American Collections blog

18 June 2012

Cree in the Library

 Cree Bible (Matthew)

`The first page of the ‘Gospel According to Saint Matthew’ from an 1862 Cree edition of the New Testament [BL Shelfmark: W90-9576].

Our intern Brendan leaves us with a final blog before flying home to Canada:

My time at the Library has been filled with fantastic learning experiences.  However, when I began researching in the collections, it became a running joke in my family that I had travelled all the way across the Atlantic to study Canadian (and American) history in the UK.  It might seem a bit counterintuitive, but I’ve come to realize that approaching the material from a different perspective allows for a more dynamic interaction with history.

On this theme of exploring my world from across the pond, I ventured into the main catalogue in search of documents relating to my hometown of Moose Factory, Ontario (the oldest English-speaking settlement in the province and once, the regional centre of trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company).  When I began researching the Cree language, which is spoken by the Moose Cree First Nation as well as other groups throughout Northern and Central Canada, I discovered that the Library houses one of the largest indigenous languages collection in the world.  My search yielded some interesting resources relating to the use of Cree by European settlers during the second half of the nineteenth century as well as a number of volumes in other languages including Algonquin and Iroquoian.  I also found out that the Library houses the first Bible printed in North America which happens to be in the Massachusett First Nations language [BL Shelfmark G.12176].

One book that piqued my interest was an 1862 edition of the ‘New Testament’ [BL Shelfmark: W90-9576] which is printed entirely in the syllabic system developed by Methodist minister James Evans.  Evans had worked on creating an Ojibwa syllabary previously in his career, but upon arrival in Norway House (now in northern Manitoba), he turned his attention to Cree, busying himself with translating and printing religious and educational materials from homemade typeface.  Up until Evans’ system, the Cree had an oral tradition of communication, so there was no need for European-style written language among these groups.  However, a rapidly changing world necessitated this dramatic communication shift.

Another interesting book, entitled A Grammar of the Cree Language, as Spoken By the Cree Indians of North America [BL Shelfmark: X22-6409], contains a thorough examination of the structure, orthography and vocabulary of the language, this time without the use of syllabics (for ease of use by Europeans).  Throughout the text, Reverend John Horden, a past resident of my tiny hometown and Bishop of nearby Moosonee, provides practical examples and encouragements to the missionaries for which the volume was created.  Like many books of this kind, Horden’s grammar includes a list of useful words and phrases.  However, he does expand on this basic model, providing a detailed analysis of the conjugation patterns and rules of syntax, so that the book becomes more of an anthropological study of the language.

Interestingly, when you examine who was producing and publishing these books, it becomes clear that the language was no longer solely operating within the traditional cultural realm of the Cree First Nations but was being employed by settlers in their own way.  There is more to learn from these artefacts and one wonders what the Cree thought of it all, but that will be a story for another time.



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