Michif is a language traditionally spoken by the Métis of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, across Canada, and even in North Dakota. The language has been the subject of intense discussions in linguistics because of its unique creation.
Professor Nicole Rosen of the University of Manitoba has studied Michif since she was a grad student, and has worked on an online dictionary to try to document and preserve the language. For all that makes Michif interesting and special, it has not received the attention from documentarians and revitalization efforts that it needs. It, unfortunately like so many of North America’s Indigenous languages, is on the brink of extinction. At stake is a language represents the two sides of Canadian history: the ancient history of Canada pre-contact, and the history of the settlers who arrived from Europe and moved west.
I had the great privilege to speak with Professor Rosen about this fascinating language.
Michael Iannozzi :
So what is Michif?
Nicole Rosen : Well, Michif is a language that is spoken by a subgroup of the Métis people, and it is a mixture of French and Plains Cree, but also a little English and Ojibwe too.
MI : Where did Michif come from?
NR : Near as we can tell, it was formed at the beginning of the 19th century. It was spoken by the 1820s or 1830s, and it was formed in the Red River Valley (Which is around Winnipeg). It was formed largely by French settlers marrying Indigenous women; who created a new culture—the Métis culture—and who also created a new language.
MI : That’s much earlier than I had thought it would be, had the French settlers been in that area before the 1820s, and just not started to create this culture until then?
NR : There may have been a group before then, but the earliest records we have of the language is from that time. There were certainly traces of this language and culture before then, but it wasn’t until about the 1820s that this group was referred to collectively as a community called the Metis, or the Red River Metis. It wasn’t until then that we have a clear record of the Métis creating their own culture, and their own identity; that may not started start until the 1820s when settlers started coming this far west.
MI : And so today where would we find speakers of Michif?
NR : There are speakers in Manitoba in a few communities like Camperville, San Clara, and around Binscarth. There are other Métis communities with speakers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and North Dakota. In the 1870s and 1880s the Métis were dispersed—or it may be more appropriate to say they fled the Red River Valley due to rebellions and battles. So they dispersed across the Prairies. The battle of 1885 is really the one that marked the end of the Métis settlements in the Red River Valley, Louis Riel was hanged, and the Michif language and Métis culture went into hiding after that.
Before that the Métis actually had a pretty good place in society because they were bi-cultural, multilingual, they knew their way around the land, and they often attended school, so they could trade between the groups of settlers and Indigenous peoples. Because of their dual heritage, they could often get along with either community : the First Nations or the settlers.
MI : So before 1885 they could be a part of both communities, and then after 1885 they weren’t really a part of either one?
NR : Yes, unfortunately then they really went into hiding, and it is really from that point that the Métis really begin to be marginalized. Also at that time, more and more French Quebecois were being recruited to settle the west: Quebecois who weren’t of “mixed blood”, and these new settlers really contributed to the marginalization of these “mixed” people.
MI : If the language went “underground” in a sense, that makes it all the more interesting that it was able to survive. The speakers were dispersed across the Prairies, and yet the language was able to survive.
NR : The Michif language really went into hiding. It was only spoken at home, it was not the language the Métis tended to use elsewhere. And there were some Métis communities that, after they spread out, they really just tried not to mix with the other communities to keep their culture alive. Part of the other side of their persecution and isolation is that their underground culture, and marginalized status, meant that they sometimes avoided being sent to residential schools. The residential schools tended to target the reservations, and a lot of Métis just lived out in the bush, off the land, and so some were able to keep their language, and avoid bringing attention to themselves. Certainly not all, or even most, but some were able to do this because they were so dispersed and remote.
MI : So would you say that that is part of the reason they were able to keep their language alive? Because they did keep themselves to themselves, and did try to avoid being a part of too many other communities?
