What’s in a name?

There’s a set of questions I get over and over and over (and over) again, so I thought I’d write about them here. They have to do with names for things. In particular, names for aboriginal groups. In particular, the names European languages have for various aboriginal groups. No matter how many times I explain this in classes, no matter how many long explanations I offer when asked, I have to inevitably explain it again – often to the exact same people. So I figured why not explain it here? That way all these people can ignore me in a more convenient format!

Long story short: The names European languages give to aboriginal groups and their languages are often inaccurate, from the perspective of an aboriginal person, but so are most names given to most human groups by everybody. It is an inherent thing about naming; names are arbitrary, as much historical accident as anything else. Arbitrary: Just like all words in natural language.

Simple example: Where I’m from, the first ATM machines were by a company called Tyme. (Seriously; google it.) The logo was plastered all over the machines, which were at first only available at banks. To this day, most of us from Wisconsin will call the ATM a “Tyme Machine.” “I have to go to the Tyme machine.” … Even if the machine is not owned or operated by Tyme. Are we making a moral claim about ATM machines by doing this? No. The first example of the new machine in our area was used to name it. It’s a historical accident; it tells you something about the history of ATM machines in Wisconsin, but that’s about it. We’re not putting down BMO or M&I (now defunct) or whoever when we call it a “Tyme” machine. Any more than you’re putting down Scotts Tissue when you buy it because you need a new box of “kleenex.”

People are very sensitive about this process when it applies to different human communities. The confusion seems to be that an exononym (a name given by foreigners) is somehow always insulting, and they should always be forced to use an endonym instead (a name given by the group to itself). Of course, this seems to be a one-way street in all these debates; ‘Cree’ is bad because it’s not what the people call themselves, but môniyâw (‘montreal’) for European-descent people is fine, kihci-môhkomân (‘long knife’) for Americans is a-okay, even though both also derive from first-contact and historical accidents.

Below is a discussion of some names for groups – in English and in Cree. Have a read if the issue of naming really bothers you, or you’d like to know more about it.

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Posted in algonquian, colonialism, english, grammar, history, language, menominee, ojibwa, racism, semantics, translation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What “Racism” is, and why being a Semanticist helps.

Preamble: What is a Cat?

A long time ago, some people who study language meaning asked a very simple question: What is a “cat”?

You think you know what the answer to that question is. You think it’s obvious. But you’d be wrong, actually. Go ahead – try. Define “cat.” Undergraduates typically try to explain “cat” as something like the following:

  1. A cat is a furry creature with four legs and whiskers and pointy ears and a long tail that goes “meow”.

Welp. What about a three-legged cat? What about a cat with no tail? What about hairless cats? What about cats without whiskers? If a cat is a “creature” how can you have a “robot” cat?

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Posted in colonialism, cultural meaning, education, english, history, language, Methodology, philosophy, plains cree, racial, racism

Language teaching at the University

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to go about constructing a university curriculum for Cree here at Brandon, and I thought I’d throw some of the issues up here. I’m sure they are familiar to most people, and I know a lot of people are struggling with the same things. Sometimes it’s encouraging to hear someone else struggling with the same thing, though.

I put this post together last summer, before teaching, and let it sit. I’ve been through another semester of it now, at a new university, and honestly I don’t see much to change in my list. It’s pretty much the same challenges wherever (and whoever) I seem to teach.

Before I talk about problems/challenges, though, I would like to say that I had a couple of students this last term who were truly excellent. Some of them were straight-out gifted learners and had all kinds of mad skills that they could bring to their aid, while others were just plain dogged and hung on with their fingernails. This was the case even though I actually chose to double (or triple?) the amount of content they would be getting, relative to other Cree classes (another post, I guess!). Instead of sinking/drowning, I had a number of students that excelled, and I have some (outside) hope that they’ll be able to get themselves to a decent competency in the language by the time their 12 credits is over here. Cross my fingers. So it’s not all doom and gloom ALL the time. Just when I haven’t had enough coffee.

