About Plains Cree

Plains Cree is a language spoken by a group of people who are indigenous to the western plains of Canada. There are traditionally two communities of people who speak the language. One group are sometimes called ‘Status,’ because they are descended from people who signed treaties with the British, while the other group are sometimes called ‘Métis,’ and did not sign these treaties.


Estimates of speaker numbers vary wildly, depending on whether you count people who are ethnically Plains Cree (but do not speak the language) or not. Some numbers foolishly include all people whose language has the word ‘Cree’ in the English name (tip: not a good diagnostic for ‘same language’), and report exaggerated numbers like 100,000. Linguists who work with the language communities typically say that a good rough estimate is about 15,000 speakers today, down from the 20,000 that were estimated by Wolfart back in 1969. The Plains Cree language is currently endangered, with most communities not having any fluent speakers (people who spoke the language as their first language of childhood) that are under 55 years old. If nothing changes, the language will cease to exist in these communities within a few decades.

Language Family:

Linguists classify the language as part of the Algonquian family – one of the largest language families in North America. Plains Cree is placed in the Central Algonquian subfamily, which includes quite a few other languages, including the Ojibwa languages, Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Illinois, Shawnee, etc. The Cree sub-group of Central Algonquian includes a large number of languages, spoken from Western Canada all the way across to Labrador. This includes Plains Cree, Woods Cree, Swampy Cree, James Bay Cree, the East Cree complex, and Innu.


13 Responses to About Plains Cree

  1. Karen M Crow says:

    This is page and a site with wonderful work and I comment that; “It is a real joy to see the smile when others use the Cree language in the presence of an elder who actually used the speech at one point of their lives. The sounds of Traditional Cree are rich in tone and expression. It is a happy language and graces the air with warm tones of communication.”
    Karen M. Crow/Facebook.com

  2. Emily says:

    This site is wonderful. I’m writing a paper for my typology class and am having trouble finding information on anaphors in Plains Cree. Are they indicated in the morphology?

    • Hallo and thanks for posting!

      Anaphors in Plains Cree are a complicated and much-discussed topic. There are three sets, technically, that you’d need to consider. There are independent pronouns, which are built from the stem -îy- meaning ‘body.’ nîya ‘I/me,’ kîya ‘you,’ wîya ‘he/him/she/her/it’ and so on. These are not case-sensitive – Case in Cree is not really like in Indo-European anyway, so that’s not surprising. How these pronouns work in the syntax is a bit complex and not well-understood right now. Some of them indicate emphatic/focus meanings, sometimes they are used to indicate the scope of a particle (e.g. the negative), sometimes they are used to fix reference-tracking, etc.

      The second set of anaphors go on verbs and nouns and have been called Deictic, in that they directly indicate speech-act participants or relevant third persons (cf. Cook’s 2008 thesis). For example, ni- in ninikamon ‘I sing.’ or ki- in kinikamon ‘you sing,’ etc. They indicate possession on nominals. The third person o- only occurs on possessed nominals (not verbs at all) and cannot be used for inanimate possessors (e.g. ‘the table’s leg’ in English).

      The third set of anaphors also go on verbs, but only on verbs, and they are more classic anaphora like you’re used to seeing discussed for most languages. They are all suffixes. Like -yân for me/I in ê-nikamoyân ‘I sing’ or -t for ‘he/him/she/her’ in ê-nikamot. These do not co-occur with the other set.

      You can see this covered in Cook’s 2008 thesis, available on-line from UBC.

  3. Joshua Littlewolfe Scott says:

    Where did the plains cree originally migrate from within Canada? I heard the moved from the east a long time ago, is this true?

    • Well, it’s a pretty complicated question. As far as the archaelogical evidence is concerned, there apparently hasn’t been any group where the Plains Cree are now – except the Plains Cree. That’s over most of their land, but of course not the SW area, which they seized from the Blackfoot more recently.

      Based on the language relations, we are quite sure that SOME of the people who now speak Plains Cree must have been farther east. This is based on the fact that many of the aboriginal languages spoken on the south side of the Great Lakes (Shawnee, Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, etc.) are very very closely related to the Cree languages. As I remember it, the idea is that they circled up around the great lakes (coming from what’s now the Ohio area?) and then moved west across what is now Canada. Ojibwe groups then came in and split up the Cree groups, so that now you have a sort of western group of Crees and an Eastern group.

      That’s not the same thing as saying that the PEOPLE themselves all came from somewhere else. Tribes intermarry, languages die out, others come in, etc. For all I know, many of the people who are now identified as Plains Cree in AB and SK have been there thousands and thousands of years. But the language they speak came with people that migrated from the east. And they are obviously descendants of those people. Just like I’m a descendant of Polish people and Irish people and German people, but I speak English – there’s no guarantee that the language you speak identifies your genetic heritage. The two can move quite independently.

  4. On behalf of all Plains Cree, we’re doing ok. Many of us don’t like Mondays but coffee helps. Some of us are trying to get papers reviewed. My Cree friend did some fishing up north on the weekend. My other Cree friend played Golf. Generally, we Plains Cree are quite peachy and enjoying the Fall,or Takwakin. Thanks for asking!!

    • *laughing*

      Be careful or there’s going to be a Calgary Sun editorial on how “The Cree drink a lot of coffee and go fishing and golf all the time. ON OUR TAXPAYER MONEY. Said one Cree woman, `We are quite peachy.’ WHEN WILL HARPER PUT A STOP TO THIS??”

  5. Dana Wesley says:

    LOL@ “All 50,000 of them?”

  6. Ken Howe says:

    Are there any specific communities where Plains Cree is more widely spoken?

    • Generally, the farther north you go in Plains Cree territory, the more you’ll hear the language spoken. It’s fairly rare to hear it in spoken in daily life anywhere south of Northcentral Alberta, for example. But as you get up past Lubicon, things get more widely spoken. Does that help?

  7. ashley wells says:

    this website doesn’t give me much about the Plains-Cree… i want information like what is there status update like how are they doing… where are things standing, just basic stuff like that…

    • I’m sorry, your question is too vague to possibly be answered. “How are they doing?” Who? The Plains Cree people? All 50,000 of them? Go ask ‘them’ yourself!

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