Legends and Narratives from the Moose Cree language, as told by Gilbert Faries, Sophie Gunner, James Gunner, Hannah Loon and Ellen McLeod

Satellite photograph from August of 2000_James Bay in Northern Ontario, Canada

Satellite photograph from August of 2000_James Bay in Northern Ontario, Canada

Legends and Narratives from the Moose Cree language, as told by Gilbert Faries, Sophie Gunner, James Gunner, Hannah Loon and Ellen McLeod: from recordings made in 1958, 1964 and 1965 in and around Moose Factory in Ontario, Canada
Why the squirrel has red eyes (Acicamoŝ wêhci-mihkwacâpit)
So then, the legend is told of why the squirrel has red eyes…
Once long ago when an animal was being sought to be leader in the woods, the squirrel thought that he should be foremost. Now then, when the other animals saw him, they began to make fun of him. And they ridiculed him, saying: “Be off with you! You’re too little. You’ll never be able to be master here in the woods, because you’re little.”
And so, since the squirrel hated it very much, he cried very hard. And he also rubbed at his eyes very hard, until he began to have entirely red eyes from crying so hard.
. . .

Why the loon’s feet are near the tail (Mwâkwa wêhc’-îšinâkwaniliki osita)
Now then, this again is the beginning of the legend about the loon, why this one’s feet look the way they do.
Once upon a time long ago, the beasts and the birds got together because they wanted to have a feast. And so, as they were there on the lake, in the course of the feasting, this loon began to flirt around with other birds. So then the rest of those birds weren’t pleased with the fact that this loon wanted to take away Shingibish’s wife.
And so, when being angry, Shingibish chased after this loon. And then, as the latter ran away, he kicked him very hard as he ran off. And he utterly knocked his feet back there, having crippled him. And ever since, that’s why the loon’s feet hang that way, right near his tail-end.
. . .
Why the bear has a short tail (Maskwa wêhci-tahkwâliwêt)
Now, this is the beginning of the legend about the bear, why his tail is short.
Once upon a time long ago he saw a fox that had a fish. And so at this the bear said: “How is it that you are able to catch fish?”
And so at this the fox replied: “It’s very easy when one wants to catch a fish. At that hole there in the river, in the ice, it’s just at that very spot that I dip my tail in. And then, as I feel a fish playing around with my tail, I suddenly give a jump. While he’s biting my tail I pull him to the surface…You can do it too, if you want to catch hold of him, if you want to catch a fish,” he said to the bear.
So then the bear thought, “Certainly, I’ll be able, too.”
So then he dipped his tail in, his long tail, that is. And then as he felt a fish playing with his tail, he didn’t yet give a jump.
“So wait a little, and many will be hanging on here and there,” thought the bear in his greedy desire, that is. He wanted a lot of fish.
And so, at last, as his tail began to freeze to the ice, he thought, “Now there are a lot of fish,” as he began to feel his tail heavy.
And then at that point when he gave a sudden jump, that’s the way he tore off his tail, since it had already been stuck to the ice.
. . .
A favourite dish from whitefish roe (Atihkamêk owâhkona ê-kîsisomihci)
Now for that fish which is called the whitefish, in processing its innards, called “liver-water”. When we catch a good number of whitefish we clean the innards and cook them. And we call it “liver-water”.
We squeeze out the whole of those innards. Then we put them in a frying pan and cook them. We cook them there a long, long time until they’re boiled completely dry, so they may come to a fry, so they become all brown. Then we put in a little flour. We mix it in a small dish, then we put them there in the “liver-water”, as we cook them. And they are very delicious.
And then also that other fish, the so-called red sucker, what’s called the roe there, we cut them open, as they have it. We cook those roe along with them. That “liver-water” is tastier though, as I make it, when we put the flour with it, we put a little flour in as we continually stir it. That’s what we do when we make that “liver-water”. We put in a little flour, that is, and we stir it in a small dish. It’s more delicious when it’s dressed that way, with a little flour put in it. And so red sucker roe also is sometimes put in it, and cooked along with it. And it’s more delicious when it’s dressed that way.
. . .
Snatch of a conversation: to go up-river or not? (Ayamihitowinišiš: n’tahikâtêkwê nêstapiko êkâ?)
“Are you decided, are we making up our mind…to go to the Indian Reservation right now? I don’t think we should. The weather’s too dirty. I think that the sky doesn’t look right.”
“Just as you please. You always seem to want to be the boss.”
“Let it go at that. That’s what I think right now. I don’t very much relish the thought of travelling in dirty weather. It’s just that…although we only want to go this short distance. Never mind then, I may as well stop thinking about it.”
“If you’re satisfied at that, I don’t mind either.”
. . .
Mishchagalash, who is supposed to have died and then to have risen (Mišcâkalâš kâ-kî-nipikopanê, êko mâka kâ-kî-waniškâkopanê)
The twenty-first day of July…
Mishchagalash, as he was called, was very good at hunting. The people fought with each other and he too wrestled. The other person hollered: “Now these people are killing each other.” But ošâwasko, ošâwaskwapîway, laughed at it. He wrestled with Mishchagalash. But ošâwaskwapîway got very angry, being wrestled with there by Mishchagalash. His uncle, his uncle’s name, ošâwaskwapîway was his uncle’s name.
“I was only grabbed again and again, I felt just as if I were slashed,” he said as his uncle seized him and stopped him from fighting.
Now one day he went away by boat when they had finished wrestling. So then, this Mishchagalash, this very Mishchagalash said: “It would seem I had died.” So then he was confined.
