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Buffy Sainte-Marie on turning Tâpwê and the Magic Hat into an audiobook

Buffy Sainte-Marie (Credit: Matt Barnes)

Buffy Sainte-Marie first wrote Tâpwê and the Magic Hat (Greystone Books, 2022) nearly 40 years before its publication. It began as a story she’d tell her son while travelling back and forth from the reserve, revised over time as he aged. He served as a model for the protagonist, the titular Tâpwê, who spends summers on reserve with his Kokhom (grandmother) while his mother is away at tribal college.

On a video call from Hawaii, Sainte-Marie is humble about the book’s origins. “It’s different crafting a story for a five-year-old and a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old. One of the things I needed to do was take my story from 40 years ago and make sure my character was smoothed out,” she says. “When I read my story, it was pretty raggedy. There were things that would appeal to a little kid and other things that might be too old.” With the help of Greystone Books, Tâpwê became her second picture book. Her first picture book, Hey Little Rockabye: A Lullaby for Pet Adoption (Greystone Books, 2020) and her third Still This Love Goes On (also published by Greystone later in 2022) were written for slightly younger readers.

Sainte-Marie knew from the beginning that she wanted a Cree language version of Tâpwê. Greystone Books was on board right away. “Twenty years ago, I don’t think book companies would have gotten it the way they do now,” she says. In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been a move toward publishing multilingual books by Canadian presses. According to Statistics Canada, there are only about 260,000 Indigenous language speakers in Canada – less than one per cent of the total population – so picture books like Tâpwê, when translated, are a resource for language learners of all ages, not just for those aged six to nine.

When it came to the audiobook, which was released March 10, Sainte-Marie received the same response from Greystone – an enthusiastic yes. If there’s anyone who can convince their publisher to create an audiobook in Cree, which has fewer than 100,000 speakers (but is one of the most widely spoken), it’s Buffy Sainte-Marie – an Academy Award–winning musician whose songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis to Bette Davis, and who was once a regular on Sesame Street. She has an influence that few Indigenous creators can match, and she’s using it to draw attention to the important work people such as Solomon Ratt – a fellow author and Cree language professor at First Nations University of Canada – are doing. In addition to his academic work, he is one of the main contributors to CreeLiteracy.org, a free language learning resource for those who want to learn Cree. Sainte-Marie, who knew Ratt through online correspondence prior to working with him on Tâpwê, reached out in part because of her admiration for his work. 

Sainte-Marie herself isn’t a fluent Cree speaker. She worked with Ratt to translate Tâpwê and record the audiobook. “I’m really a passenger on this journey, but I know why I’m here. I know why I wanted Sol. I know why I brought Sol to Greystone Books. I know why I tried really hard to interest Greystone Books in advancing Sol’s work in Cree by being involved with the little books that I had written. He’s a master of Cree language, and I am not, but we rely on each other.”

Sainte-Marie – a self-confessed bibliophile with a habit of buying both print and audio versions of books – sees the audiobook as an important part of language revitalization. “I think it’s wonderful in terms of language that we can have audiobooks, because unless you’re a Cree speaker you’re not gonna know what it is. Minority people in the big education system that’s come down to us from Europe, have been totally left out,” she says. “Anything we can do on the grassroots level, like Tomson Highway or Louise Erdrich, capturing moments from within their own lives and turning them into print books, audiobooks, movies – it’s all good. When it comes to revitalizing and protecting, using, spreading, being interested in Indigenous languages, there’s no such thing as too much or too little.”

In a country where, in living memory, children were punished for speaking Indigenous languages at school, books such as Tâpwê represent the strong continuity of Indigenous cultures in the face of a long history of suppression – especially when read aloud.

“Our literature, our stories, our feelings, our talents. There’s so much,” Sainte-Marie says. “So thank you to anybody who is willing to be interested. I have a saying: keep your nose on the joy trail. Sniff out all of the wonderful things that may have been covered up and locked away in somebody’s closet for a long time. We are here, and we are writing, and thank you for being interested in what we have to say. Sometimes it’s real special.”