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What is Mtis Cree?

By: That Mniyw Linguist Jeff Muehlbauer, PhD

Posted on January 12, 2012 by Mr. Mniyw Theres a bit of a sticky trouble with the equation of Michif with Mtis linguistic identity. See, theres a whole ton of people who speak Plains Cree who are real, honest-togoodness Mtis. From Batoche. Named Dumont and Cardinal and Laroque, etc. They often live in Mtis settlements in Alberta. They are legally identified as Mtis, and identify themselves as such. And yet not a Michif speaker among them! In fact, I would estimate there are far more Mtis Cree speakers than Mtis Michif speakers today. In Alberta, youre going to meet almost exclusively Mtis Cree speakers all from Batoche and road-allowances (etc.) historically, but none of whom speak the Michif language. Mtis Cree is perhaps the main language I worked on in graduate school and since. More about that later. First, lets try to get some of the linguistic and other facts sorted out. Maybe! I should warn you though that facts arent my strong suit I once found myself in a grocery store with neither a photo ID, knowledge of my own phone number, or an ability to give my address. The nice clerk used the Safeway Card code they used for homeless people. Just sayin. The Cree-Speaking Mtis I dont actually know how it came about that a whole bunch of Mtis people ended up speaking Michif and another larger group ended up speaking both French and Cree. This is the mystery of creolization to me. For whatever reason (someone else probably has a much better idea), a large group of people, when exposed to French and Cree, ended up speaking French and Cree instead of Michif. It should be noted, of course, that most Michif speakers are fluent in both French and Cree as well (the main point used by people who believe Michif is a code-mixing of the speakers other two languages rather than a creole language). I think some of it had to do with the history of Mtis making. According to Joe Dion and others, many people who were dumped into the Mtis category in AB and SK were actually completely Cree. They were tricked out of their treaty rights in various schemes, and thus fell into the other or elsewhere category of Mtis. Hence, they speak Cree because theyve always spoken Cree and not much else. I know this is true for a variety of Mtis people Ive met in Alberta seeing pictures of their Mtis great-grandparents 1

(who were monolingual Cree speakers), you would not think there was any French influence at all of any kind. In Alberta, this fluent bilingualism that lacked Michif was the norm, actually. Both French and Cree were acquired, with no obvious creole arising like in Manitoba and North Dakota. Most people aged 60+ in the Mtis settlements can be expected to be fluent in both French and Cree. One generation down from that (i.e. 40-60), it looks like its the French that got lost, to be replaced by English. One generation down from that (i.e. 20-40), and of course Cree was lost altogether and people are essentially monolingual English speakers. Mtis Cree Culture One of the most interesting realizations Ive had doing fieldwork over the years is that the Mtis Cree Speakers in Alberta are often more culturally conservative than the reserve people. They often know more old songs, more old prayers, more old stories, and practice more traditional medicine than the reserve people. This is not what I, Mr. Outsider Mniyw, obviously expected, because I thought the Mtis were supposed to be the innovative ones the recent newcomers on the scene. Thats definitely not true. There have been several times where I was instructed to do as a proper cultural activity by a reserve person only to be caught doing it by a Mtis Cree person who then corners me and makes me do it right. The interesting thing is that the Mtis demand is actually the one that follows older descriptions even descriptions from other Cree groups far away. I think some of this has to do with what I see as beneficial neglect of the Mtis. Unlike reserve people, the Mtis Cree are not heavily targeted by New Age types and videographers and the like. In terms of religion, they were missionized sort of voluntarily, in the sense that many of them feel Catholic and practice a kind of elegant syncretistic Catholic/Cree religion that they feel is their own. They speak whatever language they feel like they werent forced to speak English/French to nearly the same degree that the reserve people were. So, in some sense, the neglect that the Mtis in AB and SK experienced (which has caused a great deal of human suffering see Maria Campbell) may have allowed them to develop their own approach to modern life with much less aggressive government and white interference than reserve people experienced. In other words, sometimes, not being a real indian in the eyes of the majority society has some major personal benefits. For example, nobody from California will show up at your door with crystals and marijuana and offer you $10,000 to do a totem pole sweat lodge for them. Situating Mtis Cree Linguistically