“What is that? At last…it seems now I am awakening. It would seem I had died. Now I am getting up. The grass was yellow when I got up. When I had turned over I took my ghost-pipe and smoked. Then when I went home my mother knew me very well, since I had arrived in the morning. Now my mother saw me. My mother wept: “To be sure, I love my son very much. He was much given to hunting.”
It seems then that I started to go away by canoe, looking for deer.
My mother went down the bank in the distance, as she saw me as I came paddling, facing her. Now she came into sight, paddling towards me.
“It’s a stump which he’s bringing back.”
In my craft, in my canoe…I had put it in the bow of my canoe.
“It’s a buck deer, it seems, which he has killed.”
And now my mother knew that I was bringing food.
My mother wept: “No wonder, it’s my son for whom I was sorry when he died, because he was such a
good hunter.”
. . .
A fight between a whiskey-jack and a mouse (Ê-mâšihitocik wîskacâniš nêsta mâka wâpikošiš)
Once again when we had been living somewhere in this area, we were at West River…
Now, at that time, we regularly used to have our tent out towards the sea, in the willows, more or less, as we killed foxes. Well then, once as I was sitting inside, a whiskey-jack was making an awful racket. “My! Whatever’s wrong with this whiskey-jack that he’s making this noise?” I thought. I looked around, finally. For a long time, at first though, I didn’t look. But at last I looked through a hole in the tent. From there I looked at him. The whiskey-jack was perched on a willow. I looked at him. “What’s wrong with this one who’s making this noise?” Suddenly there popped…a mouse slowly emerged at last, in the snow. It emerged from the snow.
At that point the whiskey-jack jumped at the mouse. He bit him in the neck. He flew away with him repeatedly.
The mouse got the better of him. He carried him off, again and again.
Then the mouse struggled as he carried him off again and again…to such an extent that he was quickly dropped as he struggled. Again and again the mouse fell away on the ground, on the snow. Then he quickly dug in the snow again. Then once more the whiskey-jack would watch the spot again. The whiskey-jack kept a look-out for him. But out came that mouse, again. I looked at him.
Now the whiskey-jack jumped at that mouse once again. He bit him in his neck. He dropped him again and again as he carried him off struggling, just biting him.
Now, once more, the mouse quickly took cover. Finally, he came out again. Now he landed. Now they had a tussle with each other, out in the open. Then they battled each other.
This whiskey-jack was not able to get the better of this mouse…
He was worsted by him. This whiskey-jack was making a dreadful lot of noise.
“Look now, whatever’s wrong with this fellow that he’s making such a racket?” I thought, as he made a noise like this [ imitative screech ]. That’s what the whiskey-jack said, because he was scared.
So at last I laughed really hard. The mouse bit away at the whiskey-jack. He was just standing on his hind legs. And then they were jumping at each other back and forth, and the whiskey-jack was jumping back and forth as he was getting the worst of it from that mouse. This whiskey-jack was helped a little by his wings, but to my mind the mouse was stronger as I looked at him. I couldn’t help but laugh hard as I watched them, to the point that I disturbed them while they were fighting with each other.
. . .
A conversation (Ayamihitowin): Hannah Loon and Ellen McLeod
H.L.: “Ellen, what happened to you folks while you were staying at Hannah Bay while you were living with your father as he was hunting?”
E.M.: “Uh hmm.”
H.L.: “What had happened to you that led you to come when only you folks arrived?”
E.M.: “He wasn’t going to come at Christmas. But my older sister said to me, “Let’s go, you and me. Let’s follow our older brothers who are going away,” she said. So then I said to her: “Alright, let’s go. But let’s hurry and cook up some things first for our father before we leave,” I said to her. And we cooked for him. We did everything properly for him. Now then, we left to come. There was no axe there. There was only the big axe. With my older sister taking that one, we came away. By the time we were at Big Stone we had already caught up with them, including my older brother. “What’s wrong with you two?” he said. We didn’t speak to them. We hid from them [she laughs.]
“These people ought to have left to come anyway. Yes.”
“We slept there. We slept there, the two of us. By and by there, by and by we saw them there at Netitishi.”
“They had come away in advance.”
“And then my older brother said to me: “Where is your father?”
“We left him. He didn’t want to come away. He didn’t want to go to the settlement for Christmas. But we’ve left to come. I got a ride…she got a ride, though. But I wasn’t taken. I ran along.”
“Your older sister, Mary, was taken.”
“Only my older sister, Mary, was taken. I ran along. And he said: “Take that axe of theirs,” my older brother, Willie, was told. “Where are these two going?” “They’re off logging to Peehtawanagaw,” said Archibald [she laughs.]
“Just teasing you…”
“Because you two sure didn’t own an axe.”
“I ran along all the time. She was carried on the sled.
Finally, I saw a young fellow, James. He gave me a seat on his sled. We arrived here. On the second day my father suddenly arrived. He laughed, he laughed at us. We laughed too.”
“But what did James there say to you while you were tired, as he was hauling you?”
“Who knows?”
“Didn’t you…didn’t you have him as a boyfriend? There’s nothing wrong with that …!”
“That’s as much as I’m going to tell.”
“Oh? Oh!”
“This is as much as I’ll tell you.”
“Not about that.”
“Then that’s the extent of your story.”
. . .
The above transcriptions are excerpts from Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay (Âtalôhkâna nêsta tipâcimôwina), published by The University of Manitoba Press in 1995. The text is in several Cree variants, plus English translations. Edited and with a glossary by C. Douglas Ellis.

