A Look at a Copy of Albert Lacombe’s 1874 Cree-French Dictionary

UNESCO has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. I currently live in Treaty 6 Territory, which is the traditional homeland of the Cree, the Dene, and the Metis, among others. (Use this website to find out whose territory you reside on if you are unaware already – or use it to look up familiar places!) I’ve been learning bits and pieces of the Cree language for several years now and I want to make accelerated effort at it this year of all years. I’m lucky that several of my staff members are Cree language learners and we have opportunities to try to learn and to use it in the work place. These are living languages so it’s important to use them; languages shape how we describe and see the world. I want to highlight some resources and sources of information about Indigenous languages, and encourage people to learn and use Cree.

As a historian, I’m fascinated by delving into the history of languages like Cree; I often use historical sources as a lens through which I view a topic I’m learning about. I’ve written before about people like Peter Erasmus and other Old Timers, people both from Cree-speaking cultures and not, who all commonly spoke Cree as a lingua franca in this territory in the 19th century.

The oldest book I personally own is a copy of Father Albert Lacombe’s Cree-French dictionary. I bought it from a book seller at the American Bison Society Conference in 2016 in Banff. I find the materiality of this book fascinating. Before it came into my possession, it was rebound (it has an English-language spine) and spent time in a library (it has a call number on the spine too), I think in British Columbia. Pasted in the back, there’s a pair English-language newspaper articles from the 1970s about the preservation of the Cree language and also Father Lacombe’s life. (I didn’t realize that his mother was half-Anishinaabe?)

One of my favourite details about the book is that someone at some point in its history has trimmed the edges and written in the letters of each section for ease of reference. It’s clear from the condition of the book that it was well-used.

This book had a clear audience and purpose; it was to teach prospective missionaries the Cree language so they could better convert and minister to Indigenous peoples. It only goes one way: translating French concepts into Cree. That’s reflected in the introduction. It is a book of its time, and it is trying to share knowledge of Cree people with an audience that already has a lot of preconceived notions about them.

For those who can’t read French, this page and the one following reads something to the effect of:

The Savage Languages / The Wild Languages

A lot has been written and spoken of the savage languages of North America. Some souls, who see themselves capable of judging everything, and deciding on questions outside of their competencies, have poorly appreciated savage languages. This new group of Indian-ologists, having spent a little bit of time among the Indians and after gathering a certain number of words, often very poorly written, have come to believe that these dialects are nothing more than inarticulate, truncated debris, almost unintelligible, and that they are not real languages. Others, in contrast, are better appreciators and are in a better state of judging (and we place missionaries in the first rank of these), after long studies and several years passed among the savage tribes, and have recognized that the poor child of the prairies and the woods have a regular language, intelligible and not without its beauty, with which they can transmit with sounds all that takes place in their soul. Even more than that, the savage, in speaking his language, speaks it correctly from a young age, and he is amazed to hear someone make the least grammatical mistake…. Savage languages in general are rich in vocabulary and in grammatical forms. In their complex structures, we find the grandest order and a most regular methodology.

Father Lacombe was fluent in both Cree and Blackfoot as well as French, but he was speaking to an audience that had to be convinced that First Nations actually had language, and that it was a complex one with its own beauty. That is, uh… quite a low bar for baseline knowledge.

Lacombe seems to quite admire Cree and favorably compares it to French:

La langue des Cris est belle, riche et peut-être la plus facile de toutes les langues sauvages de l’Amérique du Nord. On peut dire que le cris est pour le Nord-Ouest ce que le français est pour les pays civilisés.

The language of the Cree is beautiful, rich, and perhaps the easiest of all of the savage languages of North America. One could say that Cree is to the North-West what French is for civilized countries.

Lacombe in his introduction scatters about Cree words, and occasionally gets a dig in at the English. In a footnote explaining the origin of the name of the Saskatchewan River:

Ce mot est défiguré par les Anglais et ne veut rien dire en cris. Il faudrait : Kisiskatchiwan, courant rapide.

This word has been disfigured by the English and doesn’t mean anything in Cree. You should use Kisiskatchiwan, swift current.