When I first started work with Mtis Cree speakers, their language was classified to me (and everyone else) as Plains Cree, and thats certainly what it is. But its not the variety of Plains Cree that finds its ways into the textbooks and classical descriptions. Some of this is because Mtis Cree speakers tend to group in the northern belt of the Plains Cree dialect range. Hence, they share dialect features with northern reserve people not a surprise at all. Some features of Northern Plains Cree: (i) the use of -twwi beyond the subjunctive paradigm. 1. South: -nikamocik 2. North: -nikamotwwi More palatalization (from t to c), and c represents [] (IPA [t] more than [ts]. Typically, [ai] is [e] up north. I think, if I remember correctly that the northern one is actually the older one here. 1. 2. 3. 4. South: masinahikan North: masinkan South: ayamihw North: mihw

Northern Plains Cree also seems to drop the final consonant in -hk clusters much more regularly, and without a trace. In the south, it will either stay or be turned into a fricative. This reminds me of Menominee, actually, which makes me think the northern pattern is old. 1. South: -wpahtahk (pronounced [wapahtahk] or as [wapahtax]) 2. North: -wpahtah In general, it seems the person/number paradigms are organized differently in the north, although its hard to sort out where the division is and such, so Im not going to slap that up here right now. Like I said, Northern Plains Cree is very poorly documented. Perhaps its the most under documented language in Canada, in fact. This largely has to do with the difficult fieldwork circumstances that the North presents politically and socially. Some anthropologists have wandered up there to do religious studies in translation, but they dont work with the linguists and so have little or no idea whats different about that variety of Cree. Mtis Cree shares all these features, but has some highly notable things to itself. For example the post-positional particles isi and ohci are quite different in Mtis Cree. They are preferred as prepositional, and are used as prepositional phrases rather than as verbinternal constructions with relative roots. 1. Cree: wskahikanihk -isi-wpinahk. S/he threw it towards the house. 2. Mtis Cree: -isi-wpinahk isi wskkanih. S/he threw it towards the house.

Word order is also more rigid, it seems, in Mtis Cree. Whole verbs can be slammed inside of other verbs complete with inflection. English names can be stuffed in there, so can French words and names. I think this is related to some of the derivational patterns Ive seen in Michif. 1. -jeffinkosit he looks like Jeff -jeff-inaw-iko-isi-t 2. -jeffinkosiwpayiw. He just suddenly looked like Jeff. -[jeff-inaw-iko-isi-w]-payi-w Mtis Cree also uses extensive French and English loan words, but, interestingly, they are often not identified as French or English. One speaker asked me why the syllabary was missing the l and v for example. The la is not separable and is not understood to be a separate piece, often. 1. niwpamw latoro. I see the bull. 2. nittww lavwlet. I bought a box. Mtis Cree speakers can also swap English and Cree and French phrases inside of one big sentence, and none of it seems to mean what it did in the other language. This stuff is hard to explain without a whole post on its own, so Im leaving out the messy data. Phonologically, there is a lot thats different. Complex clusters with s often get turned into a long ss. 1. Cree: maskisin 2. Mtis Cree: massin Vowels harmonize quite a bit. i goes to o in the context of w or o. w turns to u. And Mtis Cree has an extra vowel, by the way [e] has a short parallel e []. In the realm of semantics, there are major and systematic differences in lexical meanings. Various nouns and verbs simply do not mean the same things for Mtis speakers as they do for reserve speakers. Im not going to put them up here, though, because often the Mtis interpretation could be viewed as insulting by reserve people (e.g. a religious term takes on a secular meaning, or a term associated with sacred activities means something negative), and I dont want to cause unintentional problems. Its not intentional misunderstanding or whatever the words just mean different things to these different groups. The long-story short: If you are a Plains Cree speaker, make sure the other person understands the same things by some of the words youre using. I could see how A LOT of misunderstanding could arise between reserve and mtis people over a few of these terms. I think theres a fair bit of variety within the Mtis Cree speech community w.r.t. some of these things. It may be dependent on how much time the Mtis speaker spends among reserve people vs. Mtis speakers there seems to be a lot of movement in that area. It

may also depend on what part of Alberta the speaker is from. Does each settlement have differences? There also seems to be an age difference; younger speakers show more English influence than older speakers (also true on reserves, but its a taboo subject to point out there), although thats sometimes hard to nail down. Theres actually quite a bit to say about Mtis Cree, and Ive sort of tried over the years to pack together all my data points into a paper (not done yet, obviously). I honestly think it deserves its own grammatical treatment. Theres some major sociological hurdles to overcome, though, and its been so bad that every time I try and get up the gumption to present this data, I lose heart and end up drinking too much espresso again. I have a very low tolerance for stupid. Im leery of talking about it on here, because someone or other in the academic world will likely spy me out for bitching about it publically and make me hurt like only an academic can. So maybe some other time when Im feeling more masochistic.