“I yearn to learn”: poems in English and Cree

The old Plains Cree syllabary, now not often used. Romanization i.e. the use of English alphabet letters has taken its place.

The old Plains Cree syllabary, now not often used. Romanization i.e. the use of English alphabet letters has taken its place.

Naomi McIlwraith
nôhtâwiy opîkiskwêwin – Father Tongue
I read about the –ikawi suffix
and the unspecified actor form,
wonder about the curiosities
of active or passive voice in Cree,
but mostly I yearn to learn
real Cree words, am eager to hear
nêhiyawêwin itwêwina in the air.
Want to hear your voice.
Food words like bread and tea
and water –
pahkwêsikan, maskihkîwâpoy,
êkwa nipiy.
Words for tree and bud and leaf –
mistik, osimisk, êkwa nîpiy.
Seasonal words for winter, spring,
summer, and fall –
pipon, miyoskamin,
nîpin, êkwa takwâkin.
Weather words like snow and rain,
sunshine and wind –
mispon êkwa kimiwan,
wâsêskwan êkwa yôtin.
More food words like cookie,
tomato, and cheese –
kihci-okiniy, êkwa
Nature words for lake, mountain,
prairie –
sâkahikan, asinîwaciy,
How to say picnic and camping –
papâ-mîcisowin êkwa kapêsiwin.
How we always picked bottles
when we went picnicking or camping –
kâkikê ê-kî-môsâhkinamâhk
môtêyâpiskwa ispî
ahpô ê-nitawi-kapêsiyâhk.
How the sky is blue just now,
when it’s been grey for so long.
sîpihkonâkwan mêkwâc kîsik
mâka kinwês ê-kî-pihkonâkwahk.
I want to hear words for car and canoe
and toboggan and cradleboard –
sêhkêpayîs êkwa cîmân
napakitâpânâsk êkwa tihkinâkan.
Baby, boy, girl, man, and woman –
oskawâsis, nâpêsis, iskwêsis, nâpêw, êkwa iskwêw.
Kinship terms like mother and father –
nikâwiy êkwa nôhtâwiy.
Grandmother and grandfather –
nôhkom êkwa nimosôm.
My little siblings, sister and brother –
nîcisânak, nimis êkwa nistês.
Auntie and uncle –
nikâwis êkwa nôhcâwîs.
If only I had stopped long enough
to say “my girl” or “my boy” –
“nitânis” êkwa “nikosis”.
Words for old woman and old man –
nôcokwêsîs êkwa kisêyinîs.
Words for hard and soft,
loud and quiet –
ê-maskawâk êkwa ê-yôskâk
ê-sôhkihtâkwahk êkwa
Words for the ground is hard –
the silence is loud –
ê-sôhkihtâkwahk kipihtowêwin,
your voice soft and quiet –
ê-miyotâmoyan êkwa ê-kâmwâtahk.
You always spoke so softly
like a steady rain on parched land.
kâkikê ê-ki-manâcimiyâhk
tâpiskôc kimiwan,
itê ê-pâhkwahcâk.
Maybe that’s why you sound
so far away now –
kiyâwihtâkosin êkwa anohc.
Verbs for listening and persevering –
ê-nitohtawiyan êkwa ê-âhkamêyihtamohiyan,
and loving and raising children –
ê-kî-sâkihiyâhk êkwa
kiya êkwa nikâwînân
Words for birth and death and funeral –
ê-kî-miyo-pimâtisiyan, mâka
ispîhk ê-kî-kisipipayiyan
êkwa kikî-âstêsinin kitaywêpiwinihk.
Verbs for kind and just
and humble and soft-spoken –
êkwa ê-kî-kwayaskwâtisiyan,
êkwa ê-kî-pêyâhtakowêyan.
The verb for soft-hearted –
and how you had a soft spot
in your heart for all
Cree people –
kahkiyaw nêhiyawak.
Verbs for generous and caring –
ê-kî-sawêyimacik êkwa ê-kî-nâkatêyimacik.
Words for thoughtful and oh,
such good Cree speech –
tahtwâw ê-kî-nêhiyawêyan.
Words for being so good
at so many things –
ê-kî-nahîyan mistahi kîkway.
Words for sadness and regret –
nipîkiskâtisin êkwa kikîsinâtêyihtamâtin.
Because sickness stole your speech
and I came too late to listen –
osâm kitâhkosiwin
kipîkiskwêwin ê-kimotamâkoyan
êkwa ê-kî-mwêstasisiniyân
Yet now you’re whispering
and I’m listening –
mâka êkwa anohc âta ê-kîmwêyan

