Learning Cree for Fun and Profit

1846 Fort, 1885 Street, Featured News

Megan and Todd ThumbnailAs a quick follow-up to our last blog post congratulating the community of Maskwacis for returning to their traditional name, we thought it might be fun to list a few other Cree words and places you might find them around Edmonton.

The Cree are the largest Aboriginal group in Canada, today inhabiting traditional territory that stretches from northern Quebec to the Prairie Provinces and down into the United States.

Learning Cree was profitable for the residents of Fort Edmonton, as represented by our 1846 Fort exhibit. . Within the walls of this trading post you’ll encounter Company labourers and clerks whose livelihood often depended on how well they picked up the local language: nàªhiyawàªwin or Cree. This not only helped them with trading with the Nehiyawak (Cree-speaking peoples) around Edmonton, but also in their everyday lives at the post. Since the fort inhabitants were a motley mix of Métis (both Anglophone and Francophone), French-speaking Canadiens, Gaelic-speaking or heavily accented Orkneymen and Scots, among others – it often made sense for this polyglot to use Cree as their lingua franca , or common language.


As you may have read, Maskwacis means ‘Bear Hills.’ Maskwa, or bear, can also be found in the name of the noted Cree leader, Mistahimaskwa or Big Bear, after whom a park is named in southern Edmonton.

Edmonton was known as the amiskwaciy-wà¢skahikan, or Beaver Hills House. ‘Amisk,’ or beaver, was the most common trade item. Amiskwaciy Academy in Edmonton also reflects the ‘Beaver Hills’ name.

Another common trade item was meat and grease (fat) from the paskwà¢wi-mostos or bison, for turning into pimihkan or pemmican!

Around Christmas time, you might hope that someone had shot a niska , or goose, for you to dine on. The community of Nisku, Alberta derives its name from this tasty fowl.

An iskwàªw or woman played a vital role at Fort Edmonton partly because of her production of the maskisin, or moccasin, called a ‘tracking shoe’ for its use during boat-tracking up and down the kisiskà¢ciwani-sà®piyor North Saskatchewan River. The river and province are named after this Cree word that means “swiftly flowing waters” – also referenced in the name of the community of Swift Current!

2013 Gwen L'Hirondelle - Cropped


Come down to Fort Edmonton Park this summer and you will find costumed interpreters in the 1846 Fort happy to help you learn to speak or write a few words in Cree – especially if they have a chance to share the easy-to-learn syllabics with you, or discuss michif! On 1885 Street, members of the Métis Erasmus or Macdonald/Rowland families might do the same if you greet them with a hearty tansi or ‘hello!’

*Special thanks to former Fort interpreter Naomi McIlwraith for her special sessions for staff on Cree language and syllabics!