a) Michif:

Researchers have generally concluded that Michif is an unusual — perhaps unique — language in terms of its development. It began as a mixed language in the sense that, originally, it was formed by combining elements of the French and Cree languages (eventually elements of other languages, such as Ojibwe and English were also included). Unlike other mixed languages, however, words were not borrowed from the two original languages so as to form a simplified grammar. Instead, complex elements of both Cree and French were incorporated. Thus, in Michif, noun phrases of French origin retained the characteristic lexical gender (masculine and feminine) and adjective agreement; while verbs of Cree origin retained much of the characteristic polysynthetic structure (the parts of a verb each have independent meaning, but the parts might not work as stand alone words). Researchers regard this as an indication that Michif developed over time among people (family and community groups), who were fully fluent in both French and Cree.

There were variants, or regional and cultural dialects of Michif, just as there were regional variations in other Aboriginal languages. Although there is evidence of Michif existing as a language at Red River by 1869–1870, historical written records specifically devoted to documenting its use, and variations in its form, were not compiled. The exact extent to which Michif was spoken at Red River, and by whom, is therefore unknown.

Conceivably, fluency in any one variant of Michif would confer an ability to communicate readily with at least half of the predominantly Métis settler population at Red River and almost two-thirds of plains hunters/ winterers.[i]

b) Bungee:

The development of Bungee/ Bungay/ Bungi paralleled that of Michif in terms of period. The difference was that this contact language developed out of merging Scottish English (including the variant spoken in the Orkney Islands), with Scottish Gaelic, Anishnaabemowin/ Ojibwe/ Saulteux, and “a strong Cree component.” The vocabulary was recognizably English, although words, sentence structure, and speech patterns were borrowed from the other languages. For example, Bungee had a lilt that was similar to Gaelic speech rhythms. The name Bungee is said to have come from the Ojibwe word panki/ bangii: “a small part or portion” (in Cree pahki).[ii]

At best, fluency in Bungee alone might confer an ability to communicate with something under one half of the settler population at Red River and perhaps as much as a third of plains hunters/ winterers.

c) Cree:

The language spoken by Cree peoples, and known in Plains Cree as nêhiyawêwin,[iii] was the preeminent language of trade throughout much of northern Turtle Island/ North America (in today’s Canada).[iv]

As HBC trader John Joseph Hargrave, resident at Red River (and whose parents were both British), observed in 1871,

A man whose usual language is English, and one who speaks French alone, are enabled to render themselves mutually intelligible by means of Cree, their Indian mother tongue, though each is totally ignorant of the ... language used by the other.[v]

In addition, people who were fluent in Cree had some ability to understand Anishnaabemowin, Michif, and Bungee (all three being belonging to the Western Algic/ Algonkian/ Algonquian language family). They would, therefore, be able to communicate, to some degree, with virtually all Métis settlers and plains hunters/ winterers of Red River Settlement.

As well, people fluent in Cree would be able to communicate with Aboriginal people who lived and worked beyond the boundaries of Assiniboia, particularly to the north and west, and at considerable distances. The ability to communicate with Aboriginal people who lived and worked to the east of Red River Settlement — where Cree was not the dominant trade language — would become increasingly difficult with distance from Assiniboia (once predominantly Iroquoian language territories were reached). Cree was perhaps least effective as a trade language to the south of the settlement, across the American border, in territories were Siouan languages dominated.

Primary source available online:

Edwin Arthur Watkins, ed., A dictionary of the Cree language, as spoken by the Indians of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865),


d) Anishnaabemowin/ ANishinaabemowin:

A language that was related to Cree (sharing Algic/ Algonkian/ Algonquian linguistic roots), was spoken by groups known variously as Anishnaabe/ Anishinaabe/ Ojibway/ Ojibwa/ Ojibwe/ Otchipwe/ Chippewa/ Ottawa/ Odawa/ Saulteux.[vi]

Fluency in Anishnaabemowin/ Anishinaabemowin conferred some ability to understand Cree, Bungee, and Michif. It had utility as a trade language, particularly to the east and south-east of Red River Settlement where it was the dominant language. Conceivably speakers would have the ability to communicate to some degree with many settlers and plains hunters/ winterers of the settlement.