NR : I think so. I mean, this is kind of a huge generalization. Because of the dispersed and multicultural nature of the Métis people, they are very diverse in their histories and experiences. This makes it very hard to generalize, or even say that something usually happened a certain way. Especially because Michif is just one of the languages of the Métis. They also speak a Métis variety of French, and a Métis variety of Cree, among other languages, and so when you try to describe this thing called Michif, it is somewhat ambiguous. Linguists know Michif as this “mixed” language [A creole is a language developed between two groups who develop a pidgin or simplified way of communicating, and eventually develops into a language. A mixed language develops thorough two languages intertwining because the groups are almost completely bilingual]. However, the Métis people see Michif as any one of several languages.
MI : So if you were to estimate, how many speakers would you say there are today?
NR : Our best estimates are a few hundred; however, we don’t really know because a speaker can check Michif on the census, but, as I said, Michif means three different languages, and so we don’t know which language people who say they speak Michif necessarily mean. Even when Michif is included in the census (2011), the numbers it comes out with are kind of meaningless unless you also know which language the speakers are referring to—a speaker can check the Michif box, but what does that mean: Michif French, Michif Cree, or the mixed Michif [There were 640 respondents in 2011’s census who reported Michif as a Mother Language].
MI : So when a Romance language (French) and an Algonquian First Nations language (Plains Cree) mix, what does that end up looking like?
NR : Well, people have differing views on what it looks like, but overall, it does look like it has a heavy influence from French, but it is mostly Plains Cree. The nouns and adjectives tend to come from French, and most of the verbs tend to come from Plains Cree. That’s very broadly speaking: in reality it isn’t exactly that cleanly split.
MI : Would someone who speaks French understand Michif better or worse than someone who speaks Cree?
NR : Someone who speaks Cree will understand Michif a little better than someone who speaks French, but it would still be very difficult. However, I do think the language, as a whole, is more like an Algonquian (First Nations) language than a Romance language like French. However, there is a large number of French words incorporated into it, and even sounds that exist in French, but not in Plains Cree, have become a part of Michif.
MI : So how did you first begin studying Michif? How did you even first hear about it?
NR : I think in the past most people hadn’t even heard of Michif—even here in Winnipeg. I think that is less true now, but it is still not widely known about. It was actually during my Master’s in French linguistics at the University of Toronto that I first heard of Michif. I had always been interested in French in contact with other languages, such as when it creates Creoles [like in the Caribbean].
When one studies languages in contact, there is always a section that covers “mixed languages”, and it is always the same example for a mixed language: Michif. There are others, but that is the one that is most commonly used as the example of a mixed language. I thought to myself, “Really? This is spoken here, in Canada, by the Métis people? I’m from Winnipeg, they speak Michif around there? I’ve never heard of it—I have to go and find out what this thing is.” That was really what started it all. I found out about Michif, and then I called the Manitoba Métis Federation when I was doing my Master’s, and I just asked if anyone spoke Michif, or if they could tell me anything about the language. It turns out they had just begun developing a Michif Language Project, and I started collaborating with them, which I continue to do today. It just all worked out.
[Here is a video of a Michif speaker singing “oh where, oh where has my little dog gone”. Credit : Manitoba Métis Foundation]
Thank you sincerely to Professor Nicole Rosen for her time and fascinating insight into the Michif language. Professor Rosen has done significant work with Métis elders who speak Michif in creating an online dictionary, and making recordings available on a linguistic atlas of the Algonquian languages here [An amazing and fun website to see where the speakers are across Canada]. Importantly, her work has involved listening to the Métis communities’ needs and goals in helping to revitalize and document their own language…or, as we’ve learned, languages.
The Métis have had a very different path toward the formation of that culture and community than many other groups. Their language and culture is young, and it has already had more than its fair share of trials and strife, yet the Métis culture, and the Michif languages continue to be celebrated today. Hopefully this fascinating language, that played such an important role in Canada’s history, will survive long into the future.
Prof. Rosen has provided several resources so you can learn more about Métis culture and Michif languages:
The Gabriel Dumont Institute
Louis Riel Institute
The Michif Language Project
The Michif Language Dictionary
Remember to be proud of the languages you speak. Your heritage has a language attached, and you should be proud of what makes you unique.
Take care eh,