“Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them,” reads one of the calls to action in the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Publishers are responding to this call by commissioning work from Indigenous writers and artists who create books grounded in authentic experience. Stolen Words and Nimoshom and His Bus represent two welcome additions to this canon. Both feature Cree-speaking grandfathers and aim to preserve and celebrate the language.
In Stolen Words, her second picture book, Cree/Scottish author Melanie Florence details the long-standing pain caused by losing language. The opening spread shows an exuberant seven-year-old girl skipping home after school. She meets her grandpa and asks offhandedly, “How do you say grandfather in Cree?” The seemingly simple question plunges her grandfather back into the horrors of his own childhood at a residential school. He explains the experience in simple, but evocative language, saying, “They took our words and locked them away, punished us until we forgot them, until we sounded like them.” The next day, the granddaughter brings her grandfather a gift from the school library – an introductory book on Cree language.
To say that Florence’s story has a happy ending is an oversimplification. Her text, combined with illustrator Gabrielle Grimard’s pictures, shows that language reclamation is a process – more complex than a simple case of lost and found. While Stolen Words bursts with colour, one beautiful and disturbing spread – done in watery grey, black, and white – shows the grandfather as a child at the residential school. A group of children stand, their heads reluctantly held to the sky with mouths open as their voices flow from their throats in smoky wisps, coalescing into a large blackbird. The bird flies into a cage, held by a white priest.
Back in the present, when the grandfather opens the Cree language book, the previously caged blackbird is released, carrying the Cree words with it. Readers are left with the message that language has not been destroyed, only rendered dormant by its captivity. It’s notable that there are no quotation marks or italics in Florence’s text, liberating it from western conventions and creating the feel of reading a transcript of an oral story.
While Stolen Words shows that reclaiming language is possible, Nimoshom and His Bus has the explicit aim of teaching readers to speak 13 Cree words and phrases. Nimoshom drives a school bus in a rural area and is beloved by the students he transports. On the first page we are told, “Nimoshom means ‘my grandfather’ in Cree.” Every consecutive page translates a new Cree word into English resulting in something closer to an introductory phrase book than narrative story. Nimoshom says “ekosani” (thank you) to the students who bring him Christmas presents; “cheskwa” (wait) when they want his attention; and “tapwe” (truly) when he tries to get them to believe a silly story.
Illustrator Karen Hibbard strikes a calm, peaceful tone with her soft washes of colour and feather-light lines. Hibbard’s use of a joyful yellow on the school bus, in Nimoshom’s vest, and as the dominant colour of the Prairie surroundings – in addition to an abundance of smiling faces on all the students – suggests that this is a happy, thriving community where speaking Cree is part of daily life.
Together, Stolen Words and Nimoshom and His Bus communicate the vital importance of Indigenous language preservation for very young audiences. In order to build a language-rich community like Nimoshom’s, there has to be an understanding of the trauma and healing necessary for people like the grandfather in Stolen Words. Just as Nimoshom adheres to the Cree custom of saying “ekosi” (okay, that’s it, amen) instead of goodbye, there is not a final or end point to reconciliation. It is a process, made richer with books like these.