. . .
Like Bead on a String
Like an umbilical cord, the rainbow
connects sky to earth:
mother and child hold each other close.
tâpiskôc otisiyêyâpiy pîsimwêyâpiy
ê-itâpêkamohtât askîhk kîsikohk ohci
ê-âkwaskitinitocik awâsis êkwa okâwîmâw.
Like a rawhide rope, the vocal cords
secure the gift of story and song:
grandfather and grandchild hold each other close.
tâpiskôc pîsâkanâpiy pîkiskwêyâpîsa
ê-tipahpitahk miyikowisiwin âcimowin êkwa nikamowin
ê-âkwaskitinitocik mosôm êkwa ôsisima
Like a bead on a string, my great-grandmother
sits next to her kin just long enough
for me to reach for her hands.
tâpiskôc kâ-tâpisahoht mîkis, nitâniskotâpân
apîstawêw owâhkômâkana nahiyikohk
kici-têpinamwak ocihciya.
. . .
ihkatawâw ay-itwêhiwêw – The Marsh Sends a Message
Reeds breathe and I sense
that in this wet world
the breath utters a language
not yet lost, whispers words
not yet forgotten
cries a marsh message
that must be heard. âniskowaskwa
speak to me of kinosêw,
sâkahikan, manitow-sâkahikan,
êkwa nipiy. Reeds
confident and eloquent
ê-sôhkêyimocik êkwa ê-nihtâwêcik
tell me a story
âniskowaskwa, fluid and flowing
a fluent kind of knowing,
whispering a story about this great land.
ê-kîmwêcik, ê-âtotahkik ôma kihci-askiy.

. . .
Naomi McIlwraith is an educator, poet, and essayist, with a mixed Cree, Ojibwe, Scottish, and English inheritance. Most recently at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, she has also held instructional positions at the University of Alberta and the King’s University College.
The poet here explores linguistic identity – loss and discovery, family history, belonging – as she experiments with two languages: Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin) and English (âkayâsîmowin – “English” in Cree).
The poems above were selected from Kiyâm: Poems by Naomi McIlwraith,© 2012, and published by AU Press, Athabasca University, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
. . . . .

Rita Bouvier: Nakamowin’sa kahkiyaw ay’sînôwak kici / Wordsongs for all human beings

Gabriel Dumont, Métis Leader, photographed by Orlando Scott Goff, around 1886-1888


Rita Bouvier ( Île-à-la-Crosse (Sakittawak), Saskatchewan )

that was a long time ago, and here we are today


that was a long time ago

and here we are today


listen, listen

the heart of the land beats


our children curious

as all children are

will ask the right questions


why does a nation take up arms

in a battle knowing it will lose?

knowing it will lose


listen, listen

the heart of the land beats


when the long night turns to day

remember, hope is the morning

a songbird’s prayer

.     .     .

I am created

(for my father, Emile)


I am created by a natural bond

between a man and a woman,

but this one, is forever two.

one is white, the Other, red.

a polarity of being, absorbed

as one.  I am nature with clarity.


against my body, white rejects red

and red rejects white.  instinctively,

I have learned to love – I have learned to live

though the politics of polarity

is never far away.  still, I am

waiting, waiting.

