Wâhkôhtowin (Kinship)

Tansi classmates,

This week I have been working on expanding my cree vocabulary. If you recall from my last post, my goal for the week was to learn question words and expand my vocabulary. I decided to start with vocabulary before learning questions words because I felt that I needed to have the vocabulary before I could formulate questions.

I started to search for the words to describe family. This turned into a whole new discovery. In my mind, I was going to create a “family tree” with all the words for different family members. Instead, I have had a cultural learning experience.

To give you a glimpse, check out this screen cast:


Needless to say, I realize that the family tree is much more in depth than just translating simple words from English. The most important concept to understand is the concept of wâhkôhtowin or kinship. Family is a central part of Cree culture and family values are central and embedded into the language. Chelsea Vowel (the author of this blog) described kinship as follows:

“I was taught to think of my mother’s sisters as my mothers.  Not my birth mothers, but as women who definitely held that maternal role in my life.  There was a closer bond to them than there were to my mother’s brothers.  If you need to relate it to English, just think of it as ‘the women in your life who are related to you in a way that gives them a maternal role’.  Those women are my mother’s sisters and my father’s brother’s wives.”

Family includes both extended and immediate family and extended family plays a very important role in raising children. By studying the terms used for extended family members, you will see how important they are. This page gives a great overview of the meanings of the extended family words. Here is a screenshot:


This particular page is describing the meaning behind the words for cousins. However, the meaning of the word is actually the same word as sibling. Chelsea Vowel describes this further on her blog. She says: “the terms are the same as they are for our siblings, because in fact, these cousins are like our siblings.  They are the children of our mothers and fathers.  They are closer to us than the anglo understanding of ‘cousin’.  Though I did not grow up in a super traditional household, this aspect of my upbringing certainly is true.  My mother’s sister’s children were as close (and annoying) to me as my own brothers, while there has always been a distance between me and my mother’s brother’s children.”

To summarize, I learned the following about Cree terms for family:

  1. Similar to the introductions, the family words have root words. From these root words the cree speaker places the root words in grammatical structures called paradigms.
  2. Gender and number are important because the Cree language is spoken in number-gender agreement

The root words are as follows:

Ōhtāwīyimāw for father

Okawiyimaw for mother

Ostesimaw for brother

Omisimaw for sister

From these root words, you add the prefix to form a paradigm. Chelsea Vowel explains them well in her blog. This screenshot explains the prefixes as follows:


This video provides a great lesson on the words for family members using the “my” prefix. In addition, it provides an example of the pronunciation.

If I were to take all of those words beginning with “ni” and replaced the prefix with “ki” then I would be saying “your” as opposed to “my.” What I have yet to learn is why the root word is not just a formation of the root plus the prefix. For example, is the root for Okawiyimaw mother and “ni” is the prefix but the word for mother is nikâwiy and not nikâwiyimaw. This is something I have to figure out. I do, however know that the “O” that is at the front of the word for mother is the general third person prefix. If any Cree speakers read my blog, could you please clarify this for me?

I am happy that I have learned a lot more about the words for family and the meaning of Wâhkôtowin. I feel that I have learned more about the language but also about culture, which was a personal goal.

What are you thoughts on the words for family in Cree? If you speak another language, what are the common practices for family names in your language? What did you learn from my learning? If any Cree speakers read this, can you tell me more or correct any misunderstandings I may have?

I did not make it to question words this week but my goal will be to work more on vocabulary including verbs, numbers and other basic foundational pieces.

Thanks for reading!


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5 Responses to Wâhkôhtowin (Kinship)

  1. ssalloums says:

    Hi Colleen,

    Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your explanations of kinship, described by Chelsea Vowel above. I think the idea of ‘mother’ being understood as women your life who have had a maternal role is an interesting way to look at family especially in comparison with dominant white culture where ‘mother’ implies solely the person who gave birth to you. I think the kinship patterns and understandings of Cree people is very community oriented and wish in many ways that these were the understandings of family of my ancestors.


  2. strauchc says:

    Hey Stef! I agree with you! I am happy to be learning more about culture through the Cree language. I think we have a lot to learn from the traditional notions of family and kinship in the white settler culture. Of course, I can’t generalize but I think that our society could benefit a lot from expanding our concept of family would also affect our understanding of community, as you said. Thanks for following along!


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