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
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.