James Evans, a Wesleyan missionary and amateur linguist, invented a syllabary for language based partly on Devanagari and Pitman shorthand, while working at Norway House in Hudson's Bay. It was published in 1837. Evans' syllabary for Ojibwe consisted of just nine symbols, each of which could be written in four different orientations to indicate different vowels. This was sufficient to write Ojibwe.
In about 1841 Evans adapted his script to write Swampy Cree, and translated parts of the Bible and other religious works into Ojibwe and Cree. He printed them using type carved from wood, or made from melted-down linings of tea chests.
The script proved popular with Ojibwe and Cree speakers, and within about 10 years, many of them had learnt to read and write it, learning it mainly from family or friends. As paper was scarce at the time, they wrote on birch bark with soot from burnt sticks, or carved messages in wood, and nicknamed James Evans 'The man who made birch bark talk'.
The Cree script continued to be widely used until the 1950s and 1960s, when the integration policies of Department of Indian and Northern Affairs led to a decline in use to the script among Cree children taught to write in the Roman alphabet.
Today the Cree syllabics are used in schools in northern Quebec and Ontario. There is on-going debate about the use of Cree syllabics in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. On the whole, however, Cree communities strongly identify with the syllabic script.
Main source: Murdoch, John Stewart, Syllabics: A Successful Educational Innovation (University of Manitoba, 1981).
According to Cree and Hopi legends, Cree syllabics were first given to Badger-Call or Calling Badger, a teacher-healer of the Wood Cree, long before James Evans came along. Apparently Calling Badger died and went to the spirt world, where he learnt the syllabics, then came back to life and taught them to his people. When missionaries came along they learnt the syllabics from the Cree, and James Evans helped to popularise them.
Download a script chart for Cree (Excel)
ᒥᓯᐌ ᐃᓂᓂᐤ ᑎᐯᓂᒥᑎᓱᐎᓂᐠ ᐁᔑ ᓂᑕᐎᑭᐟ ᓀᐢᑕ ᐯᔭᑾᐣ ᑭᒋ ᐃᔑ ᑲᓇᐗᐸᒥᑯᐎᓯᐟ ᑭᐢᑌᓂᒥᑎᓱᐎᓂᐠ ᓀᐢᑕ ᒥᓂᑯᐎᓯᐎᓇ᙮ ᐁ ᐸᑭᑎᓇᒪᒋᐠ ᑲᑫᑕᐌᓂᑕᒧᐎᓂᓂᐤ ᓀᐢᑕ ᒥᑐᓀᓂᒋᑲᓂᓂᐤ ᓀᐢᑕ ᐎᒋᑴᓯᑐᐎᓂᐠ ᑭᒋ ᐃᔑ ᑲᓇᐗᐸᒥᑐᒋᐠ᙮
misiwe ininiw tipēnimitisowinik ēshi nitawikit nēsta pēyaᑾn kici ishi kanawapamikowisit kistēnimitisowinik nēsta minikowisiwina. ē pakitinamacik kakētawenitamowininiw nēsta mitonēnicikaniniw nēsta.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information on Cree syllabics
Information about James Evans
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Page last modified: 16.03.23
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