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Report on Valentin Végreville’s Monograph of the Cree

Visual representation of nature's laws

by Juliette Champagne, PhD

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Valentin Végreville, Monographie des Indiens Cris de l’Ouest, unpublished typescript, approximately 55,000 words, in French, 1893, source Oblate Fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta (71.220, Box 196, Items 7559-7560).

I. Copyright, obtaining permission to use material for publication.

The copyright for this manuscript is retained by the Oblate corporation, however the material can be used for research purposes. A form is available at the Provincial Archives of Alberta to request permission for publication. All specifics must be outlined at this time and the decision to accept or not is decided by a ruling committee made up members of the Oblate order.

II. Physical description of the typescript

1. Quality of typescript:

PAA, 71.220, Box 196, Items 7560

By 1895, Father Valentin Végreville had prepared this text as one part of a series of four which included two dictionaries, one French-Cree, the other Cree-French, a Cree grammar and the Cree monograph. The original typescript was transcribed from the manuscript in the early sixties by Fr. Paul-Émile Breton and consists of approximately 55,000 words in 160 typewritten pages. Breton may still have been working on this text when he died in June of 1964, as it does not seem to be quite finished, judging from the corrections on the typescript (typos, omissions and Breton’s footnotes)1.

The typescript did not reproduce well in the photocopying process. If this project were to go any further, it would be necessary to compare the typescript with the original so as to clear up any illegible material; at this point I have simply flagged the pages which need to be verified.

2. Problems pertaining to the concordance of the typescript to the manuscript, i.e. table of contents.

Although at first look, this typescript seems to have a table of contents, this is not what the table which Végreville prepared is. This table consists of Végreville’s directions to the potential editor as concerns the organization of the manuscript and the page numbers referred to on the first five pages of the typescript refer to the manuscripts. You will note the plural here as there are several manuscript versions.

The typescript has a few gaps which need to be filled in, but this may not always be possible. This is the case for the Végreville’s note on page 137a, which refers to page 110 of the manuscript for a passage concerning the traditions of several different nations; Breton has written in the margin that he could not find page 110.

3. State of the original manuscript.

PAA, 71.220, Box 196, Items 7559

As we are dealing with a manuscript written before the typewriter, I can only presume that it was presented in a typical fashion, although I suspect most professional writers were usually expected to submit a relatively cohesive text to their editors. In this case, this is no tidy coherent manuscript, instead the text is literally here and there in Végreville’s papers, in various versions of manuscript and in his letter books,as the "original" manuscript is really a series of manuscripts comprising the "Monographie abrégée Assiniboine-Iesga", file 7557, "Monographie des Dakota-Jesga)", file 7558, and "Monographie sur les Cris", file 7559, all of which were cobbled together by Breton according the instructions left by Végreville more than seventy years before.

Végreville seems to have thought that he could publish three similar series on the native populations of the Canadian plains, all of which with bilingual dictionaries, a grammar and a monograph, which were directed particularly towards those who needed to learn these native languages, be they missionaries, educators, or academics interested in philology. The monograph in particular was meant to give a sense of the culture of the people in question to these interested parties.

As mentioned above, the "Table de monographie crise" itemizes the order of the manuscript which the editor was to assemble for the final text from the various letter books or manuscripts. No publisher was found in 1895, when Végreville went to Washington, D.C. to present his manuscript dictionaries/grammar/monograph and the directors of the Smithsonian Institution declined; apparently the Americans were only interested in publishing in English2. Although Végreville valiantly tried other sources, it was to no avail, and Végréville’s work has lain on the shelf since then. No doubt, other scholars have looked at it as well, that they have decided against it must also be taken into consideration.

In the matter of this typescript, it was only when Fr. Breton took an interest in it, probably during the 1950s, that what could pass for a draft typescript was finally prepared. Breton was very familiar with the Oblate papers and the history of the Oblates3. He had published several books about them, and as the long-time editor of La Survivance, the French language weekly in Alberta for many years, one can presume that he was as familiar as could be with editing a manuscript. And he seems to have done a very laudable job of it, although in this case, his hands were tied as concerns any revisions or clarifications from the author – a situation we are very much in today.