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Posted in academia, colonialism, cultural meaning, education, grammar, language, Methodology, philosophy | 7 Comments

How to Use a Cree Dictionary

Languages like Cree present particular problems for making dictionaries because the words are exceptionally complex. Unlike languages like English – where dictionaries were largely developed – Cree does not have a simple ‘word’ to place in the dictionary. For example, the word ‘see’ in English corresponds to as many as 500+ ‘words’ in Cree (niwâpahtên, wâpamêw, wâpamâw, ê-wâpamaci, etc.).

Rather than put all 500+ words in the dictionary, Cree linguists have decided to follow the example of classical languages like Greek and Sanskrit (which also have huge numbers of verbs) and simply give you one form for each word. It is up to you, the user, to know how to turn this word into the form you want. For example, in Classical Greek, if you want to know how to say “I will be seen,” you will find only “I see” in the dictionary. The same applies to Cree. If you want to look up the word ‘see,’ what you will find in most dictionaries is the form ’s/he sees him/her.’ You will then have to sort out how to change that into the form you want (e.g. ‘I see him,’ etc.).

There are essentially no irregular verbs in Cree, so some of the problems encountered with a language like Greek (where many, many verbs are irregular) are not present. If you know one form of any Cree verb, and you know how to build verbs properly, you will immediately be able to built all other forms. The only potential exception is some unusual sound alternations that happen with verbs that contain very old segments. For example, pîkiskwât- ‘talk to’ has a ’t’ on the end that used to be a different consonant, in the ancient language. This ancient difference shows up when we put -it on the end. Normally, t just stays as a t (cf. kitôtit ’s/he speaks to me’), but in the case of pîkiskwât-, the t changes to an s: pîkiskwâsit. I don’t know of any dictionary that includes these irregular forms in it. Technically, if the classical model was being followed, we should expect these to be included.

So the dictionary is only useful to you if you already know how to (de)construct good Cree words. This may seem surprising to someone used to dealing with Spanish or English or French, but it’s hardly unusual. Most languages that have complex words end up having to make these kinds of decisions – or else your dictionary would be 900,000 pages and weigh 80lbs.

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Posted in education, grammar, morpheme, noun, order, orthography, particle, person, plains cree, plural, possession, prenoun, preverb, swampy cree, translation, verb | 2 Comments

Off-topic but on-topic. Cars and Aboriginal Poverty.

This is going to sound like a random thing to post about, but it’s something I see so often, and I’d like to say something about it somewhere. Maybe it will help someone out there – who knows.

Say you’re Plains Cree. Let’s start with a mental picture of your great-great-grandfather’s life. He was probably born – say – 1880. Before treaty 6. He was born into a family that depended on the mobility provided by the horse. The horse pulled the travois, the horse helped hunting, the horse was everything.

Now, imagine for a moment that this man decided he didn’t want to deal with feeding his horse, so he decided that whenever the horse was hungry, he’d just hire an outsider to feed it for him. Then suppose that whenever the horse was sick, he just abandoned it out on the plains and went off to try and find a new one. Then suppose that he didn’t like futzing with blankets, saddles, bridles, etc. Whenever one broke, he just tossed it instead of mending it, he just chucked it in the bush and went off to buy a new one. Or ditched the horse, too.

How long do you think this hypothetical Cree man would remain independent and capable?


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Posted in cultural meaning, Personality, philosophy | 2 Comments

Some important things to remember about Language

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately, from aboriginal people who are unfortunate enough to be cornered on CBC, about the Connection to the Land that aboriginal people have, etc. This is in the context of land rights and treaty rights issues.

That’s all fine and good, or whatever, but I want to remind aboriginal people of something:

However long you’ve been on that land, your language is older.

Your language is older than everything else you have. It’s older than your culture, it’s older than your religious beliefs, it’s older than any material objects you have, it’s older than your actual genetics.

Things like “race” are very slippery. In actuality, most “Cree” people share vast genetics in common with other aboriginal groups and also with Europeans.

