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Making Birch Bark Talk

by Ross Mitchell MD

Manitoba Pageant, January 1964, Volume 9, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Editor's note: See also Manitoba Pageant for January, 1959.

Three hundred miles north of Winnipeg is Norway House where the Hudson's Bay Company maintains a post. It is situated on the great waterway that stretches from York Factory on Hudson Bay to Norway House from which access can be gained to the six rivers so important to the fur trade, the Winnipeg, Red, Saskatchewan, Churchill, Athabasca and Mackenzie. From 1825 to 1870, it was a frequent meeting place of the Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land. After that territory was ceded to Canada its glory largely departed but it still remains an important centre in the Canadian North.

In 1840, the Hudson's Bay Company invited the Wesleyan Church to make Norway House the centre of a mission to the Indians. Four missionaries travelled to that post with the Rev. James Evans as superintendent. He was a native of England who had come to Canada in 1823 and had taught Ojibwa (Saulteaux) children in the area around Rice Lake and Lake St. Clair before entering the ministry. At Norway House he met Chief Factor and Mrs. Donald Ross who were sympathetic to the work of the missionaries. Evans set up a mission which he named Rossville two miles from the Hudson's Bay post.

One of his first duties was to establish a school. In his diary under the date of September 15, 1940, he notes: "I commenced a school on the the opposite side of the river and had about twenty-five scholars anxious to learn, teaching them to read the English and their own tongue." This was the Swampy Cree or Muskegon dialect.

The Crees belong to the Algonkian group who occupy the hinter-land of our country from the head waters of the Ottawa to the Rocky Mountains. Other Algonkian members, the Saulteaux or Ojibwa, the Chipewyans and the Blackfeet understand the Cree language which they regard as the classic form. However, in 1840, there was no means of communication by writing in that vast area.

Photo: Rev. James Evans, Courtesy: Provincial Archives.

Evans had a rare ear for languages and for their vocal music. He had made a special study of phonetics and of the position of the organs of speech in talking or singing. In 1836, he had finally mastered the problem and proposed its solution. This was that the essential sounds of the Ojibwa language could be produced by four vowels and eight consonants. With the approval of the Bible Society in Toronto he travelled to New York to arrange for the printing of his Speller and Interpreter in Indian and English for the Use of the Mission School and such as may desire to obtain a Knowledge of the Ojibway Tongue. D. Fanshaw, Printer, 150 Nassau St., New York, 1837. It has 195 pages, measures four by two-and-a-half inches and a copy may be seen in United College Library, Winnipeg.

With this preparatory work he was able to master the Cree language quickly. He determined to set it forth graphically so that its various sounds could be learned by the eye as well as the ear. He realized that some of the consonants had no equivalents in English, so he decided to abandon the use of Roman letters. In their place he invented nine characters of four positions each. The four positions represent four vowel sounds in open syllables. Of the nine characters, one in four positions represents the four vowel sounds with light breathing. The other eight represent the consonants as combined with the vowels in the position designating each vowel sound. For example, the characters would be sounded ma, me, moo, mah. Thus Mama would be represented as , papa as .

He found that his pupils learned the syllabus very quickly. On October 15, 1840, he wrote in his diary: "Several of the boys know all the letters having written the alphabet for each; and they are much pleased with their new books but not more so than I am myself." Oct. 19: "Several of the boys are beginning to read the written hymns in the Cree character, and I yet feel encouraged to think that I can print them in a few days." Dec. 3: "The Indians and children sing these hymns well and several read with some fluency. The short time which is required to learn to read and to write arises from there being no such thing as learning to spell, every character in the alphabet being a syllable, so that when these are learned, all is learned. Several of the boys and young men can write any word in the language seldom committing an error." Evans had prepared the first alphabet for each boy on birch bark with the pointed end of a charred stick.

