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Manitoba History: Review: C. Douglas Ellis, ed. âtalôhkâna nêsta tipâcimôwina: Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay

by Jennifer S. H. Brown
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Number 33, Spring 1997

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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C. Douglas Ellis, ed. atalohkana nesta tipacimowina: Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1995. Pp. xxxvi, 554, notes, glossary. ISBN 0-88755-159-9.

This volume is Publication 4 of the Algonquian Text Society series produced in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Manitoba. It is a major contribution to the preservation and documentation of Cree language and literature. Sixty-eight texts (legends, personal stories and memories, conversations) are presented in both Cree and English, on facing pages. As well, the entire Cree text of the book is available separately on six cassette tapes. There is no index; but a glossary of 120 pages provides substantial coverage of the Cree vocabulary of the texts.

The texts are already historical to a degree, having been recorded between 1955 and 1965 by C. Douglas Ellis, professor emeritus of linguistics at McGill University. They document three dialects of Cree. Texts of the n-dialect (Swampy Cree, spoken from western James Bay to northern Manitoba) comprise Part I; Part III presents speakers of the 1-dialect of the Moose Factory area, and Part II consists of texts of the mixed n-1 speech, here called Kashechewan Cree, whose speakers come from the mouth of the Albany River. Sixteen Cree speakers, twelve men and four women, most of whom are now deceased, are represented.

As is usual with volumes of the Algonquian Text Society, the greatest attention is paid to the accurate and meticulous rendition of language. Transcriptions have been checked and rechecked; numerous linguists and Cree speakers have contributed their expertise. It is a joy to see Native languages taken this seriously, and to see such concrete demonstrations that Northern Algonquian languages survive with their complexities, nuances, and sophistication intact. Native linguistic losses have been legion in the Americas, but Cree and Ojibwe speakers still retain the treasure of the world view and cultural heritage embedded in their words and stories. We have great need for this sort of documentary publishing; it allows a closer approach to original Native voices than than most outsiders ever experience. Such texts also serve to remind us about how bowdlerized are the purported Native speeches and sayings that we find in most secondary English-language reading matter. How many readers think to question, for example, the endlessly quoted speech attached to the name of Chief Seattle, and to consider in depth the issues of translation, editing, recasting, and even fabrication that are fundamental to assessing the integrity and quality of such a text? Volumes such as this one bring home to us the benefits of a solid, intensive focus on language and text in their own right.

I would like to think that this volume will be widely read and consulted, but it probably will not attain that result. One barrier is price; the book, available in hard cover only, costs $75.00 (the set of tapes costs $65.00). Without doubt, the time, expertise, and labour involved in these books justifies their cost; for example, the matching of Cree to English text on every set of facing pages requires great skill and effort. But in days when millions are spent on Royal Commissions with few visible outcomes, it is a shame that such basic work as this is not better supported and more widely disseminated.

A prospect of wider dissemination might also encourage linguists involved in these projects to shape their materials for a broader audience or to prepare ancillary editions for use in schools or university courses. In the present work, documentation of the Cree language is front and centre; culture, historical context, and the substantive content of the texts are not extensively discussed or deeply mined. For example, the stories juxtapose several different versions of the adventures of legendary Northern Algonquian personages such as Weesakechahk, Chahkabesh, and Ayas, but the Introduction does not place the narratives in broader comparative contexts and there is no bibliography to guide readers to complementary sources. Then, in Part II, we have seventy-five pages of rambling Cree conversation by speakers placed in a room with a tape recorder running; desultory remarks on whether the tape is ending and who is passing by outside may assist linguistic analysis but they add weight to the book without enhancing its literary or cultural content.

In sum, however, the book is worth having for all those seriously interested in Algonquian languages and literature. We need more such works, developed in ways that will reach the most extensive readership possible.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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