.     .     .

a spider tale


behind the shed

in the tall yellow grass

a cardboard box

is my make-believe home

no one can see me

but I can see


their comings

and goings

my auntie Albertine

is washing clothes today

and needs the power

of my long arms

and lanky legs

to haul pails and pails

of water from the lake


I watch

as she searches for me

mumbles something about

kihtimigan – that lazy one

walks back inside the house

and out again

calling my name


when I appear

out of nowhere

she looks relieved to see me

nitânis, tânitê oma î kîtotîyin?”

my daughter, where in the world have you been?”

I tell her –

I was here all along


what I don’t tell her is

that I have been spinning tales

trying to understand

the possibility of…

myself as a spider

all legs

travelling here and there

with disturbing speed

my preoccupation with food

my home a web

so intricate and fragile

yet strong as sinew


today I remembered

not as sure footed

as I would like to be

someone calling my name

I lost my footing

falling, falling

.     .     .

we say we want it all


we fight amongst ourselves

jealous, one of us is standing.


there are no celebrations

for brave deeds among the chaos, instead


we joing the banner call for rights

forgetting an idea from the past –


responsibility.  we join the march

for freedom, forgetting an idea


from the past – peace keeping.

we say we want, want it all


a piece of the action we know destroys

our home – our relations with each other


we are mired so deep, drowning

in our own thinking, thinking


we too could have it all, if only…

if only we could see ourselves

Louis Riel's two children, Jean-Louis and Angelique, age 6 and 5_photographed at Steele and Wings studio in Winnipeg_around 1888Louis Riel’s two children, Jean-Louis and Angélique, ages 6 and 5, photographed at Steele and Wings studio in Winnipeg, 1888


Riel is dead, and I am alive


I listen passively while strangers

claim monopoly of the truth.

one claims Riel is hero

while the other insists Riel was mad.


I can feel a tension rising, a sterile talk

presenting the life of a living people,

sometime in eighteen eighty five.

now, some time in nineteen ninety five


a celebration of some odd sort.

I want to scream.  listen you idiots,

Riel is dead! and I am alive!

instead, I sit there mute and voiceless.


the truth unravelling, as academics

parade their lines, and cultural imperialists

wave their flags.  this time the gatling gun

is academic discourse, followed


by a weak response of political rhetoric.

all mumbo-jumbo for a past that is

irreconcilable.  this much I know

when I remember – I remember


my mother – her hands tender, to touch

my grandmother – her eyes, blue, the sky

my great grandmother – a story, a star gazer

who could read plants, animals and the sky.

.     .     .

that’s three for you


a young man came to me one day wanting

to understand me – the distance between

separate worlds, his and mine, his and mine.

surely, he begged, we could forsake the past

for the future, yours and mine, yours and mine.


I listened intently trying to find

the right words to say, to reassure him

my intentions, telling my story – the same.

I told him perhaps the past remembered

holds our future, yours and mine, yours and mine.


I wish it was easy to forget

as it is writing this poem for you.

I wish I could believe, I wish we could

break this damn cycle of separate worlds.

I wish I wish I wish.  that’s three for you.

.     .     .

last night at Lydia’s


Celtic toe-tapping fiddle

Red River jigging rhythm

runs in my veins

a surge like lightning


that testosterone

in the mix tonight.

ohhhh, it feels good

to be alive


plaid shirted, tight blue jeans

good-looking, knows it kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


pony-tailed, dark skinned

women in arm kind-a-man

your hurt my eyes


rugged, canoe-paddling

handsome kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


muscle busting, v-necked

silver buckled kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


cool leathered, scotch-sipping

drinking kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


quiet wire-rimmed

spectacled kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


you – you – you –

holding my hand kind-a-man

ohhhh, you hurt my eyes

Shane Yellowbird_Cree country-music singer from Alberta


hand on hand


we made a pact but you were only three.

I was so much older I should have known

better.  I promised then to take care of you

as long as my hands were bigger than yours.


in return, you promised to take care of

me, when your hands would grow bigger than mine.

today, you came to me wanting to measure

your hand against mine;  I said, go away


your hands growing way, way too fast for me.

just then, a thick fog descended across

the street.  you ran into it curious

unafraid, unaware you were disappearing


with every step you took.  I ran after you

trying as best as I could to hold on

with you in sight, letting go at each step.

hand on hand we made a pact, you were three.