This task led him to think of a printing press. The Company did not wish to have one brought in so he was forced to use his own resources. With a pen knife he cut out the characters in finely polished oak. He experimented with moulds of clay, chalk, putty and sand. These moulds he filled with twice-melted lead obtained from the linings of tea chests or from spent bullets. For ink he mixed sturgeon oil with soot scraped from the chimney and for paper he used fine sheets of birch bark. The press was one used for pressing fur pelts and the completed sheets were bound in deerskin. One such volume of sixteen hymns in Cree syllabics is a treasure of the library of Victoria College, Toronto. Evans writes in a letter "from the Forks of the Assiniboin," June 11, 1841: "I have made a fount of Indian type and everything necessary, besides making a nearly four-months voyage have printed about five thousand pages in the Muskego language. Among other things a small volume of hymns etc. which I bound, 100 copies of 16 pages." This little printing press was the first in the whole Northwest.

James Evans delighted in teaching his young pupils to sing. For them it was a new experience. As Chancellor Burwash wrote in his address to the Royal Society of Canada, 1911, their exquisite ear and their melodious voices were totally unknown even to themselves and, like a child taking its first few steps, the new exercise filled them with delight. In these circumstances the new accomplishment spread with amazing rapidity. They taught one another.

That well-known writer of books for boys, R. M. Ballantyne, who had entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company set down his experiences in Hudson Bay or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America. In 1841, he was at Norway House and was invited to an examination of the pupils at Rossville. He wrote that Mr. Evans had taught his pupils to sing in parts. In the course of the evening they "burst at once into a really beautiful hymn." The title page of the 1876 edition of Hudson Bay carries an illustration of the Indian Mission at Rossville.

In 1842, the brother of James Evans persuaded the Hudson's Bay Committee in London to send out a printing press to Norway House on condition that it be used exclusively for missionary purposes.

Pere Lacombe, Bishop Horden and the Methodist missionaries used the Cree syllabics from 1860 onward. A committee composed of Arch-deacon MacKay of Prince Albert, Bishop Holmes of Saskatchewan, Bishop Anderson of Moosonee, Rev. R. B. Steinhauer, E. G. Glass and Mr. Cook was set up to prepare a translation of the whole Bible into Cree. Chief Factor and Mrs. Donald Ross and Mr. and Mrs. MacKay of Beaver Creek House assisted in the translation. The British and Foreign Bible Society issued the Bible in Cree syllabics in 1861. A typewriter with Cree syllabics on the keyboard is said to be still in use.

Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada, 1872-1878, when in-formed of what James Evans had accomplished, said that he deserved a title and a monument in Westminster Abbey. Such rewards would have been lost on Evans whose greatest happiness was that he had opened up for the Cree children a new world of joy, hope and opportunity.

Nor was the new invention confined only to religion. Mr. James "Saskatchewan" Taylor, the United States Consul at Winnipeg wrote in the Manitoba Free Press; "All accounts represent the diffusion of the Syllabic characters among the Indian Camps of the vast interior occupied by the Cree tribe as extraordinary. Parties descending rivers would exchange messages on banks and bars of the stream and its acquisition was only the labour of a few hours."

The later years of James Evans were filled with misfortunes. He was recalled to England by his church to answer serious charges but his innocence was triumphantly proved. He thought of returning to his "dear people" at Norway House but he died suddenly at the age of forty-six.

He is not forgotten at Norway House or Rossville. On a rocky knoll near the historic Gateway at Norway House stands a cairn erected in 1931 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The inscription records the history of Norway House and that Treaty No. 5 was made there, also: "Here the Rev. James Evans invented the Cree Syllabic system." At Rossville one sees the three-storey Indian Residential School for 138 boys, the United Church with a memorial tablet, a large hall for games and entertainment, a small stone where his ashes are buried and a cairn built in 1940 overlooking Little Playgreen Lake and with an inscription setting forth his achievements in travelling over his huge district and his invention of the Cree syllabics. Within the church are hymn books in Cree syllabics and Roman letters, evidence that his gift to the Cree people, of music and a written language still exists.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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