Close examination reveals that all of the texts which Végreville intended for the original manuscript were not all included in the three above mentioned monographs. There is a long section of comparative linguistics which Breton did not type up, and perhaps he intended to use it, as the typescript alludes to it4. It is possible that he did not recopy it for two reasons: it is very clearly written and it comprises a lengthy chart, which was probably easier to reproduce just once for the final text. However, as Breton usually pencilled in reference notes in the margin and he did not do so in this case, it leads one to wonder whether he meant to include it at all.

Be that as may, this is one of the unfinished aspects of the typescript and this missing section should be included for a final manuscript. As well, as the subject of this typescript is the Cree, any material particular to the Assiniboine or to the Dakota has not been included – and it should be.

4. Comparison of manuscript and typescript

Breton seems to have followed Végreville’s instructions to the letter in assembling the typescript, or at least as best he could. Several notes on the typescript indicate there are still gaps where material needed to be inserted by the typesetter from a series of end notes, which are really addendums.5 A thorough comparison of the copied typescript to the original and subsequent transcription would take care of this.

As mentioned above, there are at least three manuscripts in question here, and it was after I had read the typescript and begun reviewing Végreville’s papers at the Provincial Archives of Alberta that I finally noticed the unusual resemblance of three monographs in the Végreville papers – in his most unorthodox approach to publication. In fact, a comparison shows that except for particular details pertaining to the respective group in question, the manuscripts are practically word for word copies of each other. The author justifies this highly unusual practice of rewriting by saying that many cultural aspects of the three groups were the same (such as the description of a teepee and the ritual protocol of receiving visitors in them). However when it comes to distinctive differences or anecdotes pertaining to a particular group, these are included in the respective text, such as a « begging» dance performed by the Dakota Sioux in Prince Albert or the « trading» dance of the Cree.6 So, in this way, although Végreville dipped in each manuscript for pages and pages of material for the Cree monograph, it only contains information specific to the Cree.

It would certainly be interesting to include any original material in a potential publication, although there does not seem to be a huge amount of it in the other two manuscripts. Any additional material would certainly be an asset to a final draft, which could simply be renamed to cover the three indigenous Canadian Plains tribal groups which are discussed in it. I have not read through the three manuscripts but have only glanced through them, so I cannot specify exactly how much more text this would entail; perhaps only a few pages; at the most, a dozen. To do this, however, it would be necessary to read the manuscripts, which of course are handwritten and of a difficult style, to seek out the pertinent passages and transcribe them. That they are difficult to read is an understatement, Breton’s tenacity in transcribing what he did is admirable. In some places, the paper is yellowed and torn, some of the pages are written in pencil, etc. Some passages from his letter books also seem to resemble the manuscripts and Végreville probably drew on them for his manuscripts, something which is highly possible as he kept copies since 1852.

III. Context of the monograph

1. Subject of monograph

The Cree (or Ne’iyaw) are the main subject of Végreville’s text, but only to those west of Hudson Bay. There is no mention of the Cree in Quebec, other than an historical presence there. It must be remembered that at the time, no comprehensive text existed which dealt with the origins of the North American natives; Diamond Jenness’ Indians of Canada was only published in 1932.

Végreville’s study is written in a sort of historical present. Obviously by the 1890s, there was no longer warfare among the tribes or buffalo hunting, but this is all described as if it was still being done, even though many of the activities described were no longer practised at all.

The subject is the Cree who inhabit the regions between the 50th to the 60th parallels, west of Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains, and he subdivides this tribe into two main groups, those of the Plains and the Woodland Cree. The Muskegon Cree to the west of Hudson Bay are mentioned and are grouped with the Woodland Cree. Végreville describes their differences in dialect, followed by a physical description of the people, their clothing, their lodges, aspects of social protocol and ceremonial customs, their weapons, their nomadic lifestyle, hunting practices on the plains or in the boreal forest, spiritual practices and beliefs, such as the dream quest and shamanism, the choosing of leaders, making war, the impact of Christianity on the Cree, their morals, more or less in that order. A few folk tales are related towards the end of the manuscript.

A chart comparing Cree with a number of European languages was supposed to be included, but was not been typed up, although it is available7. This was intended to be the second part of the monograph, and consists of a long letter with a language chart which seems to have prepared around 1879 for the September conference of the Congrs international des Américanistes which met in Brussels8. His colleague, Émile Petitot had attended an earlier such conference with considerable success, and had the incredibly good fortune of finding a patron who took it upon himself to publish all of his works on the peoples of Northern Canada. It is reasonable to presume that Végreville would have liked to do the same.

