New books for preschoolers promote Cree language learning

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To combat language loss, the Cree Nation Government’s Department of Child and Family Services is expanding Cree language resources by providing seven new books for preschoolers. Books in the Coastal and Inland dialects arrived at community child care centers on June 3.

“If we look back 30 years, all of our children interacted primarily in the Cree language,” said Director of Child and Family Services Kelly-Lee Pepabano. “Today we have seen a significant change where daycare children, including my grandchildren, are interacting in English. It’s a bit alarming.

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

“We must all be united in our mission to retain and strengthen our use of the language,” Pepabano told the Nation. “It can’t be just one organization. Even in our department, we are taking initiatives to invite more elders and Cree language experts so that we can have this knowledge to help our centres.

A call for stories in January 2020 yielded 24 submissions, seven of which were chosen by a selection committee that did not receive the authors’ names. Four of the seven – Animals We Eat, My First Fish, My Grandpa’s Big Tipi 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 of Whapmagoostui illustrated Blacksmith’s contributions.

“I’m glad they’re in Cree syllabics and beautifully illustrated,” said Melissa Rodgers, CNG’s educational consultant who led the project. “We’ve put the Cree words in Roman and English on the back for those who can’t read Cree. They stimulate children’s early literacy skills and imagination, curiosity and creativity, helping them to understand their world.

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

A songbook and DVD are 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 through Cree communities, teaching songs and skills like counting and colors.

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

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

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

Child and Family Services has been transmitting Cree values, culture and language since the creation of its child care network in the 1990s. Child care centers follow the curriculum of the provincial Department of Education with a particularly on Cree priorities, such as the teaching of syllabic writing.

“In our CPE, we use Cree syllabics and our educators know it very well,” confirms Pepabano. “I’m one of them; my father taught the Cree language for many years, so I was able to learn it. Many of our children are also learning it in school.

As a study has shown that many students do not have the “Cree mother tongue”, the Cree School Board has in recent years introduced innovative tools to reinforce language skills at various stages of learning. In 2016, a virtual reality project in Cree syllabics called Niwîchewâka encouraged students to explore an earthly world in Cree.

“We found that we were starting to lose the Cree language,” former CSB chief executive Abraham Jolly said at the time. “You want them to learn their language and maybe find ways to do it more effectively where they would be involved. 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 for toddlers and three for preschoolers. Rodgers said these early childhood resources are key to developing lifelong Cree speakers because 90 percent of brain development occurs 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,” Rodgers explained. “They will understand later that it makes a sound, and these sounds together form a word. I look forward to hearing more about this from our daycares and families.

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

“She asks: ‘Where is your father?’ in Cree. and he turns around and looks at him,” Pepabano explained. “He already understands it. Children’s brains are little magnets, so it doesn’t take much for a child to pick it up. That’s why, as a daycare supporter, we do what we can to provide enough resources to promote this.

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation

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