British Columbia Library Association

Julie Flett’s Picture Books as Effective Language Reclamation Sites

By Allison Comrie

“Languages are precious; they capture the very essence of a culture. The exceptional night-sight of owls is akin to the insight that language offers in understanding a culture.”

-Introduction from Julie Flett’s: Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii

Swer L’alfabet Di Michif – Owls See Clearly at Night: A

Michif Alphabet

 

Julie Flett has her night-sight set on reclaiming her Cree and Michif languages through children’s picture books. Flett is Cree and Métis[1] and places Indigenous language in the foreground of her authored-illustrated texts.  In doing so, Flett’s picture books work as sites of language reclamation. This article will discuss how picture books can be a powerful form for language reclamation and the ways in which Flett has accomplished this task.  In particular, this article will discuss Flett’s book: Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif – Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet to demonstrate the author-illustrator’s use of the picture book form to reclaim the Michif language.

In the introduction to Flett’s (2010) Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, the author-illustrator provides the reader with information about the Métis people and the importance of reclaiming the Michif language:

The Métis culture, a mix of First Nations (mostly the Cree and Ojibwe peoples) and European (mostly the French and Scots people), has gone through many transformations since it began. This mingling of cultures resulted in the Michif language that is a unique blend of Cree (Nehiyawewin) and French (Francais) with some Saulteaux dialect of Ojibewe (Nakawemowin; Anishinaabemowin). (p.2)

The Michif language of the Métis people was once spoken by many across the Canadian prairies and the United States (Flett, 2010).  The complex language in now spoken by smaller populations across these regions.  The decrease in those who speak their Indigenous, ancestral and traditional languages can be attributed to a number of colonial policies and practices including, the mandated removal of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children and youth from their homes and being forced to attend residential schools within Canada during the twentieth century (Hare, 2011). In these institutions, children and youth were forbidden from speaking their ancestral dialect. This led to erasure of vibrant Indigenous languages and culture, including the Michif language. With the understanding of these colonial impacts on Indigenous languages, Flett (2010) saw the need to reclaim her Indigenous Cree and Michif languages through the form of picture books.

The author-illustrator conducted extensive research in order to successfully include Cree and Michif languages as a key feature in picture and board books. For example, Flett explained in an interview with West Vancouver Memorial Librarian, Kay Weisman (2017), that she worked with translators, a member of the Cross Lake Cree Nation, and a member of the Cree Literacy Network to learn more about these languages. Flett’s motivation to create picture books with Cree and Michif texts, relates to the author-illustrator’s own experience of wanting to create picture books that did not exist when Flett was growing up. (J. Flett, personal communication, December 4, 2017). Flett has gone one to create multiple published works that address the topic of language reclamation through placing Cree dialects and the Michif language in her children’s picture and board books. For example, in Black Bear, Red Fox: Colours in Cree published by Native Northwest, along with Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers, and Wild Berries – Pikaci-minisa, Flett uses language in partnership with her illustrations to share Michif and Cree languages.

Julie Flett’s writings and illustrations are representative of an authentic Indigenous voice. However, authentic Indigenous voices have not always been represented in Indigenous picture books.  For example, in the chapter “Home and Native Land: A Study of Canadian Aboriginal Picture Books by Aboriginal Authorsfrom the book, Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada, by Doris Wolf and Paul DePasquale (2008), the authors discuss how during the mid-twentieth century it was common for non-Indigenous authors and illustrators to be creating books on Indigenous stories and myths. An example that Wolf and DePasquale mention is, The Mountain Goats of Temlaham, by William Toye and illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver. Toye and Cleaver are non-Indigenous people; and as such, these are not their stories to tell. As Linda Alcoff observes (1992), “the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted in many cases in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for” (p. 7). Given that Flett is Cree and Métis, the reader can trust that the translations and representations of Cree and Michif words are authentic, accurate and meaningful. As well, the extensive resources that the author-illustrator provides in the peri-text of the picture and board books adds a level of reliability.

