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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Custer

Revitalizing Cree + Cree Literacy. What is the connection?

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

I began working with Cree language in 2014 - since that time I have encountered some arguments on how to best approach language revitalization in schools and communities. One of the arguments I sometimes witness is that we should not write in our language and that it should be taught orally. Some schools pursue this method; oral language only in the early years. Some teach Cree literacy, I am not sure how effective it is since my own Cree spelling was not that great when I was teaching Cree in schools. ha! I used capitals, macrons in the wrong places and even the incorrect Cree alphabet symbols. I look back at my own writing and I cringe. Although, I can't say that I blame myself for my inaccurate use of the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography. I had years and years to learn English, ever since I was a little four year old Cree speaking girl back in Pelican Narrows. That means I have had over 40 years of English literacy training with little to no Cree literacy training! I think it's about time to create a space for a writing system, this is where Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography comes in.

One argument against Cree literacy (reading and writing Cree) is that Cree words should be spelled how they sound, that standard Cree spelling is too difficult to learn. As an experienced Cree teacher and a fluent speaker, I disagree with the idea of spelling as we hear it. We give so much effort to learn English from the time we are babies and from elementary school on, but why can't we or won't we put in the same effort for our own language? Here I present 10 reasons to adopt the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography spelling system to help revitalize our Cree language:

Note: Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography (SCAO) is a writing system that was developed specifically for the Cree language based on the Cree sounds also known as phonemes and meanings. It includes 10 consonants (c, h, k, m, n, p, s, t, w, y ) and 7 vowel sounds 3 short and 4 long ( a, i, o, ā, ī, ō, ē )

One - spelling words as you hear them is using the European colonizers English alphabet, it's just an inefficient way of using the system because children can't learn a writing system that is inconsistent; everyone has their own way of speaking and pronouncing words so words would change all the time. It would cause confusion, it already happens. I imagine a child going from one school to another (If they were fortunate enough to have a language teacher at both schools) in one school they have learned from the language teacher to spell a certain way, they are used to it. At the next school, the new language teacher spells words a different way. The child is confused and may believe that the word is an entirely new word. What if both teachers had used the same spelling system? How much further would that child's learning about Cree advance?

Two - when it comes to the creation of resources that we desperately need to help children acquire Cree; we need a consistent spelling system again. There are so many resources now in the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography because now people are recognizing the value of a consistent writing system. Teachers now have available more resources than they did say ten years ago! They no longer have to keep creating their own writing system because that footwork has been done for them. 80+ years of heavy-duty footwork at that. Thank you trailblazers! kinanāskotmitināwāw

Three - we are years behind others when it comes to adopting a writing system. In Hawai'i for example, they use chants to teach their kids the language. They learn their sound system from early elementary school. They use a BICS/CALP system to revitalize their language and it's working for them. This means delivering oral, writing and reading in Hawaiian in their schools. We just need to all agree on a system and the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography is the most developed and refined writing system for the Cree language.

Four - why would we want to undo or disrespect the great work of our brothers and sisters? Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography has been around for 80+ years and has continually been refined by people like Freda Ahenakew and Jean Okimāsis for example. That is their life's work and contribution to our people.

Five - I know the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography is written in the Y dialect. I'm Rock Cree but I have no problem reading and learning in the Y dialect. Once children are taught where the markers are to switch the dialect, they would get used to it because children are brilliant! Language teachers must also be aware that there are going to be words that have a regional difference. I would talk to fluent Elders about words and if the words I am using are correct. When I teach Scarlett, I always tell her that the Rock Cree say it like this. There still needs to be work done in this are but most of it is already done.

Six - our people are survivors. To survive, we have always had to adapt. In this day and age, English is all around us, it's seeping into our communities and it's evident because our kids are no longer speak our languages like they used to. They are no longer immersed in Cree only communities like they may have been 60 - 70 years ago. Learning to read and write Cree from a young age gives us the tools we need to create rich Cree environments in our homes, schools and communities consistently.

Seven - Cree is endangered. We really don't have time to waste on whether or not we should adopt the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography. If we all did, the work on teaching Cree effectively to our children could begin.

Eight - universities are starting look at Indigenous languages as a high school requirement. I had a high school student ask me one time if I knew of where she could take a class because she needed it to get accepted to university. At the university level, they teach the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography. What if they already knew the system ? What then could we shift our energy to?

Nine - I believe that our minds are very much English trained. This is why we feel the cognitive dissonance and resist when it comes to learning the Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography system but it's really not that difficult once you learn how and you have a multitude of great resources to help along the way. I'm still learning and I'm using it to teach Scarlett and it's working.

Ten – Combining Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography with oral language development methods and Indigenous Land-Based Education will give the best possible chance for our children to learn our Cree language. If I were to go back to teaching Cree at the elementary level; I would begin with the Cree alphabet sounds, simple spelling with Cree syllables, reading, TPR, singing, ASLA, clapping, repetition, chanting, games, sign-language and Land-Based Education to create the best possible language learning environment for the little ones. They would be able to read, write, speak, sing, feel and dream in the language.

For more important information on Standard Cree Alphabetic Orthography please read the following article on Cree Literacy Network:

Here we see my daughter Scarlett reading Cree. I am testing to see which ones she remembers from a list of 80+ Cree words. You'll see sometimes I pause to show her something. This is when I'm using sign language or TPR to jot her memory of the word.

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