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Report on Valentin Végreville’s Monograph of the Cree

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Végreville was a missionary who espoused the beliefs of his day; one should not expect theories of the Roger Vandersteen caliber16. His perspective of ethnography was very much like that of Émile Petitot’s, and his writings could be used in much the same way as Donat Savoie did with the latter’s texts17.

4. Intentions and objectives of the author in producing such a work

The author’s main goal was to permit those who were studying the language of the Cree to learn more about this people, and for those who were just interested in the culture of the Cree, the monograph would permit them, as Végreville wrote in his first preface, to "at least come to know their origins, their history, their traditions and their mores, as well as their relations with other nations. This study shall make up the body of a fourth volume, which can be sold separately18"

5. Public for whom this work was intended; reasons for non publication

Although ostentatiously the series was meant for those who were learning the language, Végreville was also directing this work to serious scholars of language. To wit, in the dictionaries and the grammar:

the academics and the philologers would easily find quantities of grammatical forms that they could compare to languages they have already studied. The declinations have striking resemblances to several Old-World languages. The French form of the active verb which agree with its object in the composed tenses, which communicates its tense and quantity to the verbal participate, seems like some memory in those Ne’iyaw verbs, which in all their tenses also agree with their object, by their termination, other than the accord which is done by the affixes.19

As he had worked all of his life with native languages, he wished to share his knowledge. He was so deeply immersed in the study of languages, he was aiming for an academic market. Why else would he have done through the trouble to present his work to the Smithsonian Institution, well-known for its encouragement of intellectual pursuits. And if he turned towards the Americans, it is probably because he had not received any feedback of consequence from the European sources which had so aided Émile Petitot, and which Végreville too tried to access in 1879.

In this sense, it can be understood that the later multiple "retoolings" of the typescript were Végreville’s way of trying to make his subjects more appealing to a potential market and a publisher, something which all writers have to do. When he was turned down by the Smithsonian because of the manuscript was prepared in French, there seems to have been no impetus to translate it into English, or if there was it does not seem to be mentioned in his papers. The monograph cannot just be judged according to the Smithsonian’s refusal. There already was one Cree-French dictionary and, although it might have its faults, publishing another was not much of a priority. Other native language dictionaries and grammars for languages which had none were also in the works at the time, but for the missionary Oblates, it was religious publications which were really needed in order to accomplish what they were mandated to do in the Canadian North-West..

That no one else picked up the gauntlet before Paul-Émile Breton is not that surprising either. And since 1964, that no scholar has chosen to examine this prolific body of work just speaks of the scarcity of proficient academics who wish to embark on a subject in French and native languages in such an English milieu as we have here. When I attended the University of Alberta some fifteen years ago, there were no linguistic anthropologists who read French in the department; there was more proficiency in the history department, yet no one was able to direct students who wished to work in that language or pursue a subject of a French nature which pretty much ruled out the Oblate Fonds at the PAA. And as well, it must also be considered that this private collection only became available to the public in 1972. Finally, given the prevalent anti-modernist approach of Végreville’s text, it is not really surprising that it has not received any attention. His many non-scientific theories (and I am not referring to the "lost-tribe of Israel" idea) would cause most academics who might have just given it a cursory look in the first place, to dismiss it out of hand. But I believe that this text is more than a sum of notions, and that it does have potential. Let us look at what is in it.

6. General organisation of the work

a) Preliminary manuscript format.

According to the table of contents which Végreville prepared for his manuscript, not everything which he had intended to include in this monograph was put into the typescript as prepared by Breton sixty years later. Many of the items noted on page 4 are not included, for instance a section of the Dakota-Jesca (Dakota-Sioux). It can also be presumed that what concerns the Assiniboine could also be included as well.

b) Preface

There are really two prefaces or introductions to this work. The first one is intended for the master work, that is the four volumes (2 dictionaries - French-Cree, Cree-French - , grammar and monograph.) The first preface presents the larger work in four or five pages, the following ten pages provide a geographical description of North America, much of which is absolutely useless and passé. Do we really need to know, after Végreville elaborates on the political state of Guatemala and Mexico, that the "great republic of the United States of America, so proud of itself that it now calls itself simply America, like her residents who have, for a long-time now, called themselves Americans"20. Proper editing is needed for this text, this section should perhaps be cut so as to summarize the essential and so to enter into the gist of the matter, in this case it is the description of the Prairies.

c) chapters or main subject headings, inconsistencies

The manuscript was never divided into chapters. There are topic headings, they are probably not in their most logical order. This would have to be seen to, once the text was properly assembled. Titles would have to be chosen, portions of the manuscript might have to be moved, and some portions of the text might be better left out of a final version.