Things like “land” are very slippery. The Cree have moved all over the place. You know – like a lot of other people have. (Hi!)

Things like “culture” are very slippery. Some Cree people are Christians. Some are traditionalists. Some live in cities, some live on reserve, some live in Hawaii. Some like TV, some live in the bush.

This is something everybody needs to remember in these debates. It’s easy enough to demonstrate that some aboriginal group has moved around during their history. It’s easy to use “blood quantum” to (literally) bleed the aboriginal “race” out of existence. It’s easy to drive a divisive cultural wedge between aboriginal people. It’s impossible to show that, at some time in the past, Cree people didn’t speak Cree. By definition, the Cree language has been around exactly as long as there have been Cree people.

I think it was Richard Littlebear (Cheyenne) who first pointed this out. You lose your language, you lose the only certain argument you have that you are a distinct group of people. Lose that argument, and you’ve lost the whole thing.

Posted in colonialism, cultural meaning, history, language, newsmedia, racial, treaty | Tagged | 1 Comment

Taking pictures of other cultures and things that never cease to amaze me

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Victoria, waiting to catch the bus back to the ferry, and we happen to look up at the wall here. It’s a rack of photographs for sale @ about $180-$200 a pop. Guy’s name is Adam Dargavel. I’d link to him, but he mostly lives on Facebook. Which isn’t really surprising, taking all context into account here.

The one nearest me is a close-up picture of a Hmong child in an elegant hat. It’s entitled “Little Hmong Girl” and costs $180.

The one next to that is a picture of three young women, dressed in hats and necklaces. It’s entitled “Black Hmong of Laos.” $200.

The one next to that is a portrait of four boys in monastic dress, entitled “Apprentice Buddhist Monks.” It’s $200.

It’s amazing, to me, that we’re at a point still where you could sell pictures of picturesque natives from overseas, labelled just with tribal affiliation, and still feel good about yourself. What’s more amazing is that people buy this stuff. Where do you put a picture of some stranger’s little kid – next to the coffee machine? “Oh yeah. That’s the Little Hmong Girl. Isn’t she adorable?”

I’m sitting here, in fact, with a woman from Southeast Asia. Her response: “Whose kid is that? What’s their name? What village is that from?” You know, because – to her – THESE ARE ACTUAL PEOPLE NOT SET PIECES FOR YOUR LIFESTYLE.

For those of you who have no ability to see how rotten this is, change it to pictures of your favorite oppressed group – say, American Blacks. If you’re a mainstream Canadian, that’s your favorite boo-hoo group, because it’s always easier to snuffle over oppression you don’t understand and aren’t involved in than it is to do something about oppression you SHOULD understand and ARE involved in. But okay, whatever, imagine walking into a coffee shop and seeing a rack of photos of black children for sale, entitled “Little Black Boy” and so on.

This relates to something I’ve complained about on here before, which always rubs me the wrong way – the lack of attribution and specificity when it comes to “traditional” cultures. “Indian Saying.” “Ancient Indian Saying.” “Native American Prophecy” and so on. Labels on pictures like “Cree man.” As if these people were representative stereotypes of a group, rather than individuals.

It’s your responsibility, as an adult, to be able to compare and contrast contexts. If you don’t find it acceptable in one context, you should ask yourself how the same behavior transfers to a different context. If you wouldn’t find it acceptable to put up a picture of a random BLACK child for sale as decor, then why do you find it acceptable to put up a picture of a random ASIAN child? If you don’t think Sambo figurines are okay, why do you think Little Papoose figurines are okay? If you don’t want YOUR child’s photograph sold for $200 at a coffee shop, why do you think it’s okay for THEIR child’s photograph to be sold there? If you want YOUR OWN ideas and creativity properly attributed, why don’t you care when THEIR statements aren’t?

Because, the fact is, these are pictures of someone else’s kids, someone else’s handiwork, someone else’s LIFE. And all they get is an ethnic label on your business product and a couple of guilt-bucks tossed at a charity.

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