Okay, I’m trying to continue my positive stuff here, so I thought I’d pick someone else who does, to my mind, very high quality anthropological-type work. This time, I’ve picked my own advisor, and someone who has worked on Plains Cree since the 1960s. He may be considered an odd choice, though – officially, he’s a linguist, and officially, his work is linguistics work. Except when it isn’t.
Wolfart’s main contributions to linguistics are his thesis, published by the APS in 1973 – still the definitive description of Plains Cree grammar – and a variety of articles he’s published either alone or with others since. His 1978 paper on the logic of markedness and obviation, for example, is, to my mind, the best and most lucid discussion of obviation in Cree – and should be read by all linguists who want to pontificate on the obviation system. Judging by most of the obviation literature, almost nobody HAS read it, however.
In terms of cultural work, however, he is quite a bit less recognized. I think this is largely because of the bias Anthropology has for Theory and Concepts over the basics. Data, Data, Data, and Data.
Along with his student Freda Ahenakew, who has recently ‘left the earth’ as the Cree saying goes (ê-nakataskêt), Wolfart has spent the last 20 years collecting and publishing carefully transcribed and edited texts by various important Plains Cree elders. Elders whose speeches have been published in this way include:
- Sarah Whitecalf, a mono-lingual speaker from Sweetgrass
- Emma Minde, a Saddle Lake woman who married into the leadership of the Ermineskin band
- Alice Ahenakew, a métis woman who was raised in a traditional Cree manner and married an important figure in a central family for Cree history.
- Jim Kâ-nîpitêhtêw, a man born at Onion Lake to a witness of the treaty signing, and a highly respected elder with an exceptional gift for rhetoric.
- Glecia Bear, Irene Calliou, Janet Feitz, Minnie Fraser, Alpha Lafond, Rosa Longneck, Mary Wells who are Plains Cree, Woods Cree, and Métis elders from Northwestern Saskatchewan. They tell stories about their life experiences and ideas.
- Cecelia Masuskapoe, a Cree elder from NW Saskatchewan, who talks about the way she lived in the bush as a young person and the difficult things that have happened in life.
These texts are published in Cree at in English, side-by-side on the same page, with the exception of Masuskapoe’s story, which is published only in Cree.
If all Wolfart had done was collect, transcribe, and translate these texts, his contribution to ethnography would be highly significant, but he also writes detailed commentaries for most of them. These often pick out relevant linguistic features of the texts, but also comment on the historical, cultural, and social significance of the texts included in the volume. Having done this ethnographic work for many years, he knows a great deal more about the cultural and historical issues involved than anthropologists give linguists credit for. Hence, he is doing both language and culture – something very few people have managed in the world of Algonquian studies. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Wolfart has also put in a great deal of work to clarify and better represent the Cree, including a careful discussion of the important legal term like askiy ‘land’ as it was understood at the time of the treaty signings. The kâ-nîpitêhtêw text represents the only recorded account of the Cree side of the treaty signing, and his careful transcription and discussion of it earned him literally a day in court, in which he had to present the text for legal consideration in the fights over the treaties – ‘Old Jim’ no longer being able to do it himself, unfortunately.
Because Wolfart is not a card-carrying anthropologist, and because he sticks very closely to the Cree language (something anthropologists systematically abstract away from), he is not generally given as much credit for his cultural work as he deserves. People who want to run about (knees bent) and busily publish on Cree will find the books he’s published too detailed, too specific, and – above all – too difficult. Of course, that’s what good ethnography is, in my opinion – detailed, specific, and difficult.
In addition, Wolfart is white (German by nationality), and he comes from an earlier time, when white people and Cree people could work together without racializing each other into broad categories. Back then, judgements were made on a person-by-person basis. Was this white person a ‘good’ person or a ‘bad’ person? There was no such thing as ‘white people’ in the sense it’s talked about now. This highly individualistic attitude runs through most of these texts, and is largely why Wolfart could do work that is now almost impossible to do. Whitecalf, for example, picks him out explicitly in her discussion of a white person who works with the Cree and for the Cree, but people in her grandchildren’s age group often have a new, narrowly racialized idea about what ‘white’ people are and what they do, and thus they discard Wolfart and his work out of hand. This attitude is also latent in much of the discussion that heavily promotes Freda Ahenakew’s contribution to these works while simultaneously downplaying his.
The same goes for Leonard Bloomfield, who came before him. Bloomfield is now a ‘bad guy’ because he went out into the wilderness and sat with old and blind people, collecting and documenting their beliefs when nobody else was interested. Bloomfield didn’t make any money at it – the texts were published by a non-profit, with credit carefully given to each teller, and he didn’t live to see most of the fruits of the work anyway. Those texts are now all that’s left, in many cases, of that world. But because he was ‘white,’ the relation must have been exploitive – even when the people he worked with insisted it wasn’t. I guess that’s the benefit of a deductive theory – you don’t need facts or evidence because you already have the conclusion.
Anyway, I think Wolfart’s cultural work is some of the best there is – certainly for Cree and Algonquian. If you’re interested in Cree culture, you have to read the texts and commentaries he has published. It’s step 1 for everybody, really. And if you’re Cree, you should read them because they represent some of the best and brightest of your culture, speaking on issues near and dear to them. It’s also a great way to become literate in your language.
I should mention that people sometimes think these texts are too ‘difficult’ for learning the language, and that they should be ‘simplified’ or dumbed down for various audiences. I’m firmly and universally against that. We give German students Goethe, Böll, Kafka, etc. We give Greek students Plato and Hesiod. No Latin teacher would consider themselves respectable if they didn’t aim to get their students reading Cicero. We give Spanish students Cervantes. Chinese students get the Red Chamber and the poets. Russian students get Pushkin or Dostoyevsky. Why do people insist on treating aboriginal languages as if they’re different in that regard? They deserve the same respect, and their literature deserves the same deference, as all these other languages.
These texts are the best goal for a Cree student – if you can understand them, you can understand Cree. Every language worth learning has a literature (oral or written) that makes the difficulty worth it – this is Cree’s literature, and I would hate to see it defaced because of some misguided idea about ‘difficulty’ and ‘learning.’ I still remember the first excitement at actually being able to read Plato. Not a sloppy simplification, not a translation – the real thing. Don’t take that away from Cree students, and don’t cheat them by telling them they’re reading ‘the real thing’ when they’re only reading a “Cree for idiots” rendition made by educators.