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Les Conte Mtif- Mtif Myths


University of California/Berkeley

The Mtchif language has recently been described as a prime example

of a mixed language (Thomason 1985; Rhodes, 1986, 1987, among others).
At first approximation Mtchif consists of French noun phrases and Cree
verbs, although clause and sentence level syntax is distinctively Cree. There
is sorne variation in the mixture, depending on considerations of genre.
In dialogue there is relatively more French, including occasional sentences
completely in French, but in straight narrative the Cree character of the
language stands out quite strongly.
Until the post-war impact of English upset the sociolinguistic balance
in the Mtis settlements of Manitoba and North Dakota, Mtchif was only
an insiders' language. It was the language of solidarity for a people who
dealt with the outside world in French or Cree or sometimes in English .
As a result, Mtchif literature is completely oral. Mtchif stories are at
their best when being performed. Written down, they often seem dry and
Contributions to Mtchif oral literature come from bath Algonquian
and European sources. It should be no surprise that this literature has as
mixed a provenience as the language that embodies it . And just as the
grammar of the language is more fundamentally Cree, the literature is clas-
sified by speakers in an Algonquian way. The distinction of taykanak "sa-

1 The title is given, not in French, but in Mtchif. The spelling conventions we use

are French for words of French origin, Cree for words of Cree and Ojibwa origin, and
English for words of English origin. These are modified by dropping French conventions
regarding those aspects of spelling that are supported ory syntactically but not in the
pronunciation. Among other things this means that plurality is not spelled on nouns
and adjectives except where it is allomorphically supported. Thus we write: le conte, les
conte, but le ch 'val, les ch 'vav.x, and le conte mtif, les conte mtif, but le p 'tit enfant,
les p 'tits enfant.

298 R I C H A R D A. R H O D E S

cred stories" versus tipdcimowina "stories" is retained, albeit under French

names, les conte and les z 'histoire respectively.
Les conte can be of European origin as well as of North American
origin. In m y current text collection there are 20 texts classified by Metchif
speakers as conte. S o m e were collected more than once. S o m e speakers also
m a k e a distinction between traditional conte and a kind of tall tale conte
for which there seems to be no agreed upon term. Such tall tale conte are
presented as having happened either to the person giving the text or to
a close relative or acquaintance giving them a distinctfirstperson flavor.
In contrast to the traditional cont, these tall tales often contain a punch
line or a well-marked point. T h e characteristic of tall tales is that they
are, in one w a y or another, just outlandish enough to raise doubts about
their veracity, but not so outrageous that it is immediately clear that they
arefiction.Moreover tall tales are presented amidst great protestations of
T h e following comprises the list of titles for the conte in m y current
collection. T h e sources for these conte are given in the appendix. With
the exception of " 'Tit Poucet" all were originally presented without titles.
W h e r e there is a standard title for a well k n o w n version of a particular
conte, I have used that title. All other titles are supplied by m e or by the
original collector of the text.

Traditional Of Algonquian Origin

Nenapos Flies with the Birds (two versions)

Nenapos and the Winged Startlers (including Nenapos Eats the Rose Hips)
Nenapos and the Shut-eye Dancers (two versions)

Of European Origin

The Boy and the C o w Hide (two versions)

G o d was a Crook
The Greedy Lady and the Money
The Greedy Lady is Turned into a Woodpecker
LaClore and the King's Ring (two versions)
The Little Boy Blue
The Little M a n W h o Could Sew
The Little Tailor
The M a n W h o Wanted to Die
T o m T h u m b ('Tit Poucet)
The Three Bears (three versions)
The Three Little Pigs (four versions)

Tall Tales

George's Dog and the Stretchers

George's Dog Digs for W o r m s (two versions)
The Werewolf (Roup-garou) (three versions)

The Whiskey Jack

The Wino W h o Bit his Eye

As one familiar with European folklore might be able to infer from this
list, stories of European origin containing as characters giants, talking ani-
mals, royalty, G o d , and Jesus are classified as conte, next to the Algonquian
derived stories containing the culture hero and talking animals. All other
stories regardless of origin are z'histoire.
In North Dakota Metchif the North American source of conte is Ojibwa
rather than Cree. T h e culture hero is Nenapos, not Wisahkecdhk. All three
such conte in m y corpus are close to the versions found in Jones (1907)

Metchif version Jones version(s)

Nenapos Flies with the Birds Nanabushuflieswith the Geese,
Series 1:15, VII:56
Nenapos and the Shut-eye Dancers Nanabushu breaks the Necks of the
Dancing Geese,
Series 1:11, 11:20, VIL48
Nenapos and the Partridges Nanabushu and the Winged Startlers,
Series 1:5, 11:24;
Nanabushu and the Ruffed Grouse,
(including Nenapos Eats the Nanabushu eats the Artichokes,
Rose Hips Series 1:12, 11:23)

