The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan


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Aboriginal Languages

The province of Saskatchewan received its name from the Cree word kisiskâciwan, which describes the “fast-flowing” Saskatchewan River or its “Swift Current.” Place Names of Aboriginal origin are common throughout the province, whether recorded in translation or in attempts to represent the sounds of Aboriginal languages through English or French spelling convention. It is important to note, however, that these names do not come from just one “Indian” language, nor are all of these languages closely related. The Aboriginal languages of Saskatchewan represent three distinct language families, as diverse and unrelated as English, Hungarian, and Chinese.

The Algonquian language family is the largest group of First Nations languages in North America, covering a wide area of the northeastern coast and ranging inland around the Great Lakes and westward to the Rocky Mountains. Algonquian languages are generally characterized by having a small number of distinct sounds, but a very complex morphology or word structure. Two Algonquian languages are found in Saskatchewan today: Cree and Saulteaux.

The Cree language has the largest speaker population of all of Canada’s First Nations languages with an estimated 75,000 speakers, including dialect groups ranging from Quebec to northeastern British Columbia and into the Northwest Territories. Approximately 20,000 of these speakers live in Saskatchewan, where Cree ranks second only to English as the most commonly spoken language of the home—Cree bands making up over half of the province’s seventy-four First Nations. Cree reserves range from the southeast (White Bear, near Carlyle) to southwest (Nekaneet, near Maple Creek), and northwards from east-central (Peter Ballantyne, at Pelican Narrows) to west-central (Meadow Lake) regions. Three separate dialects of the Cree language are represented in Saskatchewan, commonly divided along the lines of a diagnostic sound alternation. Plains Cree, or the “Y” dialect, is found on the southern plains and through the central parkland; it is sometimes divided into northern and southern subdialects. Woods Cree, or the “TH” dialect, is found to the north of Plains Cree in the central, forested region of Saskatchewan. Swampy Cree, or the “N” dialect, is more prevalent in Ontario and Manitoba, but is also spoken in the region of Cumberland House on the eastern edge of the province. The dialect alternation of “Y,” “TH” and “N” sounds is evident in many Cree vocabulary items, including the Cree name for their own language: nêhiyawêwin in Plains Cree, nêhinawêwin in Swampy Cree, and nîhithawîwin in Woods Cree. Other than this sound alternation, western Cree dialects are quite similar, all containing just seventeen distinct sounds, one of the smallest sound systems among the world’s languages (this can be compared with Hawaiian, which has only thirteen distinct sounds, and with Canadian English, which has thirty-eight). Both the Plains and Swampy Cree alphabets consist of these sounds: /a, â, c, ê, h, i, î, k, m, n, o, ô, p, s, t, w, y/. Woods Cree differs only in dropping /ê/ and adding the “th” sound.

The vast majority of Saskatchewan place names of Aboriginal origin derive from Cree. This is due not only to the role the Cree played as middlemen in the Fur Trade and guides to westward-reaching European expansion, but also to the role that the Cree language played as a lingua franca of the prairie region, adopted and used by many other Aboriginal groups. For this reason, a very large number of Cree-derived names can be found on the map of Saskatchewan, including the name of the province itself and many of its larger centres such as Saskatoon (misâskwatômina “saskatoon berries”), Moose Jaw (moscâstanisîpiy “river of mild winds”), the Battlefords (nôtinitosîpîhk “at the battle river”), and an increasingly popular name around Regina, Wascana (oskana “bones”).

Closely related to Cree is the Ojibwa language with its many dialects, found primarily to the south of Cree-speaking regions from Quebec to Saskatchewan and in the neighbouring areas of the United States. Ojibwa has the third highest speaker population of Canadian Aboriginal languages (after Cree and Inuktitut), at approximately 22,500; but this number virtually doubles when the American Ojibwa population, often referred to as Chippewa, is included. In Saskatchewan, the westernmost dialect of Ojibwa is known as Saulteaux, belying a more eastern origin and westward expansion during the fur trade. Saulteaux or nahkawêwin is the primary language of eleven bands, and is also spoken along with Cree on several other reserves. Most Saulteaux reserves are located in the southeastern region of Saskatchewan and include Cote, Fishing Lake, Keeseekoose (kîšikônš “little sky”), Key, Kinistin, Muscowpetung (maskawapîtank “he sits steadfastly”), Muskowekwan (maskawîkwan “strong quill”), Pasqua, Sakimay (sakimê “mosquito”), Saulteaux, and Yellowquill.

