How do you sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in Kanien’kéha?
What about Itsy Bitsy Spider?
These are some of the popular nursery rhymes Kahnawake, Que., residents Jody Jacobs and Charleen Schurman hope families with babies and toddlers learn with the launch of three children’s board books written completely in the Mohawk language.
The two women applied for a grant from the Caisse Populaire Kahnawake’s Community Development Project Fund to produce 3,000 copies of the books that will distributed for free to families with young children in the community.
Titled Otsísto Otsísto, Takwa’ahson, and Akeráhkhwa, the set of books are written to the tunes of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and You are My Sunshine and were put together by a team of volunteer illustrators, graphic designers, and translators.
“Every child and every family should have access to this learning tool,” said Jacobs, who co-ordinated the project.
“The more things that we have to include parents, grandparents, families all together to support our young children to keep our language going is the main goal.”
Despite the many language revitalization efforts in Kahnawake and other Mohawk communities, all dialects of the language are on UNESCO’s list of “definitely endangered” languages in Canada where children do not learn the language as a mother tongue at home.
Schurman and Jacobs hope to help change that by offering more resources to families who want to learn. Prior to the project, there’s been few children’s books available in the language, and none of durable material ideal for toddlers like a board book.
Dedicated to language holders
Each book is dedicated to a language holder in the community. Otsísto Otsísto pays tribute to the memory of Tiorahkwathe Gilbert, a teacher who dedicated his life to revitalizing, and advocating for the language. Jacobs was one of his many students, and said his dedication inspired the idea for the books after she learned of his death in 2018.
“The methodology that he used to teach the language, he would use songs. There are words that I remember only because of the way he taught them,” she said.
Tekaronhiahkhwa Margaret Standup, also a former student, illustrated the book. She said she was proud to be a part of the project. As a graduate of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center’s Ratiwennahní:rats immersion program and someone who taught the language herself for a few years, she said finding written resources and curriculum was always a struggle.
“You have to create your own environment with the language, and having books like this makes it so much easier,” said Standup.
“Even though it’s geared for toddlers, that’s where it begins. It’s a great stepping stone and starting point for learning.”
Free for families
Cassidy Meloche, who is expecting her first child in October, plans on picking up a set of books when they are given out to the community on Saturday.
“I’m very excited to see this happening and to be one step closer to replacing ‘Baby’s First Library’ from English board books to Kanien’kéha ones,” she said.
“Having a diverse range of resources in Kanien’kéha to raise my baby with is super important to me, because I want to be able to support his language acquisition and retention at every age level.”
Books remaining will be available to purchase at Kahnawake’s library with the proceeds to benefit the Iakwahwatsiratátie Language Nest, an immersion program for caregivers of children aged 0-48 months. The staff at the language nest provided the translation and editing for the book, and plan on using any funds to produce more audio/visual material for children.