.     .     .

wordsongs of a warrior


what is poetry?  how do I explain

this affliction to my mother

in the language she understands,

words strung together, woven

pieces of memory, naming

and telling the truth in a way

that dances, swings and sways


why the subject of my poetry

is sometimes difficult to deliver

why my subjects are terrorized

even controversial, why

the subjects are the essence

of my own being – close to the bone.


nakamowin’sa   wordsongs

kahkiyaw ay’sînôwak kici   for all human beings

ta sohkihtama  kipimâsonaw   to give strength on this journey

kitahtawî ayis êkwa   one of these days, for sure now

kam’skâtonanaw   we will find each other

.     .     .

when the silence breaks


I am a reluctant speaker

violence not just a physical thing.


words are one thing

I can hold them in my hand

later embroider them

like you do fine silk

on white deer hide

if I want.

but dead silence

that’s another matter

there is nothing to hold on to

like the falling

before you awaken.


I imagine it this way, simply

kitahtawî êkwa

one of these days now

when the silence breaks

the deer will stop in their tracks

pausing eyes wide

the wolverine will roll over and over

on the hillside, and

you will hear my voice

as if for the first time

distant and then melodic

and you will recognize it

as your very own.

kitahtawî êkwa

.     .     .

a ritual for goodbye

(in memory of Albertine)


walking the shoreline

this crisp spring morning

in our matching

red-line rubber boots

my cousin and I

are reminiscing

the days gone by


I remember first

one early spring

the water so low

we could get

from one island

to the next

our clothes piled high

over our heads


she remembers then

no human debris

like there is now

just the odd

piece of driftwood

she reminded me

we wondered then

where it came from

a guessing game


walking the shoreline

this crisp spring morning

our walk is certain

clinging close

to what we know best

this shoreline, this bond,

we don’t speak of the fact

that our aunt is dying

.     .     .

earthly matters


when I came to your grave site

late last fall, a chill in the air,

I was feeling sorry for myself.

I came looking for a sign

one might say it was –

guidance on earthly matters.


lifting my face skyward

I found nothing but blue sky.

I searched the horizon,

it was then I discovered

a la Bouleau in the distance.

I smiled, recalling

that walk we took

through the new cemetery

on a break from city life.

you didn’t want to be buried

near the saints anyway,

roped in, in a chain-link fence.

you were pointing out,

as if it were a daily business

family plots here and there.

best of all, you claimed

you had selected the ideal plot

for yourself and your family,

a la Bouleau in the distance.

.     .     .

All poems © Rita Bouvier – from her Thistledown Press collection entitled Papîyâhtak.   In the Cree language Papîyâhtak means:  to act in a thoughtful way,  a respectful way,  a joyful way,  a balanced way.


Rita Bouvier is a journeyer who searches along the way.  Her poems are unafraid to take chances;  they are complex in emotion, unsparing in intellect.  Papîyâhtak includes a number of poems written for actors in The Batoche Musical which was conceived and developed by a theatre and writers’ collective and performed at Back to Batoche Days in Batoche, Saskatchewan.  The poem That was a long time ago, and we are here today was inspired by an essay written by South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

.     .     .

Gabriel Dumont (1837 – 1906) was a leader of the Métis people in what is now the province of Saskatchewan.  It was Dumont who brought the exiled Louis Riel (1844 – 1885) back to Canada to pressure Canadian authorities to recognize the Métis as a Nation.  Sharpshooter with a rifle, Dumont was Riel’s chief right-hand man and he led the Métis forces in the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion – as Ottawa-centric history books described it) of 1885.

Louis Riel was one of the towering Hero figures of Canadian history.  For more on Riel – and a letter/poem he wrote to Sir John A. Macdonald, his ideological opposite – (along with a letter/poem addressed to Macdonald by contemporary Métis poet Marilyn Dumont) – click the following ZP link for January 11th, 2012:


.     .     .     .     .

“Nêhiyâwin” / “The Cree Way” – as told by Harry Blackbird

Cree Elder Harry Blackbird

(born in the 1920s at Waterhen Lake First Nation,

roots in Makwa Sahgaiehcan (Loon Lake) First Nation, Saskatchewan, Canada)



Pêyakwâw êsa mîna ê-nanipât awa pêyak kisîyiniw, kâ-pawâtât onôtokwêma ê-pê-kiyokâkot. nikotwâsik askîy aspin ê-kî-nakataskîyit. êkwa ôma êkwa otahcahkwa kâ- pê-kiyokêyit. mitoni pîkwêyihtam êsa awa kisiyiniw, êkwa ôma ê-kamwâcipayit, ê- simatapit. nohtê-kiskêyihtam ôma, tânêhki kâ-pê-itohtêyit.


Mâci-pîkiskwêyiwa êsa ê-itikot, “ê-pê-itisahot ôma Mâmawi-ohtâwîmâw ta-pê- wihtamâtân kîkway. ana ohci oskinikîs kâ-kî-nakataskît ôta namôya kayâs.