There are considerably fewer Saulteaux place names than Cree ones on the Saskatchewan map; but in addition to some of the reserve names already cited, places such as Punnichy (panacay “fledgling bird”), Kissina (kisinâ “it is cold”), and Ogema (okimâ “chief”) derive from Saulteaux. Additionally, several other Ojibwa-derived names have found their way into Saskatchewan, including Wadena (ôtênâ “town, village”) and Nokomis (nôkomihs “grandmother”). As an Algonquian language, Saulteaux has a relatively small sound system, although compared to Cree it has an added important distinction among consonants, so that the standard Saulteaux alphabet uses the following symbols and digraphs for the twenty-four distinct sounds: /a, â, c, hc, ê, h, i, î, k, hk, m, n, o, ô, p, hp, s, hs, š, hš, t, ht, w, y/.

In addition to Cree and Saulteaux, some other Algonquian-speaking peoples are known to have had an historical presence in Saskatchewan. The Atsina or Gros Ventre, speakers of a dialect of the Algonquian language Arapaho, are one such group, although today Atsina is spoken only by a few Elders in Montana. Members of the Algonquian-speaking Blackfoot nations also frequented the southwestern reaches of the province historically, but Blackfoot reserves are now to be found in Alberta and Montana.

Unrelated to the Algonquian languages are those that make up the Siouan language family, which covers a large area of central and mid-eastern North America. Though most Siouan speakers live in the United States, three very closely related Siouan peoples, the Nakota, Dakota and Lakota, have representatives in Saskatchewan, where they have been more commonly known by Algonquian-derived names. The Nakota are long-time residents of our province and have several reserves at Mosquito, Carry the Kettle, Ocean Man, and Pheasant Rump, as well as sharing others, such as White Bear, with their Cree allies. The Nakota have been commonly known by the name Assiniboine, though this is, in fact, derived from the Ojibwa name ahsinipwân indicating “Stoney Sioux,” the translation of which lends them another common name, Stoney. The term Sioux, often applied to both the Dakota and Lakota, is also derived from the second-last syllable of an Ojibwa word, nâtowêhsiwak, referring to a particular type of “snakes” or simply “enemies,” and applied at various times to either Siouan or Iroquoian peoples. Thus, despite the linguistic use of the term Siouan for the entire language family, this is not a name favoured by “Siouan” speakers. More correctly known as the Dakota, they are more recent immigrants to Saskatchewan, arriving after the troubles of 1862 in Minnesota and settling at White Cap (Moose Woods), Wahpeton and Standing Buffalo Reserves. The one band of Lakota at Wood Mountain is even more recent to the province, arriving with Sitting Bull in 1877 following the previous year’s Battle of the Little Big Horn. Due to their more recent settlement in Saskatchewan, neither the Dakota nor Lakota are signatory to the Treaties.

Although the Nakota, Dakota and Lakota are considered three separate groups culturally and politically, they speak mutually intelligible dialects of a single language which have not yet reached the point of diverging into separate languages. One feature shared by all three of these Siouan dialects is their endangered status: few speakers remain in Saskatchewan, with estimates suggesting, for instance, as few as twenty-five Nakota and three Lakota speakers left. Each of these dialects also has speaker populations in the United States, where Lakota remains relatively strong; but Children in Saskatchewan learn none of these dialects as their first language. Nakota in particular has very few remaining speakers and is in immediate danger of language extinction.

There are also surprisingly few Siouan names on the Saskatchewan map, although examples from Nakota, Dakota and Lakota can all be found. Given the much longer history of the Assiniboine in the province, it may seem odd that Sheho (š io “prairie chicken”) is one of the very few Nakota words that have been used. Wawota (wa ota “deep snow”) and Wahpeton (waxpet? “people of the leaves”) are representative of Dakota, while even the relatively small presence of Lakota speakers in the region has yielded the names Oakshela (hok š ila “boy”) and Sintaluta (sinta luta “red tail”—in reference to a fox tail). The small number of Siouan-based names can be attributed in part to the more recent presence of Dakota speakers, but also to the fact that many Nakota-speakers were bilingual in the language of their close allies, the Cree. Even when Nakota names have been used, they are often found in translation owing to the relative complexity of the Siouan sound systems. In comparison to Algonquian, the Siouan languages in general have more complex sound systems, and although the number of distinct sounds is not dissimilar to English, there are many sounds and sound distinctions that are unfamiliar to English ears. The Dakota sound system, for instance, consists of 40 distinct sounds. These include important distinctions among consonants (unaspirated /t/, aspirated /th/, and ejective /t’/) and vowels (nasal /?/ versus oral /a/) not found in English. Nakota and Lakota have similar systems, with minor differences such as the /l/ found only in Lakota, and the more common use of voiced sounds (e.g., /b, d, g/) in Nakota.