To further establish Flett’s authorial voice on creating Cree and Michif picture and board books as tools of language reclamation, Flett offers the reader in Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif (2010), an introduction to the history of the Métis people and the Michif language. The ‘resources’ page begins with the author-illustrator stating (2010), “For anyone who would like to learn more about the Michif Language here are some useful resources” (p. 52). Flett’s inclusive statement above (2010), “For anyone…” is indicative of the author-illustrator’s view on who the audience is. In interviews Flett has commented that the books are for Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers. For example, part of the peri-text on the back of the book Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, Flett writes (2010), “From Atayookee to Lii Zyeu: an introduction to the Michif language of the Métis people.” Flett could have written “…for the Métis people” at the end. Instead the author-illustrator states, “…of the Métis people.” This alternate phrasing is open and inclusive to her intended audience: Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This statement is reflective that Flett values and places importance on sharing stories and languages with each other especially, when people come from different cultural backgrounds.  Flett states, “That is where change is occurring, when we can appreciate each other’s languages, stories and art.”[2]

Reading Flett’s words of appreciating each other’s stories, prompted the question, why is it important that picture books be a site for change, in particular language reclamation? One reason is that children are one of the main demographics that read Flett’s works. In Soren Wichmann’s (2008) review of Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley’s book, “Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization,” Wichmann states that Grenoble and Whaley, “…conclude that ‘the one factor that tends to rise above the others is intergenerational transmission: once the children stop learning a language, it is in a precarious state” (p. 13). Children are the critical demographic that needs to be reached as part of Flett’s audience in that they will continue the life span of the words, sentences, and phrases of the Cree and Michif languages.

Another reason that picture books are effective places for language reclamation is that Flett, among other Indigenous authors, is participating in knowledge production as opposed to consuming colonial systems of information; Indigenous authors are using the traditional form of picture books to decolonize texts and actively produce Indigenous content. Bradford (2011) states in her description on the activity of Indigenous authors publishing books as, ‘poetic justice’ (p. 277). Indeed, Indigenous authors and illustrators are normalizing Indigenous culture, bringing Indigenous ways of knowing to the foreground and moving colonial knowledge systems to the background. As Bradford argues, “Indigenous alphabet books seek to engage very young readers in actively producing meaning…[w]hether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, the young children implied as readers are open to difference and alive to the adventure of engaging with Indigenous beliefs and practices” (Bradford, 2011, p. 277). Flett is an example of an Indigenous author-illustrator who is reclaiming space in children’s picture books through dissemination of Indigenous text and image.

Bill Ashcroft describes knowledge production as a form of tactical resistance in his book, Post-Colonial Transformations. Ashcroft (2013) discusses how dominant systems and forms can be used as tactical resistance.  Using Ashcroft’s argument, Flett’s use of picture books can be seen as tactical resistance. Doris Wolf and Paul DePasquale recount in the chapter (2008), “Home and Native Land: A Study of Canadian Aboriginal Picture Books by Aboriginal Authors” how settlers in North America led to the destruction of the Indigenous people and their culture.  Picture books were part of the colonial process; they were used to ‘educate’ and assimilate Indigenous children into the colonial empire. Flett uses the common, everyday picture book as a resistance tool.  She uses image and text to reclaim Cree and Michif languages–reaching the most important demographic in her work of language reclamation: children.

This is especially demonstrated in the picture book: Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif. In this book, Flett situates the Michif words above the English words.  The author-illustrator’s choice in text composition disorientates the non-Indigenous reader who at first glance may not recognize the initial word on the page (Bradford, 2011). Upon further review, readers find the English word placed below the Michif word, as well as, the pronunciation guides and Michif resources located at the back of the book to gain a better understanding of the language and culture. In Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, Flett chose to have the Michif words published in colours that change on each page depending on the image and text relationship; the English words are consistently black throughout the book.  Whether intended or not, this choice in coloured text adds an emphasis and liveliness to the Michif words.

Bradford (2011) speaks to the complexity of Indigenous languages and the form of the written word being an act of reclamation, “Indigenous textuality for children…actively works toward processes of decolonization by foregrounding the diversity and complexity of Indigenous cultures and by contesting the colonial discourses which persist in modern, post-colonial cultures” (p. 274). Flett uses the combination of words and phrases to demonstrate the complexity of the Michif alphabet. For example, in Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, Flett (2010) has selected the word ‘Mawishow’ for the letter ‘M’ which translated to English is, ‘he/she is picking berries’ (p. 27). The word highlights the difference in Michif and English language structure; one complex, Michif word represents a complete phrase in English.

