Did James Evans Invent Cree Syllabics?
James Evans was an English-Canadian Methodist missionary and amateur linguist best remembered for his creation of the syllabic writing system for Cree language (Nêhiyawêwin). But did he really invent Cree syllabics or have we just been a part of a 170 year long game of Telephone?
The answer to this question has been of interest for decades, with Winona Stevenson’s article “Calling Badger and the Symbols of the Spirit Language: The Cree Origins of the Syllabic System” exploring two conflicting accounts of the origins of the Cree syllabic system: one found in Cree oral traditions “that has long been disregarded,” and the other recorded in “primary sources and touted as the official version.”
What is most interesting to us is anthropologist Verne Dunsenbery’s observation that “the [Cree] writing does not look like anything a white man…would invent.” Especially considering that missionaries prior to James Evans used the Latin alphabet to translate Indigenous languages into written form, what we refer to today as Roman orthography. The Cree syllabary, however, is unique because it consists of a series of “triangles, angles, and hooks of various configurations each…mirrored in four directions. Each symbol depicts syllables rather than individual sounds, and to these are added a number of accent characters that represent terminal consonants and vowels.” In other words, Cree syllabics are nothing like what you’d find in Roman orthography — in sound or representation.
If we continue to pull the thread that Evans didn’t invent Cree syllabics, we find an article the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta published in 1987. In this article world-renowned researcher, Louis Buff Parry explains that no evidence can be found from Evans’ diaries or letterings that indicate he invented Cree syllabics. He continues to say that there are however Cree and Hopi legends that recount stories about a teacher-healer named Badger-Call who taught Cree syllabics long before Evans entered the picture. Parry also points to several similarities between Cree syllabics and other ancient language forms, and quotes Chief Fine Day of the Sweetgrass First Nation who said, “When the writing was given to Badger-Call he was told ‘the missionaries will change the script and will say the writing belongs to them.’”
Ultimately, we think it’s safe to question that James Evans invented Cree syllabics. As Stevenson eloquently writes, “The ‘official story’ of the Cree syllabary has taken on a mythic quality in Canadian history…the James Evans version of the origins of Cree syllabics has been propagated for so long, it has become ‘fact’ in Canadian minds. But it is only one version. The colonialist tendency to ignore or disbelieve the ability of Indigenous peoples to create remarkable engineering, scientific, and other intellectual accomplishments will continue until more challenges from Indigenous oral histories refute them.”