The History of Michif

Michif is one outgrowth of long contact between Cree and Ojibwa speakers and francophone traders. Their offspring — the Métis — are said to have created the language on the Plains in the early 1800s by blending varieties of French and Cree — French Michif (or Métis French) and Plains Cree.

Historically, the Michif language was spoken mainly by Métis bison hunters at their wintering camps (see Buffalo Hunt). Although not spoken by all Métis (wealthy Métis, and many fishers, farmers and ranchers did not speak Michif), it became the language of the Métis people over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Michif is also sometimes called Cree Michif (or Métis Cree). This label is a means of distinguishing this particular language from other Métis languages that are also sometimes simply referred to as Michif, such as French Michif. The term Michif also sometimes refers to the Métis people themselves — the word stemming from the Plains pronunciation of Métif, meaning “of mixed blood.” In this article, Michif refers specifically to the Cree Michif language unless otherwise specified.

Language Structure

Once dismissed as “poor French” or a disorderly mix of elements, Michif exhibits a complex language structure, which suggests that the people who spoke it were bilingual in Cree and French; they may have also spoken other languages including Ojibwa. Today, however, few Michif speakers can understand or speak those languages fluently.

Michif typically consists of French nouns, numerals, articles and adjectives, combined with Cree syntax, verb structures, demonstratives, question words and personal pronouns. Possessives, prepositions and negative elements come from both languages. The following examples of Michif phrases illustrate how French and Cree are combined in a unique way to create the language:

English

Michif

Good afternoon

Bonn apray mijii

It is a nice day

Miiyoukiishikaw

What sort of meat is this?

kel sorte de viaan oma

I like fish

Li pwesoon nimiyaymow

Written System

There is no standardized spelling system for Michif. What this means is that Michif-speaking communities spell words as they are pronounced in regional dialects, creating much variation in spelling. Aside from local language differences, lack of a uniform spelling system can be attributed to Michif’s history as an oral language.

There are a few spelling systems that currently exist, including the Turtle Mountain spelling used in North Dakota in the United States (the first system developed) and others created by linguists such as Rita Flamand, Robert Papen and Norman Fleury.

Language Use

Michif is still spoken in areas where Métis bison hunters once wintered, such as around the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle rivers (Manitoba), the Qu’Appelle valley (Saskatchewan) and the Grand Coteau du Missouri (North Dakota).

According to data from Statistics Canada in 2011, there are 640 people who reported Michif as their mother tongue in Saskatchewan (40.6 per cent of those speakers live in this province), Manitoba (26.6 per cent) and Alberta (11.7 per cent).

Most Métis do not speak Michif, having grown up in settings where English or French dominated, such as at home or at places of business, or at residential school, where children were forced to abandon their Indigenous tongue.

Michif persistence, however, is one indicator of the temporal depth and historical distinctiveness of Métis cultural traditions. With probably less than 1,000 Michif speakers in Canada, language revitalization efforts are underway by Métis communities. In 1998, Heritage Canada provided the Métis National Council with funding to work towards Michif preservation. The Manitoba Métis Federation and the Métis Resource Centre, among others, have also produced Michif dictionaries and language programs.

Other Métis Languages

Michif is the most commonly spoken and most well-known Métis language, but it is not the only one. Métis people have spoken other unique languages that mix elements of French, English and Indigenous languages — some of which are still spoken today.

French Cree

In the northern Saskatchewan village of Île-à-la-Crosse and neighbouring communities, including Buffalo Narrows, some of the Métis residents speak a language that is mostly Woods Cree with some French words. Although sometimes described as a “dialect” or “subdialect” of Michif, linguists agree that this variety of Cree is wholly different from the Cree-Michif language described in this article.

French Michif

French Michif (also known as Métis French) is a variant of the French language that helps to form Michif. French Michif is said to have originated among people of mixed Indigenous and French ethnicities living around trading posts in the Great Lakes region during the 1600s and 1700s. As they moved with the expanding fur trade in the 1800s to parts of present-day western and northern Canada, traders took French Michif with them. The language therefore developed separately from the French spoken in France or even in other parts of Canada and the United States. It is influenced by the Algonquian family of Indigenous languages, reflecting the history of contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. It is still spoken in St. Laurent and St. Ambroise, two communities located on Lake Manitoba.

Bungi

Bungi (Bungee) — a variation of the Saulteaux (Ojibwa) word panki meaning “a little” or “a portion of” — is a mixture of English, Gaelic, Ojibwa and Cree words. The language also had a few borrowed French words. The Bungi accent was reportedly heavily influenced by Orkney and Scottish speech patterns. Once spoken by Métis people with Ojibwa or Cree and Scottish parentage, the language is now nearly extinct, with reportedly only a few elders who speak it.

Brayet

Brayet (also spelled Braillet or Braillette) is another language born of the interchange between Indigenous and European peoples. Although few sources exist about this language, it is said to have incorporated French and Ojibwa words, and was once spoken in areas around the Great Lakes, such as Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) and further west around Lake of the Woods. Brayet is generally considered extinct.

Significance

Michif and other Métis languages demonstrate how language forms an important part of cultural identity, history and heritage. With its unique blend of French and Cree, Michif is a distinct language that modern-day Métis people aim to preserve and promote.