Different again from Algonquian and Siouan languages is the sole representative of the Athapaskan language family found in Saskatchewan. This is the Dene language, commonly known by the Cree name of Chipewyan (cîpwayân “pointed hide”), said to be derived from a description of their mode of dress. As a name from a completely unrelated language, however, Chipewyan is not an appellation preferred by the Dene people, who occupy the northern third of the province of Saskatchewan, as well as neighbouring areas of Alberta and Manitoba. Related Athapaskan languages cover a vast area of the northwest of North America, and can be found through much of Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and northern British Columbia, as well as in other areas comprising the Navajo and Apachean languages in the American southwest.

Dene is the second most commonly spoken First Nations language in Saskatchewan. Although the approximately 5,100 speakers in the province may appear to be a small number, this represents a fairly high language retention rate from a total Saskatchewan Dene population of approximately 6,300, whose northern location has allowed them to resist more successfully the encroachment of English and retain their own language as a first language. At this time, a relatively high percentage of Dene children still continue to learn Dene as their first language, which has the most complex sound system of all First Nations languages spoken in Saskatchewan—a common feature of Athapaskan languages in general. Not only does Dene share some of the features of Siouan languages, such as nasal vowels and ejective consonants: other distinctions also increase the number of distinct sounds in Dene to thirty-five consonants and eleven vowels for a total of forty-six distinct sounds. Additionally, Dene is unique among Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal languages in that it is a tone language distinguishing between high and low tone; this means that, like in many Asian languages, the pitch at which a word or syllable is uttered can change the meaning.

Perhaps in part due to the complexity of the Dene sound system, very few official Saskatchewan place names have been adopted from Dene. Those that have are almost always found in translation (e.g., Black Lake, Stony Rapids), while many other places in Dene territory have Cree names (e.g., Patuanak, wapâciwanâhk) belying the more prevalent use of Cree by guides introducing these areas to European Explorers and settlers.

The common use of Cree, even by First Nations of other than Cree origin, meant it was ideally suited to serve as one-half of a unique mixed language that arose upon contact with Europeans in the Red River area of Manitoba. Michif, the language of the Métis, is an interesting blend of Cree and French. Unlike many “creoles” that have arisen upon language contact throughout the world, in which the vocabulary of one language dominates and is fitted to the grammar of another, Michif mixes Cree verbs with French nouns and uses a sound system born of both parent languages. The Michif language was spread westward across the plains by buffalo hunters, and it remains an important means of communication in a number of communities as wide-ranging as Turtle Mountain (North Dakota) and Ile-à-la Crosse, Saskatchewan. However, as with other Aboriginal languages, Michif is an endangered language today, learned as a first language by few.

The future of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal languages is uncertain. Many of the languages, such as Saulteaux, Nakota, Dakota, Lakota and Michif, are seriously endangered and are now rarely if ever learned by children as their first language. Even Cree, despite its relatively high number of speakers, and Dene, despite its higher retention rate, cannot be considered safe under the global influences of mass communication and the prestige role of English. In response to the threat of language loss, language Education programs and retention committees have been founded at the First Nations University of Canada and the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, as well as at the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan and other educational bodies throughout the province. Additionally, language programming is playing an increasingly more important role in First Nations’ schools; and immersion programs, such as those pioneered at Onion Lake and Cumberland House, are being put in place to protect, maintain and stimulate interest in this exceptionally important part of Aboriginal heritage and the heritage of Saskatchewan.

Arok Wolvengrey

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Further Reading

Bakker, P. 1997. A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Boas, F. and E. Deloria. 1976. Dakota Grammar. New York: AMS Press; Cote, M. 1984. Nahkawêwiwin (Saulteaux). Regina: Saskatchewan Indian Federated College; Okimâsis, J.L. 2004. Cree, Language of the Plains/nêhiyawêwin, paskwâwi-pîkiskwêwin. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; Wolvengrey, A. 1998. “On the Pronunciation and Spelling of First Nations Names and Languages in Saskatchewan,” Prairie Forum 23 (1): 113–25.
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