Linguists classify the Cree-Innu-Naskapi (formerly referred to as Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi) languages as part of a larger family of languages known as Algonquian.
Speakers of Algonquian languages stretch from the east coast of North America all the way to the Rocky Mountains. In Canada, First Nations within this language family reside in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the Prairie provinces.
The syllabic writing system now used by the Naskapis has its roots in the script developed in the 1830s by Methodist missionary James Evans.
Working among the Cree who lived near the north end of Lake Winnipeg, Evans taught some local Cree hunters how to read the syllabics; they in turn spread that knowledge to other Cree groups they encountered in their vast hunting and fishing territories.
Beginning in the mid- to late-19th century, missionaries arriving in remote northern communities sometimes found people who already knew how to read and write using syllabics. Such was the case for Bill and Norma Jean Jancewicz.
“When we came to Kawawa in the ’80s,” says Bill, “most older Naskapis could read and write their own language in syllabics. Several of the elders were also very fluent reading Moose Cree and James Bay Cree syllabic literature.”
However, it was not being taught to schoolchildren in a systematic way, and in church services, the Cree New Testament was not easy for many Naskapis to read and understand. Elders like Joe Guanish had to interpret passages as they read them, and provide oral translations for their audience.
In the late 1960s, a Wycliffe language survey determined that the Naskapi language differed enough from surrounding Cree languages to warrant its own Bible translation program. Using the Cree syllabic characters as a starting point and in consultation with Naskapi readers and writers, Bill developed a new syllabic typeface for the Naskapi language called BJCree, which has also been used by other related languages across Canada. This font was used to produce the Naskapi New Testament and other publications. With its keyboard input method, it is also being taught to local schoolchildren, adults enrolled in literacy classes and Naskapi students studying by extension through McGill University.
To view a sample of the Naskapi script, see the story “Joe’s Prayer.”
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