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Cree dictionary a life-long goal of Catholic sister

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Yvonne Irene Gladue, Sweetgrass Writer, EDMONTON







Page 11

After 25 years in the making, the Alberta Elders Cree Dictionary is finished.

According to Dr. Earle Waugh, editor of the book, Sister Nancy LeClaire began to compile information for the dictionary more than a quarter of a century ago, and that work was recently completed by Elder George Cardinal.

LeClaire's goal was to provide the public with a chance to study a language that she believed to be expressive and important to Canadians. Much of her original work was written in pencil in a ring binder. LeClaire had a belief that the Cree language was important, and she was concerned that it was dying.

It was during a conference on Aboriginal religious traditions that Waugh first met Sister LeClaire. At the time, he was chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. She expressed a need for a Cree language dictionary and asked him if he would help her write one.

"She was very persuasive when she fixed her bright brown eyes on you and asked if something could be done" said Waugh.

Nancy LeClaire was born Nancy Lightening in Pigeon Lake, Alta. on Nov. 11, 1911. She became a member of the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 26, 1936. She later took on the name LeClaire, which means "clear" in French.

Sister LeClaire began her career as a teacher. Her first job was in Quebec, but her vocation led her to different provinces and eventually back to her hometown of Hobbema, Alta.

She originally planned to write a dictionary by using most of the Cree dialects of Canada, but found that it was too complex to do, so she settled mainly on Alberta's Cree dialect, said Waugh.

With funding from the Samson Band in Hobbema and from other sponsors they started to write the dictionary. While in the hospital shortly before her death, she asked Waugh to continue on with the project.

Sister LeClair was 75 years old when she died in 1986 and only reached the letter 'N'. So using LeClaire's notes, and with the help of a number of Cree speaking people, Waugh began to piece the dictionary together.

In 1990, Waugh approached George Cardinal and hired him as author of the remaining letters in the dictionary. Cardinal worked on the project as a translator for eight years.

"Cree is the first language I used. It was the only language my parents used," he said. He has a copy of the dictionary and has gone over each word to make sure that it is written as it should be.

"I was honored to help with the dictionary," said Cardinal. "I have one thing to say about the editor of this book. He is a wonderful person who has the Aboriginal people's best interest at heart."

Although other Cree dictionaries have been written, "this dictionary may be a bit different, because although the Cree language is the same, some words are always going to be pronounced differently, " said Cardinal.

There are three sections in the dictionary. The first is the Cree/English section where commonly used words are included with alternative words or spellings between Northern Cree and Plains Cree.

The second section is English to Cree where a short Cree explanation of the word is given where a direct translation is impossible.

The final section includes new words and translations, because in many cases, there aren't words in the Cree language for use of today's technologies or new inventions, such as astronaut or vacuum cleaner, cellular phone or VLT.

Cardinal spent years in a convent where Grade 8 was the highest grade available. He completed that grade at the age of 13, but stayed until the age of 16.

"At that time, everyone was told they had to remain in the convent until they were 16," he said. So for three years he did work as a laborer there. For most of his life he worked as a logger in British Columbia's forest before moving to Edmonton. He is now enjoying his retirement. He is 77 years old.