Although Fr. Breton surely did his best to put the manuscript in order, Fr. Végreville had been in the grave some sixty years previous, so he was on his own when or if there were inconsistencies with the manuscript or with the directions. As previously mentioned, the typescript was a project in the works. An example can be give from one section that Breton has grouped with the endnotes. In this case the text describes types of dances proper to the Cree21. The enumeration begins on pages 148 to 150 where title number one describes the "dance where one strikes the pole"; and one expects to read about more dances on the following page, as we are led to think that there will be a series on dances. Instead we are given a description of the hand game. True, there is mention of a bit of dancing in this part of the text, but not in the title or in the presentation, which is "Games of the Cree". Two more dances are mentioned in the following pages, the thirst dance and the trading dance. Better editing would place the hand game passage after the other dances. Following the section on dances, Breton also prepared several pages on which clear indications are included as to the placement within the manuscript. In this way, "Talisman" is to be placed following page 54, in the section about medecine men, the "Épisodes de la guerre de 1885" following page 85 and on page 158, a section concerning "character defects among the Cree" should follow page 98.

It must be noted as well that the outline on page 4, was not completely adhered to by Breton, who did not include the abridged version of a monograph on the Dakota-Jesca.

IV Methodology used by author

1. Arguments

Probably the most important argument brought out in this manuscript is the migration theory specific to the Cree, whom Végreville sees as descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. As the work includes cultural aspects pertaining to the Dakota-Sioux, through comparative analysis of the two languages, he also suggests that the Dakota-Sioux preceded the Cree to North America on the long migratory trek across Northern Europe and across the Northern Atlantic, via Iceland, Greenland into Canada. He concurs with Petitot that the Dene, with whom he counts the Athapaskan speaking Sarcee, belong to another migratory current, via the Bering Strait, of Asiatic origin. Végreville’s lengthy note on the subject mentions the memory of an European ancestry, or at least from the Wisaketsak tale of the great flood, he sees memories of an Atlantic crossing and the Deluge, as in the biblical tale of Noah22.

This perspective of an Hébraic origin to all languages stem, of course, from the Bible. Until the 14th century, the church maintained that all languages originated from the Hebrew, and it was only with the publication of Dante’s first classification of the European languages, that the long held view of the church began to lose ground in Europe. The Arabs, who were much more advanced in the study of language and its origins, were doing comparative linguistics in the 10th century. Nevertheless, the Church’s perspective of a common Hebrew origin was still strong in the 18th century when the philosophers of the enlightenment openly criticized it as too simplistic. However towards the end of the 19th century, a very strong anti-modernist movement which was officially encouraged by the Vatican, made that the old status quo and the retrograde view was still acceptable in theological circles, which is why missionaries like Végreville still were speaking of biblical myths such as the Deluge and the tower of Babel as fact. This is not really odd for his time, after all, this is the sort of material which was taught in by the church right up until John XXIII called the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II (1962-1965) and which finally brought much needed reform to the Catholic church and a more scientific approach in thinking.

The comparative approach method to language analysis was developed during the early 19th century, and Végreville does seem to use this in approach in his study of the native languages, but his charts would have to be examined by a linguist trained in native languages. However, it is likely that the size of his sampling was not substantial enough. Again, although Végrevilile intended for these to be published they were not been included in the manuscript, but the material is available in the collection.

Végreville perceived a common origin to one eighth of the Dakota-Jesga language to Cree. He notes that in spite of great differences between the two, Cree is an inflected language (can change tenses by adding an ending or a beginning, sometimes in the middle (ex.: start, started), but the Dakota-Jesga, also an Algonquian language, as being what he calls "Touranian" (Uralo-altaic) a general term designating languages spoken in Central Asia (Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic)23. This last linguistic theory has been abandoned since Végreville’s time.

