on the wind."

"They're almost like little poems I'd say," says McLeod.

The project is ongoing, with new words being added on social media every day.

"Facebook and social media was a very powerful tool for helping the Cree language survive," says McLeod. "Young people can hear how you would describe the Internet and computers. So it shows Cree is a living language, not just a language spoken by old people. Of course all the old stories are the source of our power. But to survive, we have to describe the contemporary world as well."