Cree is the most widely spoken native language in Canada, and compared with most indigenous languages of the Americas, it's pretty healthy: About 100,000 people speak Cree, and it's passed on from older to younger generations, but it still requires a level of active intervention to maintain its vitality. For Neal McLeod, a poet and professor who grew up partly in the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, this meant posting Cree words to Facebook and beginning a conversation with people from all over, who began to contribute words from their own dialects, or from their parents.
When McLeod began posting the “Cree word of the day” on Facebook, he not only covered words like mihkopêmak (red willow), miscanikwacâs (gopher), and ocihcikiskisi (to remember things, have memories far back), but used the language’s word formation rules in creative ways to discuss words for disco (wah-wâstêwisimowin, "the dance of glimmering light"), Xerox machine (tâpasinahikêpayihcikan, "copying machine"), and Colonel Sanders (pâhkahakwân-okimaw, "the one with authority over chickens").
Now that social media project has turned into a book by McLeod and linguist Arok Wolvengrey: 100 Days of Cree. It's introduced with something “an Elder once said, ‘Learn one Cree word a day for 100 days, and emerge a different person.” The book is organized into 100 short chapters that discuss groups of related words, “some dealing with the traditional—the buffalo hunt, the seasons—and other cheekily capturing the detritus of modern life, from internet slang to Johnny Cash songs to Viagra.”
The lessons cover pizza (pwâkamo-pahkwêsikan, "the throw-up bread"), Wi-fi (kiskêyihtamowinâstan, “knowledge wind”), and how to order a double-double (nîswâw, nîswâw) at Tim Horton’s (cim-ôtan). Royalties for the book will go to a Cree language scholarship at the University of Saskatchewan. To borrow a Cree Star Wars phrase, tâpwê mamâhtâwisiw awa, “the Force is strong with this one.”