I thought I’d go through some of the misconceptions outside people have about Plains Cree people. It’s good to talk about these things, and I think it’s funny, too. I classify myself in the same camp as most people who have these misunderstandings. Before I started working in Plains Cree country, learning aboriginal languages, listening to Plains Cree people talk, visiting homes, and reading Plains Cree texts, I had most of these ideas myself. So don’t think I’m particularly ‘superior’ here, just because I’ve sorted some of this out. Some of these are ‘lifestyle’ myths and some of these are ‘linguistic’ myths. I’ll include both in the list because, like I said before, I’m not organized.
I’ll do 10 of these – why not? All lists seem to come in 10s these days. Besides, it sounds more authoritative than “9-1/2 common ‘myths,'” I suppose.
1. Plains Cree people live in teepees and hunt buffalo.
I’ll call this a ‘lifestyle myth.’ This is, in fact, a fairly accurate description of some Plains Cree people about 150 years ago. Even then, a lot of Plains Cree people lived in a complex system of prairie-forest movement. They would hunker down in the forests for the bitter winters and be out on the plains during the summers. In general, Hollywood and sensationalist fiction has encouraged everybody to think that all aboriginal people live like a very few did a long time ago.
Things have changed since contact with Europeans – the buffalo are almost extinct, most people now live in square houses, and life revolves more around activities like ranching than hunting. That’s right – many of the Plains Cree are real, honest-to-goodness ‘Cowboy Indians.’ I personally love that fact. If you’d like to know more about real Plains Cree life in the 20th century, have a look at the fantastic work of Allen Sapp or read any of the life stories that Freda Ahenakew and H.C. Wolfart have published.
2. The Plains Cree have disappeared.
This is the question I get the most. “What, there are still actual indians running around? Those people aren’t all gone?” Signage in public places even suggests this – which always amazes me. Short answer: no. In fact, there are more “Plains Cree” people now than there has ever been. They don’t have to ride horses after buffalo and live in teepees to be Plains Cree, you realize, any more than I have to swing a beer stein to be Bohemian. The fact that the stereotype of an indian does not exist does not mean the people that are stereotyped don’t exist any more.
3. Plains Cree religion is like new age or hippie ‘spirituality.’
This is one I actually believed myself, back in the day. This is because most of the ‘white’ people that talk about aboriginal people use new age language, and then teach aboriginal people to talk that way in English, too. Take, for example, most of the diaologue in Pocahontas by Disney.
In fact, anybody who can understand the language will tell you that the Plains Cree have a whole complex philosophy and cosmology, which places strong demands on the individual, and that it is nothing like popular new age or ‘hippie’ beliefs. Typically, people who think of these things in terms of ‘new age’ values are getting distracted by English terms and some objects used in Plains Cree religion (e.g. tobacco, smudges, the pipestem), and not paying attention to what these people think about what they’re doing. (Side note: ‘Peyote’ is the fruit of a cactus, containing the chemical mescaline, is eaten not smoked, and is not used by the Plains Cree in any ceremonies that have been documented. [Edit: A Swampy Cree man kindly indicates that some Plains Cree people in Battleford and the surrounding area do indeed practice within the Native American Church, since at least the 1970s.])
Primary values are: reciprocity, compassion, dependence, asceticism, co-operation, and representation. Their cosmology appears to have been primarily monotheistic, with a host of intercessory spirits that take on shapes like Hindu ‘avatars.’ If I could sum up traditional Plains Cree belief by one phrase in English, my own attempt would be ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ or ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Everything that someone does has a reciprocal, inevitable reaction on the self; you can’t expect to ‘get away’ with anything, and best admit your absolute dependence on everything else. The worst wrong is to claim that you are your own master (môhkâc itwê ‘nitipêyimison‘!). None of that sounds particularly ‘hippie’ or ‘new age’ to me.
4. The Plains Cree language is ‘primitive’ compared to English.
Hah. If that were true, I’d have been out of graduate school a lot sooner!
I am able to understand Classical Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Old English, and German, so I think I have some handle on the ‘Great Languages of Europe.’ The elegant complexity of Plains Cree’s grammar will bring you to your knees. It is relentless.
The fact that they don’t have a word for ‘refrigerator’ is completely irrelevant to the expressive power a language possesses. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato didn’t have a word for refrigerator either. Neither did Cicero, Snorri, the Venerable Bede, Shakespeare, Goethe, etc. DUH. In fact, Algonquian languages like Plains Cree are famous for their grammatical ‘power;’ among linguists, they are some of the most famous languages on earth, in this respect.
