Once you have learned ten Cree words a day over a hundred day time period, you’ll know how to say “double-double coffee” (nîswâw, nîswâw pihkahtêwâpoy) and how to order at Tim Horton’s (cim-ôtan).
The coffee franchise is one of the 100 chapter themes in the newly-released book, 100 Days of Cree, written by Neal McLeod and Arok Wolvengrey, and published by the University of Regina Press (U of R Press). The book was transpired from a 100-day series of the author’s Facebook posts.
Describing himself as a latecomer to social media, McLeod started posting words in Cree, and he was amazed with the amount of feedback he received from people who were eager to learn more about the Indigenous language.
“By the end of the day, you have people adding dialectal variations,” he says. “It’s a great way to learn, and it’s a great way to inspire those who are trying to learn.”
Using social media as a tool to get the language out there, McLeod believes it allows people to share the language and to learn from each other. He describes people showing excitement to see the Cree language on the internet, and he watched how they communicated amongst each other in Cree.
Mixed with a contemporary and modern twist, McLeod coined words that are often hard to translate. When he couldn’t find the translations for some words and themes, he would ask people for their assistance.
“Sometimes I would ask people, how you would say these words or describe them in Cree. I would gather words and post it on Facebook, and people would respond. At times, I would ask people to ask their parents on my behalf. Then they would send them to me.”
McLeod continues to work hard on his fluency. Coming from a Swedish and Cree background, he lived in Sweden for a couple of years with his grandmother when he was younger. Later, he was raised in James Smith Cree Nation by his late father, Jermiah McLeod. He grew up listening to those around him speaking Cree fluently. Some of his greatest teachers were people like his late uncle Burton Vandall from Sandy Lake First Nation (yêkawiskâwikamâhk).
“Back in the late 80s or early 90s, I would record him with an old cassette player for hours and he’d tell me how to make sentence patterns so I could learn. I had my own language tapes for myself.”
McLeod sees his book as a great resource in revitalizing the Cree language, noting that, at the current rates on many reserves, there won’t be many speakers left.
“In terms of revitalization, we can’t just write essays and dissertations about why Cree is important, and we can’t just write about why the language became weaker. It’s important to know, but the bottom line for me, in the future, is what legacy will we leave to those coming behind us. We have to start using [the language], and I think this book gets the conversation going.”
Books published on Indigenous languages are great resources to help revitalize the languages; McLeod believes there is a fundamental thing that needs to occur in order for the Cree language to survive.
“People have to stop making fun of people for making mistakes because that is the easiest way to turn someone off from wanting to learn. People have to stop making fun of people who are trying to learn who may have English accents,” said McLeod who admits to making errors when he translates words from English to Cree. “You have to be willing to make mistakes and put it out there but be humble and open enough to learn. We need to encourage each other and have fun with it.”
McLeod acknowledges those who contributed to the book, and sadly, many of those people passed on; Freda Ahenakew (author of Our Grandmothers’ Lives: As Told in Their Own Words published by the U of R Press), his father Jermiah McLeod, Arsene Tootoosis and McLeod’s uncle Burton Vandall.
The book ends with a chapter titled “Until Next Time” (iskwayikohk pitamâ) and a Guide to Cree Pronunciation by Arok Wolvengrey, a linguist from the First Nations University of Canada who thoroughly edited McLeod’s work.