But the match is not perfect. T h e Jones Series VII version of "Nanabushu
flies with the Geese" is close to the Metchif version on most points. T h e
Jones Series II "Nanabushu breaks the Necks of the Dancing Geese" gives
the best match with the Metchif, as does the Series II version of "Nanabushu
and the Winged Startlers". T h e similarity between the Metchif "Nenapos
Eats the Rose Hips" and "Nanabushu eats the Artichokes", is more tenu-
ous. However, the fact that Jones "Nanabushu eats the Artichokes" and
"Nanabushu and the Winged Startlers" are part of the same text paralleling
the two episodes of the Metchif "Nenapos and the Partridges" is striking
enough to consider "Nenapos Eats the Rose Hips" and "Nanabushu eats
the Artichokes" as possible variants.
Discounting the versions of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and "The
Three Little Pigs", which are retellings of English nursery rhyme book
versions, the conte of European (or actually Old World) origin are all either
versions of texts indexed in T h o m p s o n (1952-1955) or closely related to
versions indexed there.

Metchif version Thompson Index number

The Poor Boy Strikes It Rich K335.1.1.2 (India): cow-hide falls frighten-
ing thieves away from their money
The Greedy Lady and the Money J1565 type: inappropriate entertainment
The Greedy Lady is Turned into repaid A2261.4
a Woodpecker
LaClore Finds the King's Ring H945 type: task voluntarily undertaken
The Little M a n W h o Could Sew K611 type: escape by putting captor off
The Little Tailor K553 (similar to one Disney version):
" Wait till I get faf
Tom Thumb ('"Tit Poucet") F535.1.1.7: Thumbling swallowed by
animal (cf. also F911.3.1 and F913)

T h e line of transmission of these conte is quite interesting. O n e of m y prime

sources reported that the best story teller in her neighborhood, the one
from w h o m she learned her stories, greatly preferred French over Metchif
for telling stories. Thus it is likely that most of her texts, which include
the three Nenapos stories, came through French. Similarly, John Crawford
(personal communication) indicates that the Werewolf story was retold in
Metchif based on a English version that was used in an Native American
literature class at the University of North Dakota. It is akin to tales of the
C311.1.1.4 type which emphasize a taboo on looking at werewolves. About
the similarity of T h e Little Tailor (version II) to the Disney cartoon version,
I can draw no conclusion for want of clear evidence.
Finally I would like to point out that both " 'Tit Poucet" and "The
Greedy Lady is Turned into a Woodpecker", in addition to their Old World
pedigree, contain motifs that are arguably North American in origin
onlyfittingfor Metchif texts.

Rhodes, Richard A.
1977 French Cree: A Case of Borrowing. Pp. 6-25 in Actes du Huitieme congres
des Algonquinistes. William Cowan, ed. Ottawa: Carleton University.

1986 Metchif: Code Shifting or Mixed Language? Paper presented to NWAV-

X V , Stanford University.

1987 A Grammar of Turtle Mountain Metchif [forthcoming].

Thomason, Sandra
1985 Is Michif Unique? Ms.

Thompson, Stithe
1952 Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University P

Texts in the SIL collection
Traditional Conte:
Anonymous The Three Little Pigs
Jerome, Veronica The Boy and the Cow Hide (Poor Boy Strikes it Rich)
The Greedy Lady and the Money
The Greedy Lady is Turned into a Woodpecker
The Little Blue Boy
The Little Man W h o Could Sew
The Little Tailor
LaClore and the King's Ring (The Lazy Man)
Nenapos Flies with the Birds (two versions)
Nenapos and the Winged Startlers
Nenapos and the Shut-eye Dancers
'Tit Poucet (Tom Thumb)
Swenson, Rosie The Three Bears (three versions)
The Three Little Pigs (three versions)
Wilke, George Nenapos and the Shut-eye Dancers
Poor Boy Strikes It Rich (The Boy and the Cow Hide)
God was a Crook
The Lazy Man (LaClore and the King's Ring)
The Man who Wanted to Die
Tall Tales:
Anonymous Un Roup-garou (The Werewolf)
LaRocque, Justin The Whiskey Jack
Swenson, Rosie Un Roup-garou (The Werewolf) (two versions)
Wilke, George A Shaggy Dog Story (George's Dog and the Stretchers)
Bar Story (George's Dog Digs Worms) (two versions)
The Wino's Bet (The Wino W h o Bit his Eye)