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Sister Nancy's Dream Realized

By Keri Cronin

In December 1998, the people of Alberta were presented with a gift-The Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary. Its publication marked the culmination of 25 years of work.

This enormous undertaking was started in the early 1970s by Sister Nancy LeClaire, a Cree nun from Hobbema. LeClaire taught in a number of schools and was concerned that Native children were not retaining their language. She wanted not only to preserve the Cree language for future generations of Cree children, but also to share this valuable part of their history with all Albertans. Armed with a three-ring binder and incredible dedication, she began her monumental task by making word lists-writing down words she knew and used every day, and defining them in Cree and in English. After hearing Dr. Earle Waugh give a paper on Native North American religions at an academic conference, LeClaire asked him to join in her project to record the language of the Cree for future generations. Waugh, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta, became the editor and worked for many years to see LeClaire's dream of an Alberta Cree dictionary finally come true.

The first Cree dictionary in Canada was Father Albert Lacombe's 1865 French/Cree dictionary, Dictionnaire de la Langue Crise, which served as a starting point for The Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary. LeClaire and Waugh had several other important sources for their work as well. Waugh researched Father Rogier Vandersteene, a fluent Cree speaker who had lived in northern Alberta. Waugh discovered that Vandersteene had begun a lengthy manuscript on learning Cree, which they incorporated into the dictionary. The Northlands School Division, which has a comprehensive Cree program, also provided information and resources, as did other institutions and individuals.

In the preface to the dictionary, Waugh points out, "A dictionary of this sort is not just a collection of words and their meanings, but represents something of what the community it serves requires." It addresses their specific needs. For example, Cree broadcasters use English for modern words like 'computer,' because there is no Cree alternative. The Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary has a section devoted to these 'new' terms. As well, the dictionary concentrates on two main dialects used in this province-the "TH" or Northern Cree dialect and the "Y" or Plains Cree dialect.

LeClaire and Waugh worked together for many years and got as far as the "N" section before LeClaire fell seriously ill. She asked Waugh to continue-"I'll be watching you," she told him, and he knew he would see this project through to the end. After her death, several people helped, including many University of Alberta students, but Waugh knew that he would need to find someone with the time and energy to work on the Cree translations full-time. Around the "S" section, he met George Cardinal, a Cree elder, who took over as author and translations. For almost six years, Cardinal worked from an English dictionary and handwrote the appropriate Cree translations.

According to Waugh, Cree is a "pictorial" language-one which tries to give a "snapshot" of an occurrence at any given moment.  English, by comparison, is very "item-oriented" in that it places value on having a specific word for a specific concept. English does not have the sense of "natural expression" that Cree does, and this posed some great difficulties for the translators. Often a phrase would be needed to define one Cree word because a single English word would have reduced its meaning. Rather than being frustrated by these complexities, Waugh sees them as a confirmation that Cree is a "wonderfully rich, expressive, yet complicated language. No dictionary can hope to capture the richness," Waugh explains; "Cree has had a long and vibrant career in Canada."

The cover of The Alberta Cree Elders' Dictionary is a reproduction of a painting by Alberta artist Jane Ash Poitras. For Poitras the painting is a "visualization of the power of language and how language holds the power of people." While not commissioned for the dictionary, the painting (completed in 1990) was a perfect fit for the project. Poitras describes it as "synchronicity." She has always had a passion for linguistics and the spiritual basis upon which many languages are built-a theme in many of her paintings and particularly apparent in this piece. The traditional and contemporary come together, which is significant for The Alberta Cree Elders' Dictionary as well as for Poitras personally. "I am a contemporary Native combining history and today," she says.

Waugh estimates that over 100 people have given time, energy, and resources to the project which he calls "an impressive intellectual contribution to our cultural heritage." He is confident that the next generation of scholars will bring a "whole new vigour" to Cree study. Cree heritage is an integral part of the history of this province, and The Alberta Elders' Cree Dictionary is a valuable contribution to the understanding of that heritage.
 
Reprinted with the permission of Keri Cronin and Legacy (May-July 1999): 44-45.
 
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