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Cree early education expands cultural initiatives

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 30, 2022

Eeyou Istchee’s daycares are introducing new resources to support Cree language and culture among the region’s youngest learners. Along with a recently published series of Cree preschool books, ongoing community training programs for educators and managers promote a holistic reassessment of the system’s foundations. 

“I developed a program to share how we have to change our way of thinking,” explained cultural consultant Debbie Delisle. “Not incorporating culture here and there but flipping it to coming from that place of who we are. We look to our culture and language for the answers – it’s all there.”

Delisle is the former executive director of Kahnawake’s Step by Step Child and Family Centre, which is guided by a connection to nature and what in the Mohawk language is called “the words that come before all else.” It is, she says, an effort to decolonize early childhood education.

During presentations, Delisle reflects upon Indigenous history and Cree Nation vision statements to give context to the current system and to examine how to “reclaim the ways of our ancestors.” Cultural activities can then be planned according to the six-to-eight traditional Cree seasons.

“It’s almost like land-based learning,” Delisle told the Nation. “Like teaching colours – why are you using markers? Take your gookum’s scarf with all those beautiful colours, go outside and have the children find those in nature. Line up like the geese – it’s like you know it but didn’t think of it.”

Delisle encourages participants to brainstorm ways of bringing Elders into the daycare environment or to develop partnerships with cultural centres and schools. 

“We need to work together more closely,” Delisle asserted. “Because our culture is holistic, we all have a responsibility. In the communities they separate education from childcare. A lot of people think childcare is babysitting but we’re the foundation of the future.”

They try to identify gaps in materials, which the CNG Child and Family Services recently addressed through its release of Cree language books. The department said it will shortly change its name due to frequent confusion with youth protection services. 

Pedagogical advisor Melissa Rodgers spearheaded the new literacy project, which yielded seven Cree language books primarily written and illustrated by local creators. Four of them were written by Megan Blacksmith, who was 14 at the time and is now completing her final year of high school.

“I’ve been wanting to become an author,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “Two years ago, I saw a post about this, so I gave it a try. I showed them to my family members and my co-workers at a daycare. Many kids talk about what they eat during Goose Break, so that was one idea.”

Like the other authors, Blacksmith’s stories were written first in English then translated by Evelyn Duff or Jane Helen Saganash, then illustrated by Mohawk artist Kim Delormier or by the Whapmagoostui mother-daughter team of Natasia and Nalakwsi Mukash. Blacksmith’s stories are based on past experiences. 

“My First Fish was about me and my uncle, but I switched the names,” shared Blacksmith about an experience when she was eight years old. “My cousin was bored because we didn’t catch anything most of the fishing trip. At one point we almost went home until I caught the first fish – it was pretty big.”

At about the same age, a walk in the bush with her father inspired now 17-year-old author Jiyâmeyihtam Brousseau’s story, Mila’s New Snowshoes. Writing stories since she was very young, Brousseau recently started literature studies at Marianopolis College in Montreal.

“Mila is walking in the bush with these new pink snowshoes and learning about the animals and trees,” explained Brousseau. “Near the end she realizes she’s sinking in the snow, missing a snowshoe. While her dad goes to look, she hears the wind and is scared like any young child would be sitting alone in the bush. But her dad tells her the bush is our home and never be afraid of the bush. Be brave.”

Brousseau sees that fewer children are learning the Cree language and thinks action must be taken before it’s too late. While she feels her own limited grasp of the language hinders a deeper connection with her culture and community members, she tries to pick it up by spending time with Cree speakers like her grandparents.

“Teaching other kids Cree is giving them a place to know themselves and their culture,” Brousseau stated. “I translated this story in Cree with my grandmother. It got [us] closer. I learned about the language while writing it.”

Gookum’s Gift was Corie Druggett’s fourth story translated into Cree after teaching in the communities for over 20 years. It’s about slippers given to her son by an Elder, who was like a grandmother to him.  Druggett said the story was inspired by the generosity she’s been shown in Eeyou Istchee. 

“The openness of the Elders to pass on information and teach us visitors working in the communities who want to share with our students is amazing,” said Druggett.

Before Druggett began working in elementary schools, she taught early childhood education at a college where a lack of literacy materials in the local dialects hindered field work. Although her book is tailored for younger audiences, she’s excited to show it to her Grade 5 students once the new school year begins.

“For them to see books in Cree syllabics is a motivator,” said Druggett. “I’d like to see books for older students. If we’re having a challenge finding pre-school books, I’m sure other age categories are facing the same. There are so many talented students out there – seeing this could be something that inspires them to write themselves.”

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.