Ispî kâ-takohtêt ôtê ahcahk-askîhk, pê-nakiskâk oskâpêwisa ê-kiskinohtahikot ê- wêhcasiniyik mêskanaw. pêyakwâyak anita, nîswâyak paski-môniyâw ôma mêskanaw nistam anima kihciniskêhk k-êsi-paskêmok mêskanaw, êyako pimitisahamwak. êyako mîna mitoni miywâsin ta-pimitisahamihk. piyisk kêtahtawê k-ôtihtahkik ita ê-ayâwiht tâskôc ê-wâ-wîkihk. sêmâk ôhi wîci-oskâya pêyakwan ê-ispihcisiyit, kâ-pê-nakiskâkot, êkoni ôhi osk-âya mêtoni nanâkatohkâtik.


Kâ-mâci-pîkiskwâtikot ôhi oskâya ê-nêhiyawêyit. mâka namôya nisitohtawêw awa oskinikîs tânisi ê-itwêyit âta wîsta ê-nêhiyawêt. ahpô mîna apihkêw tâskôc mâna ôki nêhiyawak mitoni kâ-pimitisahakik onêhiyâwininiwâw. pîkwêyihtam ê-wanihkêt awa oskinîkîs. âsamîna sipwêhtahik oskâpêwisa kotak êkwa anima mêskanaw ita kâ-kî- ohtohtêcik.


Êyako mîna ôma mêskanaw miywâsin êkwa wêhcasin ta-pimitisahamihk. otihtamwak wâskahikana ita câh-cîki ê-wâh-wîkihk. âsamîna êkota kotaka osk-âya pê- nakiskâk mâka êkwa ôki oskâyak namôya cîki pê-nâtik, wâhyawês ohci osâpamik, ê- pômênâkosicik ê-kanawâpamâcik ôhi oskinîkîsa ê-nêhiyâwinâkosiyit. nanitohtawêw ê- kîmôci-pîkiskwêyit. âtiht piko kîkway kâh-kahcicihtam. êkoni êkwa nisitohtawêw oskâya osâm piko ê-âkayâsîmocik, mâka namôya tâpwê cîkêyimik k-îsi-waskawîyit. mâmisihow, ê-pa-pêyakot ê-nitaw-mâmitonêyihtahk tânêhki êkâ nânitaw kâ-kî-wîcihiwêt.


Âsamîna êkota ohci sipwêhtahik oskâpêwisa awa oskinîkîs, mâka êkwa êkotê nakatik ita kâ-nîso-paskêmoniyiki mêskanawa, otahcahkwa ê-wanisiniyit mîna ê- papâmâcihoyit êkotê nâyiwâc osâm êkâ ê-ohci-kiskinohamâsot mîna êkâ ohci- wawîyêstahk onêhiyâwiwin mêkwâc ôta askîhk ê-pimâtisit.”


“Hâw, kisêyiniw”, itwêw awa nôtokwêw, “otahcahkwa pwâmayî-sipwêhtêt kâwi kiya êkwa piko ta-wihtamawacik, mîna t-âcimostawacik osk-âyak ôma âcimowin k-ôh-pê- itisahokawiyân ta-pê-wihtamâtân.”

“The Cree Way”:  a teaching story told by Cree Elder Harry Blackbird

Translation into English by Mary Anne Martell


One day while sleeping, an elderly man was awakened by his deceased wife of six years. She came in spirit form. The elderly man had mixed feelings about this visit but nevertheless managed to remain calm and sat up curious wondering why she had come to visit him.


She began to speak, “Listen very carefully… I have been sent by the Creator to tell you about a boy who passed away recently.

Upon entering the spirit world he was greeted by an Oskapêwis (Helper) who led the young man down an easy road to follow. At a certain point the road forked going in two directions. They first traveled down the road to the right. This road was also easy to follow. After walking for some time they came to a village. A number of young people about the same age as the youth came running towards him. The group of young people stopped to observe the new boy who’d been brought to them by the Oskapêwis.


The young people then began to speak in the language of his ancestry – Nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language). Unfortunately the young man could not make out what they were saying even though he was of the same nation; Nêhiyaw. He even had the two long braids of hair, common trademarks for Nêhiyawak who were following the Nêhiyawin (Cree worldview) way. Confused and feeling lost, the young man was quickly whisked away by the Oskapêwis towards the other road at the fork.


This new road was also easy to follow. They came upon a cluster of houses and another group of young people came towards him. Only this time these youth kept their distance with disappointment written all over their faces upon viewing his Aboriginal features. Listening to their conversation as they whispered among themselves, the young man could only make out a few words. He was able to understand these youth because they spoke English, but they obviously weren’t interested in this new boy by their behaviour. He felt betrayed, alone and wondered why he didn’t fit in.


