Aboriginal syllabic scripts

Before the development of syllabic writing systems, Aboriginal peoples transmitted cultural knowledge orally, through wampum belts and totem poles, through rock engravings and paintings, and through hieroglyphs (symbols etched on birch bark or hides to represent a word or concept). Syllabic scripts were the first form of Aboriginal writing whereby anything that could be spoken in an Aboriginal language could be transcribed.

Reverend James Evans, a Methodist missionary, has often been credited with developing the first Aboriginal syllabic script in 1839 or 1840 at Norway House in what is now Manitoba. Before the use of syllabics, missionaries and linguists translated religious texts into Aboriginal languages using the Roman alphabet. Evans wanted his Cree parishioners to learn how to read and write, but he found the Roman alphabet limiting. As a result, he set out to develop a writing system that more accurately represented the sounds and words of the Cree language.

A colour photograph showing a hand holding the lower left corner of a book. The book is opened to the frontispiece showing a drawn portrait of Methodist missionary James Evans, wearing typical 19th century clothing and looking directly at the viewer.

A portrait of James Evans, creator of Cree syllabic, taken from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574)

Evans derived his syllabic script from Pitman’s shorthand (a shorthand phonetic system that used symbols to represent sounds) and Braille (an embossed writing system for the visually impaired). He used nine geometric shapes to denote consonants, and their orientation suggests the vowels that follow. In addition to being the first Aboriginal syllabic script, Evans’ syllabic is also the first Canadian script and the first typeface created in Canada. He recycled metal for typecasting from the linings of Hudson’s Bay tea chests and modified a fur press (for flattening pelts) to use as a printing press. Evans and his parishioners used the script to print religious texts on birch bark, deer hide and paper.

A colour photograph of two pages of a book on Cree syllabic providing examples of syllabic characters. The first page shows syllabic initials or primals, as well as examples of syllables. The second page shows finals or terminals and examples of word formation.

Images from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574) showing the syllabic geometric shapes denoting consonants and their various orientations denoting vowels.

Although originally developed to write religious materials, syllabic scripts were used by the Cree people for their own purposes. Syllabics became an important part of Cree identity, despite having been developed by a non-Aboriginal missionary, and is still used in Canada today.

Evans’ syllabic script was adapted for other Aboriginal languages, notably Inuktitut. First introduced by the missionary Edmund Peck, syllabic is still used today by thousands of fluent Inuktitut speakers.

When Nunavut was established in 1999, the territorial government commissioned William Ross Mills of Tiro Typeworks to develop digital syllabic fonts. The results included the Pigiarniq and Euphemia fonts. Euphemia, which includes the entire range of Canadian syllabics in several different Aboriginal languages, was licensed by Microsoft and Apple and is now standard on computers. This effectively enables Inuktitut speakers to sit down at virtually any computer around the world and start typing in their own language.

A colour image of a book written in Inuktitut syllabic script open to the first and second pages. The left page features the Inuktitut syllabary; the right page is text written in Inuktitut syllabic.

The first book in Inuktitut to be printed using syllabic characters, Selections from the Gospels in the Dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River, printed by John Horden between 1855 and 1856 at Moose Factory, Ontario (AMICUS 13853827)

For more information on Canadian Aboriginal syllabic scripts, please check out the following resources. Most are available in libraries or online.

  1. Banks, Joyce M. (2004). “‘And not hearers only’: Books in Native Languages,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  2. Bringhurst, Robert. (2008). “The Invisible Book,” The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing Press (AMICUS 33832941).
  3. Cree Syllabics,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2015).
  4. Edwards, Brendan Frederick. (2005). “‘To put the talk upon paper’: Aboriginal Communities,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 2, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  5. McLean, John. (1890). James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language. Toronto: Methodist Mission Rooms. (AMICUS 6941574).
  6. Pirurvik Centre for Inuit Language, Culture, and Wellbeing.

Wampum belts

“Wampum belts” and “wampum strings”… what do these expressions refer to in the colonial archives of the Library and Archives Canada collection?

Wampum—a word originating among the Algonquian peoples in the southern parts of New England—refers to tubular white and purple beads made from certain seashells found only on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an abbreviation of wampumpeague (or wampumpeake), meaning “a string of white shell beads.” In the early 17th century, wampum became an important trade item in the growing fur trade in the northeast of the continent, in addition to serving as currency in the Dutch and English colonies until the 1660s.

