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New books for preschoolers promote Cree language learning

BY Patrick Quinn Jun 21, 2022

To combat language loss, the Cree Nation Government’s Child and Family Services department is expanding Cree language resources by providing seven new books for preschoolers. Books in both coastal and inland dialects arrived at community childcare centres June 3.

“If we look back 30 years, all of our children were primarily interacting in the Cree language,” said Child and Family Services Director Kelly-Lee Pepabano. “Today we’ve seen a significant shift where children in the childcare centres, my grandchildren included, are interacting in English. That’s sort of alarming.”

Concerns were raised at the Eeyou Istchee Language Engagement Session, which brought over 100 people to Ouje-Bougoumou in 2018. Shortly after the Cree Language Act became the CNG’s first ever law the following year, Pepabano’s department received federal funding from the Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework. 

“We all need to be unified in our mission of retaining and restrengthening our use of the language,” Pepabano told the Nation. “It can’t just be one organization. Even in our department, we’re taking initiatives to invite more Elders and Cree language experts so we can have that knowledge to assist our centres.”

A call for stories in January 2020 yielded 24 submissions, from which seven were chosen by a selection committee who weren’t provided the authors’ names. Four of the seven – Animals We Eat, My First Fish, My Grandpa’s Big Teepee and My Cousin’s Walking Out Ceremony – were written by young Mistissini author Megan Blacksmith, who was only 14 at the time.

Other books include Mila’s New Snowshoes by Jiyâmeyihtam Brousseau, Gookum’s Gift by Corie Druggett and The Legend of Kanu by Stéphanie Sicard-Thibodeau. Mohawk artist Kim Delormier illustrated these books while Natasia Mukash and her daughter Nalakwsi Mukash from Whapmagoostui illustrated Blacksmith’s contributions.

“I’m happy they’re in Cree syllabics and beautifully illustrated,” said Melissa Rodgers, a pedagogical advisor with the CNG who led the project. “We did put the Cree roman words and English in the back for those who don’t know how to read in Cree. They stimulate early literacy skills and children’s imagination, curiosity and creativity, helping them understand their world.”

The books join a growing array of Cree language resources, including 12 children’s books that were first published about a decade ago. A series of eight large and colourful posters were distributed to the region’s 16 daycares in 2018, teaching fundamental words related to emotions, transportation, weather, numbers and shapes. 

A songbook and DVD is a hit with young children, who often sing the songs at home. Released in 2012, The Singing and Learning Adventures of Neebin & Waabin follows a sister-and-brother puppet duo as they travel to Cree communities, teaching songs and skills like counting and colours. 

“We also have flash cards,” said Rodgers. “A [Cree snakes-and-ladders] board game is coming, recipe cards and an interactive magnetic calendar with the weather and seasons. I hope more things will come. We have the resources in coastal and inland dialect.” 

Child and Family Services printed 17,500 copies of the books for Cree daycare centres. Copies can be found through the Cree Health Board’s  Mashkûpimâtsît Awash program, which supports pregnant women and young families. 

“These are all educational tools, created for the educators to deliver the educational program in the childcare centres,” explained Pepabano. “We’d like to ensure we have the appropriate materials that promote the Cree language so not only our educators are using them, but parents have access to these resources to engage in activities with their children.”

The Child and Family Service department has transmitted Cree values, culture and language since its childcare network was created in the 1990s. Childcare centres follow the provincial ministry of education program with a special focus on Cree priorities, such as teaching syllabics.

“In our childcare centre, we use Cree syllabics, and our educators are very familiar with it,” confirmed Pepabano. “I’m one of them; my father was a Cree language teacher for many years, so I was able to learn it. Many of our children are learning it in school as well.”

As a study showed many students don’t possess “mother-tongue Cree”, the Cree School Board introduced innovative tools in recent years to reinforce language skills at various stages of learning. In 2016, a Cree Syllabics Virtual Reality project called Niwîchewâka encouraged students to travel a land-based world in Cree.

“We found that we were starting to lose the Cree language,” former CSB director general Abraham Jolly said at the time. “You want them to learn their language and maybe find the means to do that more effectively, where they’d be engaged with it. The best learning is when kids don’t even know they’re learning, because they’re having so much fun.”

Two new books are for infants, two are for toddlers and three are for preschoolers. Rodgers said these early childhood resources are vital for developing lifelong Cree speakers as 90% of brain development happens in the first five years of life. 

“We decided to have the books printed in Cree syllabics on the cover and in the story to encourage children to see the words in syllabics,” explained Rodgers. “They’ll come to understand later that it makes a sound, and these sounds together make a word. I can’t wait to hear more about it from our childcare centres and families.”

For her part, Pepabano noted that her first two grandchildren interact with her primarily in English. But now her daughter-in-law speaks with her six-month-old more in Cree.

“She asks, ‘Where’s your dad?’ in Cree. and he turns around and looks at him,” Pepabano shared. “He already understands her. Children’s brains are little magnets, so it doesn’t take a lot for a child to pick it up. That’s why, as a childcare centre supporter, we’re doing what we can to provide enough resources to promote that.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.