Végreville had also sent a copy of this long letter to Petitot, but had carefully made himself a copy as well. In his comparative chart, Végreville makes the case for the European (or Middle Eastern) origin of the Cree or Algonquin linguistic group, which he calls Algique – a term no longer in usage today – showing similar sounding words common to various Native American languages and European ones (Cree, Stoney, Dakota, Dene, English, French, German, Latin, etc). The letter is very cleanly written and could be easily transcribed, no doubt it would add to the text. This aspect of a similarities between languages is now studied in a much more quantitative manner, and although the theory of an European origin of the North American natives has generally been rejected in favour of an Asiatic origin, there seem to be some surprising parallels in Végreville’s thesis which should not be dismissed out of hand.

2. Main objective put forth by the author, thesis

Végreville states that his main goal is to help those who are interested in the Cree, or who are studying the language, to learn more about the Cree and their culture. He describes the hunting and warrior culture as it was, as he was told of it or as he observed it. He points out that he did not attempt to collect any tales which had bawdy content (he notes that there were a substantial number). There are also quite a few lengthy passages about the beneficial effects of Christianity on the Cree.

3. Biographical information concerning the author. Expertise in this field, intellectual background and subjectivity concerning the subject.

Valentin Végreville was born in 1829, in a small community midway between Mans and Laval in the West of France, in Mayenne, a very Catholic region, from which came many Oblate missionaries to the Canadian North-West, notably bishops Vital Grandin and Émile Grouard, to name but two.

His father died in 1839, leaving his widow with a family of seven children. Normally the French birth certificate provides information as to the profession of his parents, but there is no copy of this certificate in his file and nothing is mentioned of his parents in the standard source of biographical information concerning the Oblates in Canada9. A second biographer, Fr. Aristide Phillipot spent considerable time preparing a history of Végreville, but says nothing of the family’s resources nor of its social class10. (I have used much of his analysis for the following biography.) The family does not seem to have suffered undue hardship due to the loss of the father and may have had some regular source of revenue or pension, Later on in life, Végreville did receive some money from his family. He did not hand it over to his bishop as he was supposed to do, in 1886 he is reprimanded by his bishop for keeping this.

The family was very devout. The eldest brother, who in 1854 decided to join his brother Valentin in Western Canada to help him in his missions, was never heard from again after he boarded a Brazilian ship bound for North America. He is presumed to have been lost at sea. One sister joined an Ursuline nunnery in Chateau-Gontier in the Mayenne. His mother was especially pious and once had a vision of the Virgin Mary in her home while deeply immersed in prayer. A younger sister is categorized as having lived a very adventurous life, a fact presumably garnered in her letters to her brother.

For his secondary studies, the young Végreville attended a college at Evron, close to his home, going on to the seminary at Mans, after which he joined the Oblates at the noviciate in Marseille. In 1852, he heard the young Canadian missionary Alexandre Taché speak of the missions in Canada’s Northwest while on a recruiting tour of France and Végreville volunteered. He arrived in Saint-Boniface in September of that year, where he began studying the Cree language. He was sent to Île--la-Crosse in June of 1853, where he made mission visits to Cold Lake and Lac-la-Biche in 1854. In 1856 he was ordered by Bishop Taché to visit Green Lake in Northern Saskatchewan and to open a mission there.

It was while he was at Green Lake that he became ill; he returned to Red River with some voyageurs who were most impressed with his faith in God and in the Divine Providence. Short of food, Végreville encouraged his canoemen to have faith, and as they made their way, they met with no end of country food, duck eggs, ducks, bears, moose. While in Saint-Boniface, he taught at the newly established college for a few years, where he taught Cree and Chipewyan to novice missionaries. He returned to Île--la-Crosse in 1858, visiting Portage-la-Loche and Cariboo Lake (where he had a permanent mission dwelling). He again returned to Saint-Boniface in 1864, where he became principal of the college for a year before being sent to Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Mission at Lac-la-Biche in 1865, where he stayed until 1874. In 1875, he was posted to Saint-Albert, then to Lac-Ste-Anne, where he also worked with the neighbouring Stoney and established a mission for them in the area. In 1877-1879, he established the parish of Lamoureux near Fort Saskatchewan, after which he returned to Lac-Ste-Anne, where he stayed for two more years.