5. Plains Cree is ‘older’ than English.
I don’t ever know how to begin to answer that bit of confusion.
In the temporal sense, this is just pure silliness: Modern English and Modern Plains Cree are both Modern Languages, spoken by people living today, right now.
Does Plains Cree hang on to bits of language that are more ‘ancient’ than English? Nah. Probably not. Languages all seem to change over time, shifting and re-shaping things. Some change faster than others, it’s true, but even the ones that ‘change’ still have a whole trail of historical junk dragging along after them. For example, the English word ‘deer’ goes all the way back to the proto-indo-european word for ‘animal,’ dating back thousands and thousands of years. You can type that word into your iPhone all you want – it’s still got all that historical baggage hanging on it.
Some of this misconception comes from a (bad) linguistic idea that languages become ‘simpler’ over time. This is sort of the opposite of the myth above (i.e. Plains Cree is ‘primitive’). Now, because it’s obviously got complexity, it must be ‘older.’ The problem is measuring that – how do we define ‘simple’ and ‘complex’? English is ‘simple’? In what sense? Because it uses a bunch of words where Plains Cree uses one word with a bunch of pieces? By that standard, Mandarin and Yorùbá are both ‘newer’ than English, since they both have less ‘pieces’ in a word than English does. But that’s obviously false – Chinese languages have been like Mandarin for a very, very long time, for example. People who work on English linguistics will be glad to tell you how complicated English is. It’s just that people are used to English and thus miss its complexity, where they are not used to Plains Cree and therefore the complexity jumps out and pokes them in the eye.
6. Plains Cree people don’t have sexual morality like Europeans do.
This relates to the ‘hippie’ myth, I think, and was perpetrated largely by Margaret Mead’s shoddy work on Samoans in the early 20th century.
For a variety of philosophical and historical reasons, Europeans really want to believe that tribal people do not have ‘morality’ like Europeans do. This is pure garbage, of course. The Plains Cree have all kinds of rules about sex and ‘modesty,’ etc., and have always had them. They’re different from European rules, but they’re still rules. For example, there were a lot of rules about women who were menstruating, about who you could marry, about when you could have sex and who you could have it with, etc. Some of these rules would seem downright suffocating to a Westerner, in fact – for example, marriages arranged by parents and gender segregation. Some related groups did not allow male-to-female skin contact (even during sex), and banned nudity in all facets of life. Disney’s playboy playmate Pocahontas is pretty far from reality.
7. The Plains Cree had gay marriage.
This is a very popular question, which a whole bunch of people have asked me about over the years. The short answer is: NO. Not even close.
People are getting a particular marriage custom all mangled up, and then interpreting it in the modern context. The custom I’m referring to was a special kind of ceremony that is described in early anthropological accounts of the Plains Cree (e.g. David Mandelbaum’s book The Plains Cree). In this ceremony, two men swore their lives to each other and, in inimitable Plains Cree style, gave absolutely everything away to each other (generosity and absolute surrender of possessions is still one of the most central Plains Cree values). This included their wives; each man would give his wives (sometimes plural) to the other, so that they shared wives as well as, sometimes, all other members of their households.
They would then refer to each other nikocak ‘my fellow husband.’ This led to the confusion in modern times. They were not ‘fellow husbands’ because of any sexual relationship between them – they were ‘fellow husbands’ because of their shared wife. The women referred to each other as nitâyim ‘my fellow wife.’
I can find no description of any homosexual activity (in the modern sense) in Plains Cree culture. If there had been such a thing, I expect that people would not have intervened, however. The cultural value was to let other people do what they wanted.
8. The Plains Cree recently invaded the Plains area after getting guns from whites.
This is very popular with other tribes in western canada, and I have even had academics inform me that this is a ‘fact.’ Many other western aboriginal groups seem to blame their recent territorial troubles on the Cree – a tragically comic situation.In fact, the ‘Cree invasion’ of Western Canada is anything but a fact.
The claim is based on a tiny, off-hand comment in a manuscript from the explorer Alexander MacKenzie in 1802. He described the Cree in the area as invaders on Slavey and Beaver land. However, the Dene groups in the area do not confirm this claim, there is no Cree memory of this move, the archaeological record indicates that the Cree have been in their current distribution for many, many centuries, and that there is no archaeological record to indicate any other group being there before them. Further, the linguistic patterning in Western Canada is far too tidy to be the result of a bunch of recent invasions. James Smith wrote a very nice summary of this issue in the academic journal American Ethnologist, entitled The Western Woods Cree: Anthropological Myth and Historical Reality. He says:
The weight of evidence now indicates that the Cree were as far west as the Peace River [Central Alberta] long before the advent of the European fur traders, and that post-contact social organization was not drastically affected by the onset of the fur trade.