Father Lacombe was an interesting figure at the intersection of several communities and cultures. He was a peace maker but also an agent of colonialism; he was beloved and did both harm and good. All of things can be true at once. His book in its attention detail does seem to show admiration for the Cree language… and yet it has a clear (and understandable) focus on Catholic terminology, intended in large part to supplant parts of that culture. He often has to clarify that Cree doesn’t quite have a word that means that, or that this word could be used in that way but has unexpected connotations. For instance, in his definition for “to adore” (as in “to adore the Christ child”), he includes a note (my incredibly rough translation):

We could also say manitokkâtew, but this expression seems improper here, because it really means he is like a God, a phrase better suited for idols and objects of superstition. The word manâtjihew, used in prayer to mean to adore, is not quite suitable either, as it means simply that he respects [it], he has regard for him.

He also really struggled with “superstition” and “superstitious”, and ended up effectively just listing superstitious acts (ceremonies) in Cree.

As someone who is fascinated by linguistic history, this focus on how to translate biblical passages and catholic catechisms, as well as pejorative translations of Cree culture, is not surprising but it is interesting, illustrating how language can be used (and mangled) to communicate a very specific message. That being said, Lacombe records very specific cultural concepts, including for instance a specific word designating the act of crying in very specific circumstances. Other words frame European concepts in a way that is more comprehensible to the Cree, framing their concepts as normal and the Euro-Canadian ones as those needing clarification. The word Lacombe lists for domestic cattle, for instance, includes the word “slave”, framing them as “enslaved buffalo”. The dictionary is fascinating to me because of its specificity of language and window into Cree culture at a time of encounter and change.

However, I have to acknowledge here that I am interpreting the history of this language through the lens of Father Lacombe and the languages that he spoke, that he and I share. That means I am trying to access this information about Cree language and culture already from an outside perspective. It’s a fascinating one to me that resonates with my experience, but one that holds a certain worldview. Father Lacombe chose to include words that he felt his audience would find useful – they betray a certain obvious focus and perspective. Dictionaries are not impartial lists of vocabulary. They are written with a purpose.

Material objects are a tangible link with the past. One thing struck me when I was handling this book last year: its publication date. It was published in 1874. What was happening at that time? Treaty 4 was signed that year. Bison populations were in steep decline. That was also the year when Samuel Walking Coyote (or Peregrine Falcon Robe) captured a small seed herd of bison that would eventually become the Pablo-Allard herd from which a majority of Plains Bison are descended from today. Judging from notes and stamps on the inside cover, by the 1960s this particular copy had found its way to Victoria, BC. What happened to it in the 90 years in between? Who used it? Did it make its way to Treaty 6 territory in the 19th century? By canoe, horse-drawn cart, or later by train? Or was it purchased and kept in Quebec for decades before making its way to British Columbia by car or by plane? Who used it so often they needed to trim the edges of the pages for easy reference? Was the most useful period of its life before or after it entered into a library? How did it come to be on that bookseller’s table, where it caught my eye?

When I hold this book, I think of who else could have held this book, and both how near and yet how far we are to their world.

Note

I am not a native French speaker, and I welcome corrections on my rough interpretations of the French elements of the text. I also welcome insight from any Cree or French speakers about what they read here!

Further Reading

 

Canada 150 Roadtrip: Fort Saskatchewan Heritage Precinct 

The City of Fort Saskatchewan is just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and was founded as an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the 1870s. The NWMP are the precursors to the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. Fort Saskatchewan recently built a historical reconstruction of its original fort and I had the good fortune to visit it this evening. The museum display panels inside the stables of the fort are well-researched, well-written, and well-designed. You cannot access the site without a guide present, but when you do get the chance the fort is well worth it! The charming and knowledgeable interpretive guide Sally Scott showed us around and spoke to us of daily life in the fort, as well as one of the infamous people imprisoned there.

Further Reading

“Additional Information: Ate His Family”: Wendigos and Murder Trials in 19th Century Western Canada

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.

A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:

“Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.” 1879-1880. Photographer: G.M. Dawson. Image from Library and Archives Canada.

The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie.  I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.

I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.

What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”,  reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.

I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”

Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.
“Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.” Photographer: G.M. Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.

Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.

So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.

What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.

In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder. 

A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:

“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308: Incident peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/BRM/1896/04/30/3/Ar00308.html
Newspaper headline for an article recounting the Wendigo incident at Trout Lake described by historian Nathan Carlson. The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so.  A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”

– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.

Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.

After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.

Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.

Resources