Neal McLeod explores the Cree language with new book

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In 100 Days of Cree, published in June by the University of Regina Press, author Neal McLeod makes a departure from his previous work.

McLeod – poet, painter, “bingo caller” and Indigenous Studies professor at Trent University – previously wrote collections of poems. His newest release centres on preserving, promoting and reinvigorating the Cree language, but he insists the poetry lives within the language.

“We were translating Pulp Fiction into Cree and there’s a line like ‘She’s a funky dancer’. The Cree word we used literally translates to ‘the way she dances, she knows something you’ll never know’ – how can you not be a poet when that’s your language?”

McLeod believes this artistic “spark” is at the heart of all Indigenous languages. “There’s an artist inside every Indigenous person,” he suggests.

The inspiration f100 Days of Cree coveror 100 Days of Cree came about quite organically. “I was a relative latecomer to Facebook. As soon as I started posting in Cree, people would comment and add layers of meaning to the words,” McLeod told the Nation.


McLeod regularly posts words in Cree on Facebook. He sees the use of social media as an imperative in reaching a generation that’s “rapidly seeing people with that ancestral knowledge move on to the spirit world.”

Another way of reaching out was updating the language for the youth of today. “When I was writing the book, I realized that Cree isn’t just a language of the past, it’s a language to describe the world around you,” said McLeod.

There are days dedicated to Star Wars, KFC, Facebook/Internet slang and Tim Hortons in the book. As you can probably tell by the aforementioned chapter titles, there’s a good-natured feeling to the book, and a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.

But the book also serves as a window into an ancestral language, and by virtue of that, their consciousness. McLeod recalls a feeling of communion with the places and people of his ancestral past. “When I first started posting [on Facebook], people would reach out and tell me stories about family and friends who taught me Cree and share words that they never got to tell me.”

But the connections to the past go back generations. “Each word is like a piece of a puzzle,” said McLeod, recounting a particularly difficult word to translate. “This one Cree band is called Thunderchild after an old chief. The name can actually be translated as a place where a water-being grabbed a thunderbird. The band isn’t located anywhere close to this place anymore but their name in Cree is still literally translated as ‘the place where that sound exists.’

“The language is like a treasure map… [and if that’s the case] then it’s every Cree’s birthright to recover that ancestral sound,” said McLeod.

100 Days of Cree bear100 Days of Cree Star Wars

Reading the book, I discovered the physicality and geography present in the language, but there’s an inherent spiritualism to it as well, an encoded animism, a way of looking at the world that I came to see as magic. In modern western discourse, there’s a separation of the spiritual and physical. It’s an idea McLeod thinks his ancestors would scoff at. “They’d be laughing their heads off at that.”

But in reading the book I came to an understanding of how threatening this connection would have been to the colonial agenda, and why the colonial mechanisms tried to sever this connection. If you could spiritually separate the people from their land there’d be less resistance to the exploitation of said lands. In Cree the word used to describe the colonial legacy translates to: when it all went wrong.

“Why do you think it is that so many of us are struggling?” asks McLeod. “We need to reconnect with our ancestral selves.”

Even McLeod, who is fluent in his Indigenous language, isn’t immune to feeling separated from his ancestral knowledge. He used an anecdote of a summer job in his youth to illustrate the problem.

“One day, we knew German tourists were coming and were told to go out in the field and pitch a teepee. As you know, our German friends have a crazed admiration for neechies’ and we didn’t want to let them down. We ran out to the field, but once we were there, we all took a deep breath. I asked them all if there was anyone who knew how to pitch a teepee. With the grim realization that we had been worn down by years of colonialism, we all looked to the ground, searching for answers that seemed to elude us.”

The story has a happy resolution – a man named Joseph Naytowhow rode in on a horse and helped the boys pitch the teepee. But McLeod recommends for those feeling separated from their ancestral knowledge, to go out and “find your own bannock-making Mr. or Mrs. Miyagi and visit them. We need the youth to go out and visit with these knowledge keepers.”

100 Days of Cree is very accessible, even for someone like myself who couldn’t speak a word of it going in. It provides context and layers of meaning for the Cree language and it inspired me to reconnect with my own Indigenous languages, Mohawk and Mi’kmaq. I’d recommend it to all Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

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