Primary source available online:

Frederic Baraga, A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, Explained in English (Cincinnati: Jos. A. Hermann, 1853),


e) Dene:

Dene, which is also known as Dëne Súain (there were other variants as well) — and more commonly as Chipewyan within the HBC fur trade of the nineteenth century — is classed linguistically as belonging to the Athapaskan language family.[vii]

By 1869–1870 Dene likely had some utility as a trade language at Red River settlement, specifically when communicating with HBC officers and families, hunter families, boat brigade men, and students, any of whom might have arrived at Red River from northern reaches of the North-West in order to trade, visit relatives, or attend school. Incidentally, Louis Riel’s grandmother has been described as a “Franco-Chipewyan Métisse.”[viii]

Primary source available online:

Émile Petitot, Dictionnaire de la langue dènè-dindjié: dialectes montagnais ou chippewayan, peaux de lièvre et loucheux, renfermant en outre un grand nombre de termes propres à sept autres dialectes de la même langue ; précédé d'une monographie des Dènè-Dindjiè, d'une grammaire et de tableaux synoptiques des conjugaisons (Paris: E. Leroux; San Francisco: A.-L. Bancroft, 1876), https://archive.org/details/cihm_15858.

f) Siouan:

Languages within the Siouan language family were spoken by Assiniboine/ Nakota/ Oceti Sakowin/ Otceti cakowiⁿ/ Five Council Fires/ Dakota/ and Lakota peoples.[ix] It appears that many people of Red River were not fluent in Siouan languages, probably because of violent (and fatal) disputes over hunting territory that occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century.[x] Mistrust lingered between the Métis at Red River and Siouan speaking peoples into the 1860s. Those people of the settlement who were fluent in Siouan languages — for example Hon. James McKay, Indian Commissioner of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia — were considered invaluable negotiators. Fluency allowed understandings to be forged with the latest newcomer First Nation groups to Assiniboia — people commonly known at the settlement as ‘the Sioux.’ They had begun settling in the Portage la Prairie area as refugees from hostile U.S. military action in 1862, and often camped at White Horse Plains when coming in to Upper Fort Garry to trade. Perhaps one quarter or more of plains hunters/ winterers of Red River Settlement (those who traditionally hunted bison south of the American border or who had contacts to the far west [present day Alberta]), would have been able to converse in one or more Siouan languages.

Primary source available online:

S.R. Riggs, Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1852),


g) Iroquoian:

Speakers of Iroquoian languages at Red River would have come from areas were Wendat/ Wyandot/ Huron and Haudenosaunee/ Iroquois League/ Six Nations peoples were common, far to the east of the settlement. Fluency in Iroquoian languages would have conferred an ability to communicate with some tripmen who belonged to boat brigades that travelled between Montreal and the settlement. Historically, some of these Iroquoian tripmen had joined brigades that travelled further west of Red River. Among those brigade men, some of had opted to remain on the western plains and foothills of the West.[xi] Conceivably, therefore, fluency in Iroquoian languages would confer an ability to communicate with some members of western hunting bands who worked seasonally as HBC boatmen.

Primary source available online:

J. A. Cuoq, Kaiatonsera ionteweienstakwa kaiatonserase. Nouveau syllabaire iroquois (Tiohtiake [Montréal]: J. Lovell, 1873),


h) Salishan:

A Salishan dialect was spoken by Salish/ Okanagan residents at Red River, notably Sarah ‘Sally’ Timentwa Ross, who was the mother of James Ross, Chief Justice of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia.[xii] The language was likely familiar to other settlers, visitors, or students from families of HBC officers and employees from British Columbia.

Primary source available online:

Gregory Mengarini, Grammatica linguae Selicae (Neo-Eboraci [New York]: [s.n.], 1861),


i) Inuktitut:

The language of Inuit peoples was probably not particularly common at Red River Settlement, although there were Inuit boatmen and sailors of Hudson and James Bays who worked for the HBC. Conceivably, some might have retired with families to the settlement.

Primary source available online:

Roger Wells, and John W. Kelly, English-Eskimo and Eskimo-English vocabularies (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1890), https://archive.org/details/cihm_09288.

[i] See “Michif and other languages of the Canadian Métis - Peter Bakker & Robert A. Papen. University of Amsterdam & Université du Québec à Montréal,” http://www.metismuseum.ca/media/db/00735 (accessed 21 February 2013); and Peter Bakker, “A Language of Our Own”: the Genesis of Michif, the Míxed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis (Amsterdam: Drukkerij Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1988).

[ii] Bungee: A language unique to Canada, (accessed 21 February 2013). See also Blain, “The Bungee dialect of the Red River Settlement”; and S. Osborne Scott and D.A. Mulligan, “The Red River Dialect,” The Beaver 31, no. 3 (December 1951): 42–45.

[iii] Fred J. Shore, “Cree,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 140, notes, “The Crees have as many words to refer to themselves as there are different Cree peoples, but in most cases these terms are not translatable, and the people themselves have chosen to use the word Cree as well.” Joseph F. Dion, My Tribe the Crees, ed. Hugh A. Dempsey (Calgary: Glenbow-Alberta Institute, 1979), 1, explains, “it has been customary to refer to any people resembling us as Nehiyaw people, or Cree people.”

