Manitoba

Cree elders creating syllabic dictionary to empower youth

A Manitoba community of Cree elders and educators is creating a wordless dictionary to celebrate their language, reclaim their identity and, they say, correct the history books.

'We're going to survive and we're going to Indigenize the education system,' Cree educator says

Cree Elder Darlene Mason of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation says teaching Cree (and learning Cree) is 'so easy.' Mason is one of the Manitoba elders working on a wordless dictionary to celebrate their language. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, elders-in-training and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they're more critical than ever before.

Read other stories from the Walking With Elders series.

A Manitoba community of Cree elders and educators is creating a wordless dictionary to celebrate their language, reclaim their identity and, they say, correct the history books.

"The fact of the matter is, despite more than 500 years of deliberate efforts to exterminate us, we're still here," says Elvis Thomas of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation. "We're going to survive and we're going to Indigenize the education system. This dictionary is part of that."

The dictionary also serves as a milestone, says Thomas, director's assistant with the Nisichawayasihk Nehetho Culture and Education Authority Administration. 

It's their one-of-a-kind effort to formally put to paper their ancestral Cree syllabic — shapes that represent different vowels, according to their arrangement.

The dictionary will be available to any community across Canada. But Thomas says that first and foremost, it's for the children of Nisichawayasihk, also known as Nelson House.
Elvis Thomas of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation credits his ancestors for giving him 'a strong identity of who I am as a Nehetho person.' (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

"They need to be educated in their language and their culture. Unfortunately for us, it's been dominated by the British and French versions, but we're beginning to make inroads, and the language and culture program is part of that."

Darlene Mason, one of the elders working on the dictionary, laughs as she points to the syllabic word for black.

"Kaa-ki-tee-siw," she says slowly, pronouncing the word phonetically. "It's so easy, Cree, you know?"

Elder Carol Prince loves the challenge of creating the syllabics dictionary: 'I love the elders. We have so much fun. We laugh and talk Cree.' (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Elder Carol Prince says progress on the dictionary is steady but slow. It's been in the works since 2018, and there's no set date for its completion.

"When we see a word, we talk about it. We discuss it and we say it," Prince says. "If we're going to teach it to the future generations, then we have to make sure it's right. We have to do a good job."

I'm glad I can speak my language. And now I can speak it without getting punished.- Elder Carol Prince

Prince says it's also an effort to set the record straight.

The Cree syllabic has long been attributed to former missionary James Evans, a Methodist minister who spent time in northern Manitoba in the early 1800s. 

Evans was credited for creating the Cree syllabics, as a way to better communicate with the Cree communities he served.

Prince and Thomas say history got it wrong. 

"It's just not possible," says Thomas. "We had this syllabic writing system way before he got here." 

"We also have a star chart, where we use those Cree syllabics and the creation story is all in there," Prince adds.

Evans adapted the syllabics for print.

"He just created the typeset for them," says Thomas.

The syllabic dictionary will help them take back ownership of an inherent part of them that was almost taken away.

The colours in Cree syllabics, one of several ways members of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation teach children their ancestral language. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

"I went to residential school. In Nelson House and Birtle (Manitoba)," Prince recalls. "I'm glad I can speak my language. And now I can speak it without getting punished."

Thomas credits his grandparents with protecting him from cultural loss.

"My sense of identity, my belief in myself has not been diminished."

He says the dictionary will give next generations the same sense of self.

"I have this vision, I have this hope."

About the Author

Donna Carreiro

CBC Radio Current Affairs Producer

Donna Carreiro is an award winning producer and journalist, who has worked for more than 25 years with CBC Manitoba. Prior to that, she was a print journalist for a daily newspaper and local magazines. She is drawn to stories of social justice (or injustice), that give a voice to those who most need one. She can be reached at donna.carreiro@cbc.ca.