Language: Cree is an Algonquian language
spoken by more than 70,000 people across southern Canada and into Montana. There are five major Cree dialects: Western/Plains Cree,
Northern/Woodlands Cree, Central/Swampy Cree, Moose Cree, and Eastern Cree. Some linguists consider these distinct languages, but they are largely
mutually intelligible. The most divergent is Eastern Cree, which some consider a closer relative to the Innu languages
Montagnais and Naskapi
than to the other Cree dialects--then again, others consider Montagnais, Naskapi, and/or Atikamekw
to be dialects of Cree themselves. This lack of linguistic consensus reveals the remarkable diversification of the Cree language. In general, Cree people can
understand the dialects of communities closest to them, but not those further away: though a Northern Cree may understand both a Western Cree
and an Eastern Cree, they might have trouble understanding each other, and only the East Cree speaker would have hope of understanding Montagnais.
All five Cree dialects (though not Atikamekw or the Innu languages) are written in a unique syllabary which
uses shapes to represent consonants and rotates them in the Four Directions to represent vowels. There are two more languages
which, while not Cree, are heavily influenced by Cree:Michif, a Metis creole combining French nouns
with Cree verbs, and Severn Ojibway, an Ojibwe dialect often called "Oji-Cree" because it has
borrowed liberally from Cree and uses the Cree syllabary instead of the Roman alphabet used by most other Ojibwe speakers. One of the most important and
influential of American Indian languages, Cree also has one of the best chances of conitnued survival, with many children being raised bilingually or in Cree with English or French
as a second language. Cree is a polysynthetic, verb-based language with long words and fairly free word order.
People: The Cree are Canada's largest native group, with 200,000 registered members and dozens of self-governed nations. "Cree" comes from the French name for
the tribe, "Kristenaux," variously said to be a corruption of the French word for "Christian" or an Algonquian word for "first people." When speaking their own language
the Cree refer to themselves as Ayisiniwok, meaning "true men," Nehiyawok, meaning "speakers of our language,"
or Iyiniwok, meaning simply "the people"
(this word has the same Central Algonquian root as the Montagnais word Innu). There are also more
than 100,000 people known as Métis, of mixed-blood Cree, French, and other Canadian ancestry. Though
many Cree regard the Metis as Cree brethren--and, indeed, though many registered Cree Indians are also mixed-blood--the Metis have a unique culture and
their own creole tongue (known as Michif). The
and the Innu (Montagnais and Naskapi) are also related to the Cree but consider themselves distinct.
History: Cree history is very hard to synopsize because the Cree tribe spans such a broad
territory, from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Though their common
culture and language bind them together as a people, the James Bay Cree and Woodland Cree tribes do
not necessarily have any more shared history than the white people in Quebec and Alberta do.
With that caveat, though, the Cree Indians as a whole have weathered European colonization better
than perhaps any other group of Native Americans. Their sheer numbers and broad range
helped keep them from being too decimated by European diseases to maintain stability, as
happened to many smaller nations, and their particular cultural affinity for intertribal
marriage (remarked upon in the oral histories of their Indian neighbors) meshed well with the intent
of the French, the primary Europeans to have dealings with them. Where the English tended to
try to move Indian groups further away from their civilization, the French tried to engulf
them. The Cree, who had held a similar attitude towards colonization before the French ever
got there, engulfed back. The result was the Metis, a race of primarily
French-Cree mixed-bloods, and distinct French and Cree populations who generally got along
pretty well. Since Canadian nationhood, the Cree people have faced the same problems of
self-determination and land control that every aboriginal group has, but they remain
better-equipped to face them than most, and the Cree language is one of the few North
American languages sure of surviving into the next century.