If you’re interested in it but have trouble reading it, I’d be glad to go through it on this site – just ask.
9. Plains Cree people are lazy, criminal, have a bunch of children they don’t care for, and/or wait for government handouts.
This is what I hear regularly from non-aboriginal people in Western Canada (in fact, this is almost a direct quote from a previous landlady of mine in Alberta). Pointing out that this is very similar to the language ‘racists’ use where I come from to describe blacks does not seem to improve their mood, of course.
The difficult thing here is that some of these statements have a grounding in fact – what is a ‘myth’ here is the negative judgements and perceived causes.
Fact: A disproportionally high number of Plains Cree people have had trouble with the Canadian legal system, compared to non-indian groups.
Fact: A lower percentage of Plains Cree people have reliable employment, compared to non-indian people.
Etc. etc. etc.
However, the thing that is missed here is the causes of this.
Of course they are dependent on government handouts! They weren’t allowed to do anything else for the past 100 years; they weren’t even allowed to leave the reserve for a large chunk of that time.
Of course they have trouble with the law; the legal system has explicitly been set up to criminalize them, and they have poor representation when they face court (compare the criminal treatment of a Cree guy accused of breaking into a car with the treatment of Conrad Black). So, sure, more of them are convicted and sent to prison than rich Europeans are.
Of course they have complex ‘non-European’ family structures; they never had them to begin with, and the family structures they did have were systematically (and explicitly) destroyed by the government and people who are now blaming them for being destroyed.
As for laziness – they flat out cannot be lazy. I’m sorry – No ‘lazy’ group of people could have survived in skin tents on the Canadian prairies, in winter, for thousands of years. That’s just silly. If they seem passive and inactive now, that’s because there’s nothing they’re allowed to do – for a long, long time they weren’t even allowed to sneeze without a Canadian official telling them which handkerchief to use and how long to wipe.
Claiming that these things are, somehow, a natural outcome of ‘Creeness’ (which is what people are doing when they stereotype like this), is like blaming a person that was mugged with a baseball bat for having bruises (“Look at you and all that mess! Shame on you for having those bruises!”). It’s even worse when you realize who’s holding the baseball bat.
10. Plains Cree is not a language because it’s not written.
This is another common question I get: “Is Plains Cree a written language?” Upon further investigation, what many of these questioners seem to be asking is “Is it an actual language?” Some people will outright ask that.
This kind of thinking assumes a lot of things about ‘writing’ that no linguist would agree with. Writing is a technological invention – it is a means of representing sounds or words in such a way that they can be ‘played back’ later in our heads. It’s the first version of the audio recorder. Asking if a language has a ‘written’ system is thus like asking if it can be recorded by a microphone (Answer: Yes, any language can have a written system and be recorded).
Some groups of people have been using this technology for a long time (English speakers have, in some places, been using it for more than a thousand years), but what that has to do with a ‘language’ is pretty vague.
A ‘language’ is system of communicative gestures that a human being engages in to express a meaning. ‘Gestures’ are things you do with your tongue and lips as well as things you do with your arms or head. The system will have an arbitrary relation between the gesture and the meaning of the gesture, and some of the gestures will indicate abstract things like the relation of time to the meaning or the relation of the speaker’s attitudes to the meaning. This definition includes sign languages (none of which, by the way, can be written down) as well as all spoken languages. It includes Plains Cree, English, Mayan, and Farsi all equally well.
Trying to define languages as ‘written’ things leads to all kinds of problems. For example, English was not a language before it was written down? What was it, then? People communicated in it just fine for a long, long time before anybody decided to scratch a representation of it on an artifact. Socrates never wrote anything down – neither did Jesus Christ. Did they not speak a language? What were they busy doing, then? Belching?
The fact that Plains Cree speakers did not have a standardized, visual representation of their language for most of its history means (get this) that they are in exactly the same boat as everybody else. That’s normal. We write the language down today, because it’s useful in the modern world, and to do this we borrow symbols from Latin (just like English, German, French, Polish, Turkish, isiZulu, and Russian have, etc.).