Black and white drawing showing two types of wampum: belts and strings.

Drawing published in 1722 showing the difference between wampum strings and wampum belts (MIKAN 2953327)

The Iroquoian peoples from inland areas made special use of wampum in their formal diplomatic meetings with foreign or neighbouring groups. The shell beads were woven into strings and belts of varying sizes, which could contain anywhere from a few hundred to over ten thousand beads.

Oil painting on canvas showing a man standing in a forest with a wolf at his feet. He is dressed in black, wearing a red cape, and holding a wampum belt in his hand.

Portrait of Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (baptized Hendrick), one of the “Four Indian Kings” who met the Queen of England in 1710 with a wampum belt in hand.

Playing a central role in international meetings and in maintaining good relationships, wampum belts were offered at official gatherings to record the words spoken, to render them official and legitimate. From the early 17th century to about the early 19th century, use of this diplomatic system spread to a large part of the American Northeast, from the vast Great Lakes region to the Maritimes, although with significant variations.

Black-and-white photograph showing several different kinds of wampum belts and strings.

Wampum belts and strings preserved by the Six Nations in the 1870s (MIKAN 3367331)

Since they were used to record spoken words, some wampum belts were kept for many years to ensure that the messages on them were maintained and preserved over time. That is why observers in the 17th and 18th centuries often compared wampum belts to archives or other official written documents (deeds, registers, annals, contracts, etc.).

Black and white photo showing six men looking at wampum belts. Five individuals are seated and the sixth seems to be explaining a wampum belt.

Six Nations Iroquois chiefs explaining the wampum belts they were preserving in 1871 (MIKAN 363053)

Wampum belts were sometimes kept over a long period so that the terms of agreements reached would not be lost. As a support for oral tradition, wampum belts bearing the words spoken at a special event therefore had to be accompanied by a speech to be meaningful. Accordingly, the keeper of the wampum belts ensured that their meaning was repeated from time to time to community members. Periodically, he repeated publicly the “content” of the wampum belts preserved so that the nation’s history would be transmitted to the younger generation.

To continue your search: Wampum belts are frequently mentioned in the France fonds des colonies and the Haldimand fonds. The Héritage project is presently digitizing the many microfilm reels contained in these fonds.

Objects used in Aboriginal communication

Long before European settlers came to America, Aboriginal peoples had developed communication systems that did not require writing or printing as was used in Europe or Asia. While it is generally acknowledged that Amerindians historically accessed their past primarily through oral traditions, we also know that they used physical means of communication for various purposes: for example, to communicate information; convey knowledge; commemorate events; identify certain titles, social positions and family ties; remember concepts, chants and ceremonies; and to situate past events in time and space.

Various modes of cultural transmission used drawings and symbols to express an idea or share information. Pictograms (stylized drawings used as symbols) were painted, drawn, traced, sculpted or woven using different materials. Themes often dealing with hunting, war and the supernatural world were represented in combinations of different colours, sizes and arrangements.

Written by a French Jesuit in 1666, “Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles qui composent la nation iroquoise [memoir of the nine families making up the Iroquois nation] (French only) includes drawings and explanations revealing how the Iroquois used pictograms to communicate information about family clans, military expeditions under way, the number of injured, etc.

These Aboriginal communication systems are found on bark rolls, animal skins, totem poles and rock faces (the images are known as petroglyphs). We also know that the Iroquois used—and still use today—special ceremonial canes covered in motifs representing the 50 chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederation, and that Amerindians sometimes made marks in sticks of different sizes to remember what they needed to discuss at meetings. They would also make notches in trees to indicate, for example, details of their travels through the land.

 

Black-and-white photograph showing five wooden totem poles. In the background are houses and mountains.

Totem in Kitwanga, British Columbia (MIKAN 3587914)

Because signs and symbols were used primarily as memory aids to illustrate concepts, they do not refer to specific words in spoken language; therefore they cannot be read in the same way as one would read a text. As valid and reliable as the written word, these mnemonic devices have the advantage of communicating information between people who speak different languages. Anyone able to recognize and decode the icons and symbols can decipher and understand the message, much like road signs today.