He was then sent to minister to the Métis population in what is now Saskatchewan, establishing missions at St. Laurent, Carleton, Prince Albert, Batoche, St. Louis-de-Langevin and Duck Lake. Taken prisoner by Louis Riel during the 1885 insurrection, he accepted a commission to disarm the Métis after they were overpowered. In doing so, he denounced a number of participants in the conflict, many of whom were sent to jail. Understandably, his parishioners, the Métis, were extremely angry about his involvement and wanted nothing to do with him11. He came back to Saint-Albert, spending the rest of his career at various missions and parishes in the region: Lac-Ste-Anne, Saint-Joachim parish in Edmonton, Lamoureux, Stoney Plain and Winterburn.

Végreville never returned to France for a holiday, something which all Oblates had a right to expect every ten years. Not to have done so speaks of extreme devotion to the cause. He did take one major trip to Washington in 1895 in an attempt to have his monograph, Cree language dictionary and grammar published, to no avail. He died in 1903 in Saint-Albert, where he is buried. Although the town of Vegreville was named in his honour by its first settlers, a group of French-Canadians, he never was posted there.

What is most striking about Végreville is that he kept copies of the letters he wrote, and that he wrote a great deal. Bishop Taché criticized him about "wasting" his time in writing long letters, rather than spend his time proselytizing12. In a sense, this was an unfair accusation, because the missionaries to the North-West were encouraged by the superior of the order, Bishop Eugne Mazenod, to write to friends and patrons back in France about their efforts as well as to the Oblate periodical Missions. This publicity was very useful when it came to generating funds for the missions, which were supported by donations from wealthy patrons and a few mission societies of the Catholic Church. In spite of Taché’s criticisms, Végreville continued writing home and some of his letters were published in a small religious journal from Mans. He also conserved his incoming correspondence, so that there is nearly a half a metre of correspondence in the fonds Oblats, not counting the various dictionaries and manuscripts. Interestingly enough, he seems to have drawn from some of his letter books for material for his monographs. As well, some of his correspondence was typed up as part of a project by the Oblates in Saint-Boniface.

Végreville seems to have generated some criticism during his lifetime. Some time ago, while reading some of Bishop Grandin’s papers, I recollect a transcription of a letter to Taché in which Grandin complained about Végreville’s behavior when he was at Île--la-Crosse around 1858 or so. It seems while on an inspection visit, Grandin had found a sketchbook of Végreville’s, and of which he dryly noted that it was better suited for a person who was a midwife than for a missionary!13 Although Grandin also mentioned making a copy of these sketches from his missionary’s personal effects, neither the copy nor the sketches seem to have survived the test of time. What they were sketches of can only be guessed at, but Végreville’s superior was not amused. In retrospect, they could easily have been sketches of women breastfeeding, a common subject of artists everywhere.

Phillipot’s short biography of Végreville also contains slips of paper superimposed on the typescript (with references and citations) with several complaints about Végreville, including his rejection by the Métis after 1885 and the reception of personal funds which he did not share with his religious brotherhood as was required by his vows to the Oblate order. This biography of Phillipot’s does not seem to have been published, but all the same, Phillipot kept to the "saccharine" version he had written and did not alter his text.

In the analysis I prepared about the Mission at Lac-la-Biche14, I often had the occasion to read through Végreville’s papers for pertinent material. As director of the Mission, he sometimes had difficulties in getting along with his staff, but all in all he was capable enough and was entrusted with many positions of responsibility during his lengthy career. Professional rivalry or personality conflicts must also be considered as possibilities in understanding the character of the individual.

As concerns Végreville’s experience in this domain, he was essentially a self-taught linguist and ethnographer. Many times during his career as a missionary, he was obliged to learn a new language so as be able to work with the local population. In this way, he started with Cree at Saint-Boniface, went on to Chipewyan at Île--la-Crosse, Stoney in the Stony Plain area and Dakota-Sioux when he was in Prince Albert and other areas in present-day Saskatchewan. There is even a German-French dictionary which he wrote when he ministered to German-Catholic settlers in the Winterburn area. He had a facility for languages and in his preface to the Cree dictionaries expressed the hope that his analysis of the native languages would make it easier for others to learn them and permit them to avoid going through all the work he had been obliged to do when it came to his learning these languages15.

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