The Oskapêwis once again whisked him away and this time left the young man at the fork of the road. His spirit is lost and wandering now because while alive he hadn’t learned to find his way.”


“Now, my husband,” the deceased wife’s spirit added just before she vanished, “it is up to you to make certain that young Indian children are told this story I have been sent here to tell you.”

.     .     .     .     .

Top photograph:   Napéu (Man)_Cree_1926 photograph by Edward Curtis

Middle photograph:   Louis Nomee, Kalispel, Montana_photograph by Richard T. Lewis_1940s

Bottom photograph:   An Elder congratulates a boy upon his completion of Grade 6 at an Awasis Day event in Edmonton, Alberta_June 2005.

Neal McLeod: “Songs to kill a Wîhtikow” ᐐᐧᐦᑎᑯᐤ

Neal McLeod

Wîhtikow *


They spoke of the time

beings broke the stillness of water

retreating from the pollution

that rested on the skin of days

kî-mistâpâwêhisocik, they drowned themselves

and the water became still


I went to a place to rest

and lay in the remnants of thunder

I collapsed in ripped and dried hollow earth

a fugitive of spent moments

which had outgrown their divinity


The old ones spoke of how the beings dug into the earth,


to retreat from the pollution on the skin of the earth

the old ones spoke of wîhtikow

who hunted dreamers, under thick, dark, coarse sun

took their prey in

like the wind of trains

draws us to the tracks



Wîhtikow wandering


wîhtikow whispers

and pulls the light from the sky

only cluttered cover, electric neon

makes my steps heavy

pass abandoned house

windows opened

no longer covered by glass

emptied of people

and stories

burned out black hollow

my body

has also known

the fire of wîhtikow

bingo caller gives false hope

white johns

circle the wagons of families

cops who drive brothers

to cold places

wîhtikow wanders

in the grey, concrete forest



Crow cross


body heavy wooden

black circling round

crow crowned head

claws extended, cutting

arms extended

wrapped into horizon

feet on hands

abrupt blood pecks

expired fright scarecrow

pulled off

hands fling free

legs fall hard

extend relaxed hand

ready legs

onto road

away from crows

remember tracks

upon skin

sing praises

black crow crying



Kôkôcîs **


plaid crumpled and folded

hidden patterns of fabric

clung around his arms

his brown, storied hands

with lines of memory

which marked events

stories, and words

reached for the chewing tobacco

which slid through the

spaces of his mouth

and with the taste of tobacco

through his tongue

which created words

moving through the room


I remember the open windows

and brown, wet roads

cars and trucks

would pull up

and people would fill the windows

with colours and movement


familiar faces and rhythms

I remember the sound of his voice

of his laugh

the eternal song

up through his mouth

added stories

and layers of memory

to the photographs

bringing old ones alive


I remember kôkôcîs

words came from him like water

formed from the shallow fog

of the early spring afternoon

the room held his voice

the voice of others

pushed through

the fold of eternity

were held in

his textured voice


kôkôcîs, kâ-kî-itiht,

the once called kôkôcîs,

was my living link

to eternity and relatives




Cree-language words:

*  wîhtikow — a being who consumes other beings – greedy, like a vampire

**  kôkôcîs  — the name of the poet’s great-grandfather




Neal McLeod is Cree (having grown up on the James Smith reserve in Saskatchewan),  and Swedish, having had the fortunate opportunity to study abroad at the Swedish Art Academy at Umeå.  He has exhibited art work throughout Canada including at the 2005 exhibition au fil de mes jours (in my lifetime) at Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec – remounted at the Museum of Civilization in 2007.  In addition to being a painter he is also a curator:  his latest project was as co-curator of the exhibition James Henderson: The Man who Paints the Old Men which was organized by the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Neal’s first book of poetry, entitled Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow, was nominated for several Saskatchewan book awards including book of the year in 2005.  It was nominated for book of the year at the Anskohk McNally Aboriginal Literature Awards, and won poetry book of the year by unanimous decision of the jurors.  In 2007 Neal published Cree Narrative Memory which was also nominated for book of the year at the Anskohk McNally Aboriginal Literature Awards.  In the fall of 2008 he published his second book of poetry entitled Gabriel’s Beach.

Neal is currently editing a volume entitled Indigenous Poetics.  In addition he is working on the following books: Dreaming Blue Horses – a novel, a collection of humour short stories entitled Neechi Hustle, 100 Days of Cree, a biography of Noel Starblanket, and a book of poetry called Casting Spells of Neechery.  He teaches Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.