In Perry Nodelman’s article (2001), “A is for… What? The Function of Alphabet Books” the author discusses the complex relationship in alphabet books among the letter, the chosen word to represent the letter, and the sound associated with the selected word. Further, Nodelman (2001) expresses the impossibility of representing all sounds that one letter can create. Indeed, creating alphabet picture books is a complex task when considering the multiplicity of words and phrases that can be used as representatives for a letter; this highlights the important role of the author in selecting the specific words and phrases for each page. In Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif, it is impossible for Flett to represent all the pronunciations of one letter in Michif on one page; however, the inclusion of the vowel and consonant pronunciation guides with the book, provides the reader with the opportunity to expand their learning of the language.

“Answering back to the colonising discourses of early alphabet books, Indigenous texts function as decolonising texts, throwing off the baggage of colonialism and reclaiming language and identity” (Bradford, 2011, p. 275). Flett successfully reclaims and reasserts space for Cree and Michif languages to be learned, understood, and celebrated by those that are Indigenous and those that are non-Indigenous in children’s picture and board books. Julie Flett achieves this form of tactical resistance through the design, research, and authentic representation of the author-illustrator’s Indigenous voice in the texts and illustrations of her published works, and in particular, within her picture book Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer L’alfabet Di Michif Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet.

[1] https://www.strongnations.com/gs/show.php?gs=3&gsd=2663

[2] https://49thshelf.com/Blog/2014/11/27/Julie-Flett-on-Illustration-and-First-Nations-Children-s-Literature


References

Alcoff, L. (1992). The Problem of Speaking for Others, Cultural Critique, 20, 5-32.

http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1354221

Ashcroft, B. (2001). Post-colonial Transformations. London: Routledge. Retrieved from

http://lib.myilibrary.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/Open.aspx?id=32921

Bradford, C. (2011). The Case of Children’s Literature: Colonial or Anti-Colonial? Global Studies of Childhood, 1(4), 271-279.

https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.2304/gsch.2011.1.4.271

Clare, K. (2014). Julie Flett on Illustration and First Nations Children’s Literature. Retrieved from

https://49thshelf.com/Blog/2014/11/27/Julie-Flett-on-Illustration-and-First-Nations

Flett, J. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from https://www.julieflett.com/contact/

Flett, J. (2010). Lii yiiboo nayaapiwak lii swer l’alfabet di Michif – Owls see clearly at night: A michif alphabet. Vancouver: Simply Read Books.

Flett, J. (2013). Wild berries – Pikaci-minisa. Vancouver: Simply Read Books.

Flett, J. (2014). We all count: A book of cree numbers. Vancouver: Native Northwest.

Flett, J. (2017). Black bear red fox: Colours in cree. Vancouver: Native Northwest Canada.

Hare, J. (2011). They tell a story and there’s meaning behind that story’: Indigenous knowledge and young indigenous literacy learning. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 12(4), 389-414. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1177/146879841141737

Nodelman, P. (2001). A is for … What? The Function of Alphabet Books. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 1(3), 235-253. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/14687984010013001

Strong Nations. (2005-2017). Julie Flett. Retrieved from

https://www.strongnations.com/gs/show.php?gs=3&gsd=2663

Toye, W., & Cleaver, E. (1969). The Mountain Goats of Temlaham. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weisman, K. (2017). Talking with julie. The Booklist, 26(4), 18. Retrieved from

https://www.booklistonline.com/Books-and-Authors-Talking-with-Julie-Flett-Kay-Weisman/pid=8729259

Wichmann, S. (2008). [Review of the book Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization]. Language, 84(4), 883-885. https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.0.0060

Wolf, D., & DePasquale, P. (2008). Home and native land: A study of canadian aboriginal picture books by aboriginal authors. In Home Words: Discourses of Children’s

Literature in Canada (pp. 87 – 105). Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.


>Allison Comrie is a BCLA Board Member-at-Large and a student at iSchool@UBC.

 

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