The monograph however is principally devoted to the description of cultural aspects of the Cree, particularly as Végreville had observed them since his arrival.Many of the aspects of the lifestyle had changed or disappeared altogether, but his description is mainly of the "way it was". Most of this text is written in an historical present of yesteryear, such as when he describes warfare or buffalo hunts. Mention is made of treaties and of reserves, and he also makes much of the positive influence of Christianity among the Cree.

2. Distinctive characteristics of the work

The following passages have been chosen and translated so as to present a better idea of what this manuscript is all about. I have chosen all types of texts, some of them are tenuous at best as concerns scientific thinking. These are draft versions and are subject to revision should this project be extended. Parentheses with question marks (???) indicate problem passages which eventually will need to be verified due to a typographic error or a reproduction problem, and which at this time do not really affect the meaning of the text.

a) geographical specifics of the Cree, subjects of study(Neiyaw), territory

In his text, Végreville looks at the Prairie Cree, the Ne’iyaw, and the Woodland Cree, the Iyiwiw. He gives a passing nod to the Cree to the West of Hudson Bay (Muskegon), however his real focus is on the populations where he spent most of his life in the North Saskatchewan river area. He indicates that the Cree live between the 50th and 60e parallel from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains24. In a lengthy end note however he points out that historically the Cree - the Algique nation, as he calls them (an old term for Algonquin) have occupied the territory from the Atlantic Ocean, including Labrador, the Maritimes and New England25.

a-1) p. 19-20. Subject: geographic specifics of the Cree

Le Cris se donne  lui-mëme le nom de Ne’iyaw dans les grandes prairies; dans les bois au contraire il se nomme Iyiwiw. Le Cris de Prairie lui-mme ne sait d’o faire dériver son nom; quant  nous, s’il nous était permis d’émettre une opinion, nous le ferions venir de la racine « ne’» pour « na’» qui signifie bien, joli, convenable, et de « iyaw», le corps d’une personne, en sorte que ne’iyaw voudrait dire celui qui est bien fait, qui a une belle apparance, un bel extérieur. Quand au mot « Iyiniw», il signifie homme en général.

Leurs congénres les Sauteux, autre tribu algique, les appellent Ilinistino (???JC; Kilinistino, Breton). Les premiers français qui vinrent dans le Nord-Ouest, demandrent  leurs hommes comment s’appelaient ces nouveaux sauvages, les Sauteux et les Algonquins leur dirent, nous les appelons Ilinistino. Nos anctres ne mirent pas de temps  abréger et  corrompre ce mot dont ils firent celui de Cris, que les Anglais trouvrent ainsi tout fait et qu’ils épelrent «Cree».

Les Cris habitent l’intérieur de l’Amérique du Nord depuis le 50º dégré jusqu’au 60º dégré, et depuis les Montagnes Rocheuses  l’Ouest jusqu’ la Baie d’Hudson  l’Est.

Mais cette grande tribu se subdivise elle-mme. Les Cris des bords de la rivire Rouge, du lac Winnipeg de la rivire  la mer, de la rivire Nelson et de la partie inférieure de la rivire aux Anglais ou Churchill River, s’appellent plus particulirement Maskegons (???), de l’état marécageux de leurs terres, et parlent divers dialectes peu compréhensible pour l’homme qui n’a entendu que le Cris de la Prairie.

Les Cris proprement dits habitent la partie moyenne du bassin des deux branches de la Saskatchewan, (et) la partie supérieure du bassin des rivires Athabaska et Churchill. Le bassin moyen de la Saskatchewan Nord et Sud consiste en des Plaines immenses, autrefois peuplées de bandes de bisons innombrables. C’est l que le Cris est parlé dans toute sa pureté, et qu’on trouve le vrai Ne’iyaw.