[iv] See Bakker, A Language of Our Own, 14–15, who notes that eastward of Red River, “Ojibwe was (and still is) a lingua franca,” and that “Huron (Iroquoian) was a lingua franca in the area east of the Great Lakes before 1650.” In his view, Michif was not a trade language. It has been both asserted and hypothesized that at the time of contact the name by which First Nations knew the continent of North America was ‘Turtle Island.’ Harriet Maxwell Converse, Herman Le Roy Fairchild, William John Miller, and Arthur Caswell Parker, Myths and legends of the New York State Iroquois (New York: University of New York, 1908), 33, aver that in the Seneca language, the mythical turtle was known as Hah-nu-nah (the word for an ordinary turtle being ha-no-wa). J. Watts de Peyster, Miscellanies: By an Officer vol. 1 (Dumfries [England: C. Munro, 1888]), cii, avers that in Western Algic [Algonkian/ Algonquian] languages the name of the continent might, in some previous era, have been Mishi-nimikina. On the possibility that the name ‘America’ is rooted in an Indigenous language, see Jonathan Cohen, “The Naming of America: Fragments We’ve Shored Against Ourselves,” http://www.uhmc.sunysb.edu/surgery/america.html (accessed 13 July 2012), who reports that, in the 1970s, writer Jan Carew revived 19th-century arguments that “the name America was brought back to Europe from the New World” and asserted that “To rob people or countries of their names is to set in motion a psychic disturbance which can in turn create a permanent crisis of identity. As if to underline this fact, the theft of an important place-name from the heartland of the Americas and the claim that it was a dilettante’s [Amerigo Vespucci’s] Christian name robs the original name of its elemental meaning.”

[v] J.J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal: John Lovell, 1871), 181.

[vi] See, “I. First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples,” 19 n. 18, this document, on various spellings of Anishnaabe.

[vii] See Aliana Parker and Leslie Saxon, “Lexicon of Tłıchǫ Yatıì: Echoes from the Nineteenth Century,” http://ocs.sfu.ca/fedcan/index.php/cla/acl-cla2008/paper/viewFile/102/57 (accessed 22 February 2013).

[viii] Louis H. Thomas, “Riel, Louis,” DCB, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=5796  (accessed 22 February 2013).

[ix] David Reed Miller, “Assiniboine,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians, 56–57, who presents the Assiniboine as distinct from, but closely related to, the Dakota/ Lakota, observes that in Alberta the Assiniboine are also known as Stoney; Dan Kennedy, Recollections of an Assiniboine Chief, ed. James R. Stevens (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), 10, 24, observes that the Alberta Assiniboine, “called themselves Nakota, and the many bands within this large cultural group had different names.” Albert White Hat, “Lakota Language,” and Karen D. Lone Hill, “Sioux,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, 328, and 590, translate the name Oceti Sakowin as “The Seven Council Fires.”

[x] See also “‘Before’ continues (1800 – 1826),” Provisional Government of Assiniboia site, and reference to disputes of 1800; “ ‘Before’ continues (1827 – 1856),” Provisional Government of Assiniboia site, 1845 and reference to the treaty; 1851 and the breaking of the treaty with the Battle of Grand Coteau.

[xi] “Caughnawaga (Now called Kahnawake),” L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec/ The Quebec History Encyclopedia, Quebec History, Marianopolis College, http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/encyclopedia/Caughnawagekahnawake.htm (accessed 21 February 2012), notes “As the fur traders pushed their way westward from the Great lakes they were accompanied by Caughnawaga hunters. As early as 1820 a considerable number of this tribe was incorporated with the Salish, while others found their way about the same period down to the mouth of Columbia r. in Oregon, and N, as far as Peace r. in Alberta. In the W. they are commonly known as Iroquois.” See also Trudy Nicks, “Callihoo (Calehue, Kalliou), Louis,” DCB, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=3287 (accessed 21 February 2012); “Re: Calihoo/L'Hirondelle Families of Calihoo Reserve,” METISGEN-L Archives, Rootsweb, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/METISGEN/2006-04/1145727972 (accessed 20 February 2012); Stanley Hulme, “Descendants of John James Smith,” METIS-L Archives, Rootsweb, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/METISGEN/2003-03/1048107516 (accessed 20 February 2012); and Vera Moore, “Peechee’s Band,” GenForum, Genealogy.com, http://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/dumont/351/ (accessed 20 February 2012). Pierre Cadien, along with Baptiste Bruneau, Pierriche Delorme, Jean-Baptiste Dumont, Pierre Dunomais, Francois Lussier, and Joseph Fallois was a founding member of the PeeChee (Louis Piche/Pesew/‘Mountain Lion’) Band, which was “Largely Métis in origin, mixed with Cree, Nakoda, Chippewa/ Ojibway, Tsuu T'Ina, & lesser Kutenai, Iroquois & Blackfoot.”

[xii] Laurenda Daniells, “Ross, Sally,” DCB, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=39933 (accessed 22 February 2013). Sally, the wife of Alexander Ross of Red River Settlement was Okanagan. See also, Jay Miller, “Salishan Languages,” and Jacqueline Peterson, “Plateau Tribes,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians, 564–565, and 485–489. Michael Johnson, Encyclopedia of North American Indians, 152, identifies the Okanagan as Sinkaietk.