Origins of Cree syllabics

On the left, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] is in his traditional First Nation regalia on a horse. In the centre, Iggi and a girl engage in a “kunik,” a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide, holds a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

This blog is part of our Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada series. To read this blog post in Cree syllabics and Standard Roman Orthography, visit the e-book.

Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada is free of charge and can be downloaded from Apple Books (iBooks format) or from LAC’s website (EPUB format). An online version can be viewed on a desktop, tablet or mobile web browser without requiring a plug-in.

By Samara mîkiwin Harp

Mixed-media artwork. In the centre is a rectangular black-and-white photograph depicting two rows of First Nations children seated and standing in front of a brick building. The photograph is overlaid on a background that is organized into vertical bands on both sides with horizontal bands that run across the top and bottom. The bands are mostly shades of purple, red and blue, and at the top, each has layers of multi-coloured curvilinear and angled lines that look like pencil crayons. There is a black band with white syllabics text running across the top of the photograph, and on the lower-right corner there is a small white rectangular form with black handwriting in English.

If Only We Could Have Our Stories Told, by Jane Ash Poitras, 2004 (e010675581)

This mixed-media work by Cree artist Jane Ash Poitras features a group of children at residential school awaiting the missionaries’ teachings. Church and Crown purposefully disregarded our teachings and stories in an effort to assimilate us. “If only we could have our stories told” expresses the desire of our people to reclaim our language and culture that were taken from us.

“In all the oral accounts of the origins of the Cree syllabary it was told that the missionaries learned Cree syllabics from the Cree. In the [Wes] Fineday account Badger Call was told by the spirits that the missionaries would change the script and claim that the writing belonged to them.” [Please note that in the literature on the subject, Badger Call is also known as Calling Badger and Badger Voice.]

Preliminary research shows that it is generally accepted that the Reverend James Evans (1801–1846) created Cree syllabics sometime during the early 19th century. In 1828, while teaching in Anishinaabe (Ojibway) country, Evans was immersed in “Ojibway” and became proficient in the language. In August 1840, Evans was stationed at a mission in the Cree-speaking community of Norway House (in present-day Manitoba). Anishinaabemowin (Anishinaabe language) and nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language) are in the Algonquian language family and are somewhat similar in their use of sounds.

Black-and-white illustration of a group of people seated on the ground encircling a kneeling man who is recording syllabic writing on a sheet of bark on top of a large stone. Several of the seated people hold sheets of bark with syllabics. A woman is standing in the right foreground and looking toward the group. She is carrying an infant in a cradleboard on her back. There are three teepees behind the group, and a forest in the background.

James Evans recording syllabics on birch bark with a group of nêhiyawak (people of the Cree nation), unknown date, illustration in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], plate between pages 190 and 191 (OCLC 3832900)

Evans worked on the development of a writing system for Ojibway for several years. It is thought that this work formed the basis for his later success in developing a Cree syllabary (a set of written characters representing the syllables of the Cree language). By October 1840, Evans had printed a Cree syllabary chart, and in November of the same year, he printed 300 copies of “Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone,” a short hymnal in syllabics.

Cream-coloured page from a book with black type. It has a chart divided into a wide centre column flanked by two narrow columns. At the top of the centre column is a line with language sounds, and below it are nine rows of syllabics. The left column contains nine sets of letters from the Roman alphabet that correspond to the syllabics, while the right column contains nine sets of syllabic characters and English letters. There are two typed headings in English at the top of the page above the chart. Below the chart are three typed lines in English and syllabics. The page number is located in the centre at the bottom.

Replica of the Cree syllabary chart developed ca. 1840, published in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], p. 187 (OCLC 3832900)

Cream-coloured page from a book with a combination of English and syllabics in black type. The page is filled with five numbered paragraphs, each containing four lines in syllabics. The page title is in English across the top. Just above the paragraphs are two lines in syllabics and English.

The first hymn written and printed in Cree syllabics, ca. 1840, published in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], p. 193 (OCLC 3832900)

Despite his seemingly incredible skill with nêhiyawêwin, Evans required the knowledge of an interpreter, Thomas Hassall, for the duration of his time in Cree country. Hassall was a Dene man who was able to speak Dene, Cree, English and French. Tragically, Evans accidentally killed Hassall during a duck-hunting trip and, it was rumoured, Evans himself never fully recovered from Hassall’s death. By 1845, the Reverend was facing charges of sexual misconduct toward three Indigenous women and was sent back to England to answer for his crimes. According to Evans’s brother, “before leaving Norway House for England, [James Evans] burned nearly all his manuscripts.” If we are to believe this account, it is quite possible that the physical evidence to establish the creator of Cree syllabics has been lost forever.

Further research suggests that Evans conceived his ideas for the syllabary from other sources that he never credited. According to the British and Foreign Bible Society annual report in 1859, “The idea he derived from an Indian Chief.”

Additional evidence pointing to the influence of nêhiyawak (people of the Cree nation) in the creation of syllabics has also been proposed. For example, the four-directional nature of the syllabics hints at a Cree influence, as the Cree ways of knowing utilize the four directional teachings. We also find evidence in missionary reports that “hieroglyphics” were “painted upon” pieces of birch bark before the arrival of the missionaries: “It was not until Missionaries were sent among the Cree Indians, that any other mode of conveying ideas, except orally, existed; if we exclude the rude hieroglyphics painted upon large pieces of birch bark.” Furthermore, nêhiyawak were known to have used birch bark for creating birch bark bitings. Using the eye teeth, the artist bites designs into thin pieces of birch bark, creating perfectly symmetrical designs when unfolded. This ancient art form can be achieved through a wide variety of folds. A typical folding pattern starts with a square piece of bark, which is folded into a right angle, followed by a complementary-angle fold that, when completed, results in what mathematicians refer to as perfect symmetry. This pre-contact style of art uses spatial thinking and reasoning to create records of ceremony, stories, events and later beadwork patterns. Similarly, Cree syllabics can be arranged in perfect symmetry. Cree oral history says that when the syllabics were gifted to the people from the spirit world, the syllabics were on birch bark.

It is my belief that today’s syllabics are ultimately the result of collaboration between numerous Indigenous people and James Evans. However, to delve deeper into their origins, learners must enter into the world of Cree oral history. My research into oral histories available online uncovered the story of mistanâkôwêw (Calling Badger), a spiritual man from the west in the area now known as Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan. In this account, mistanâkôwêw entered the spirit world and returned with the knowledge of Cree syllabics. A similar story exists about a man named mâcîminâhtik (Hunting Rod) who lived in the east. Fortunately, there are some recordings by Winona Wheeler and Wes Fineday, available online through the CBC, which discuss the Cree origin stories on syllabics.

Additional Resources

Samara mîkiwin Harp was an archivist with the Listen, Hear Our Voices initiative at Library and Archives Canada. She now works in Woods Cree language revitalization and is further pursuing archival studies. Samara grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with Cree roots in both the Southend and Pelican Narrows areas of Treaty 6 in northern Saskatchewan. The first of her father’s family arrived in Ontario in the 1800s from Ireland and England.

5 thoughts on “Origins of Cree syllabics

  1. Pingback: Origins and Adoption of Cree Syllabics: Samara Harp – Cree Literacy Network

  2. This is a great blog that contains quite a drama surrounding James Evans, thank you! A friend of mine has restored a few Cree typrewriters that were used to preserve the Cree language and stories by the Catholic Missionaries, you should look him up, Thom Cholowski: Typewriter Repairman Saskatoon Sask.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.