On the Great Plains, the Cree calls himself the "Ne’iyaw, in the boreal forest he calls himself "Iyiwiw". The Plains Cree does not himself know the origin of his name; in our opinion, if it so be permitted, we would have it come from the root "ne " for "na "which means good, pretty, satisfying, and from "iyaw", the body of a person, so that neiyaw would mean he who is well-made, who has a nice appearance, who looks good. As for the word « Iyiniw», in general, it means man.

Their brethren the Saultaux, another Algic tribe, call them Ilinistino (???JC; ?Kilinistino, Breton). The first Frenchmen to come to the North-West asked their men how they called these new natives26. The Saultaux and the Algonquins told them, we call them "Ilinistino". It was not long before our ancestors began shortening and mispronouncing the word into Cris, which the English later found already made for them and which they spelled "Cree".

The Cree live in the North American interior from the 50º degree to the 60º degree, and from the Rocky Mountains in the West to the Hudson Bay to the East.

But this great tribe subdivides itself. The Cree by the Red River, from Lake Winnipeg, from the river to the sea, from the Nelson River and the lower part of the English or Churchill River, call themselves the Maskegons (???) because of the marshy state of their lands, and they speak several dialects which are difficult to understand for the person who has only heard spoken the Cree from the Prairies.

The Cree proper live in the middle of the bassin of the two branches of the Saskatchewan River (and) in the upper part of the Athabaska and Churchill basins. The middle basins of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers are immense prairies, where countless herds of bison ranged. It is there where Cree is the most purely spoken and that we find the real Ne’iyaw.

a-2) p. 137a-b, Subject: geographical specifics of the Cree – Végreville’s thoughts on this based on the Wisaketsak legend, note 5. From the end notes section.

Wisaketsak est non seulement le premier homme – Adam, l’homme par lequel le monde est préservé d’une destruction complte dans le déluge – Noé, l’homme qui arrte le soleil – Josué; il est encore le premier de la nation algique qui soit venu en Amérique, ou, plutôt, il est de la premire émigration algique, car il n’a pu venir seul, mais fut accompagné de plusieurs, comme il est clair que cela est arrivé. Étudions donc son histoire, telle que nous la rapporte la légende crise; elle nous instruira.

Wisaketsak nous apparaît d’abord dans le pays qui est de l’autre côté de la mer  l’Est; par conséquent de l’autre côté de l’Océan Atlantique, en Europe. Cela est si vrai qu’aucun Cris ne s’y méprendra. L’homme algique ne connaît pas les pays de l’Ouest au del des Montagnes Rocheuses; il pense seulement que par del de ces monts, il y a de la terre et des hommes qui l’habitent, mais c’est tout. Quels sont ces peuples, y a-t-il aussi la mer, c’est ce que le Cris ne saurait dire. Il ne connaît pas plus les pays au nord et au sud, ni les nations qui y demeurent. Pourquoi connaître l’Océan Atlantique qu’il n’a jamais traversé depuis qu’il s’est fixé en Amérique? Pourquoi connaît-il l’Europe qui est au del de la mer de l’Est? C’est évidemment il a l des intérts qui le touchent de proche, qui lui rappellent son origine, souvenir plus précieux que tout autre. Nagure, il occupait encore la côte de l’océan, depuis le nord-est du Labrador jusqu’au Sud de l’État du Maine dans les États-Unis sur une longueur de plusieurs centaines de milles. Il a donc d traverser la mer aprs les autres nations qu’il a refoulées devant lui vers l’intérieur du pays. Depuis plus de deux cent ans, des bâtiments entrent dans la baie d’Hudson et débarquent dans ses ports les marchandises, habits, munitions et le reste. Dont le Cris profite, dont it vit; la nation algique occupe la partie méridionnale, c’est--dire, plusieurs centaines de milles du littoral de cette grande mer intérieure. Chose étonnante, tous ces avantages ne lui disent rien. Ce n’est point de l (???) qu’est venu aborder Wisaketsak.

Si donc la nation algique et la tribu des Cris, qui est la plus refoulée dans les terres et n’a jamais vu l’océan, soutiennent que Wisaketsak et la premire immigration algique sont venus de l’autre côté de l’Océan Atlantique, c’est--dire d’Europe, nous pouvons en croire leurs traditions.

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