This Mohawk woman translates nursery rhymes to share her language with children – and caregivers too

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Like other Indigenous peoples in the early stages of reclaiming traditions, Kristi Talbot, a Mohawk with ties to the Six Nations community in Ontario, prioritizes language revitalization.

“I have learned from the elders that passing on the language strengthens [our] values, because our traditions are woven into every word,” said Talbot, 32.

“While my mother broke generational curses herself, I hope to continue this trend and do the same.”

Talbot, who is a new mother, translates nursery rhymes into Kanien’keha (Mohawk) to share with her daughter and other families. It is part of the process of bringing to the surface the memory inherited from the blood of culture and language.

“As a mother, you want to pass on the good that you have received,” she said.

Talbot’s language journey began long before his daughter was born. At age 23, she earned her degree in early childhood education and began working for Aboriginal Head Start, a Fort Erie, Ontario-based program designed to teach culture and language to children in a parent-child environment. students.

She learned bits of Kanien’keha while working in the program, such as colors, animals, and numbers. Later, she saw the difference in the lives of young students as they learned the language and fell in love with it.

I learned from the elders that passing on the language strengthens [our] values, because our traditions are woven into every word.-Kristi Talbot

She then completed a two-year Mohawk language program with Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, a Six Nations-based organization, and began creating programs for organizations such as Fort Erie Aboriginal Head Start, Niwasa Head Start, Upper Canada District School. Board and the Akwesasne School Board.

Then, when she got pregnant last year, she started translating nursery rhymes.

“I thought ‘I still want to teach the language’, so I reached out to see if there was any interest [from other new parents to learn],” she said.

There were more than 100 responses to her request first placed on social media in November 2021. She ultimately attracted 67 students for virtual classes, with a wide range of backgrounds, including mothers, grand -mothers, fathers, educators and guardians.

“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” she said. “In my own path, I have seen how healing [the language] was for me and how proud I was to learn my language and would like to share it.”

‘It’s never too late’

Like many within the Six Nations community, Talbot did not grow up wrapped up in language.

“It’s been a few generations since culture has been involved in our family,” she said. “To bring this back to my family, because they’re passionate about it and I can support them in this now too – [that’s] part of sharing the story that it’s never too late to bring this back,” she said, adding that her mother and sister were very supportive.

Talbot has already started sharing the songs with her daughter, who is now four months old, and she said it’s wonderful to see the language being passed on both by the parents she teaches and by her own child.

“I believe in my heart that my daughter, having been carried while I was writing and singing these songs, spiritually, subconsciously, she already knows these songs,” she said.

LISTEN | Kristi Talbot sings Head and Shoulders in Kanien’keha (monthfalcon)

Kristi Talbot sings Head and Shoulders in Mohawk

Kristi Talbot sings Head and Shoulders in Mohawk. 0:25

“The first time I sang one of the songs to her was when she was two months old. I was very surprised because she started singing with me when she was two months old,” he said. she declared.

“Such a powerful moment and now, fast forward…we sing these songs every day. It’s so wonderful to know that his language journey starts at such a young age, when mine started so late. It makes me very happy to be able to give her this gift and I’m very proud that she has confidence in the language.”

But Talbot stresses that it’s just as important for parents to learn the language with the children.

“What I’ve seen in my experience is that these kids were learning these songs, but then they went home and their parents didn’t know how to support them, they didn’t know those words. [Parents] told me they wanted to learn those words and support their child and learn on their own,” she said.

“I’ve learned that it’s very stimulating for yourself, even at an older age. I kept that in mind when designing this course – it’s a nursery rhyme course but it doesn’t is not intended for children. It is designed for educators and caregivers…to learn how to teach children.”

“Music helps to learn”

One of those relatives is Shelby Chubb, a member of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, near Cornwall, Ontario.

The mother-of-two said she was “very grateful” that the course was offered online. “This format has been very helpful to me, and it can reach other people who aren’t usually on or near the reserve anymore,” Chubb said.

Seeing the course posted on an Indigenous forum on Facebook, Chubb said it seemed like a perfect fit. “My daughters are six and three so the nursery rhymes are perfect for their age range at the moment which was another reason I was interested in this course because my daughters would be familiar with the nursery rhyme in English , so they would know the melody,” she said.

Shelby Chubb is a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation near Cornwall, Ontario. The mother-of-two says she was grateful the nursery rhyme class was offered online. (Submitted by Shelby Chubb)

Chubb’s Totah (grandmother) was the last fluent Kanien’keha speaker in her family. “Because of racism and all that our people have been through, she didn’t pass the language on to my mother and therefore not to me,” she said.

Chubb can read Mohawk words and pronounce them, but she says she has lost much of their meaning over time.

“We had Mohawk lessons at the Mohawk school. But when I came to the school off the reserve and we had to choose languages ​​for our intermediate level requirements, I decided to go with the French and by then I stopped studying Mohawk and I had lost a good chunk of the knowledge so I was looking for that to come back into my life.”

Once she became a mother, this learning became even more important.

“Learning is not only for me now, but also for my children and the generations that will follow me. If I don’t make the effort to learn my history, my language and my culture, either my children must follow this coat or it will be lost to my family,” Chubb says.

“It’s so important to our cultural identity to hear Mohawk, let alone understand it, that I wanted to make sure that even if I fumble on my words or don’t quite understand, my children hear Mohawk. .in our house and I’m doing my best to use it with them.”

Either my kids have to take that coat back or it will be lost to my family.-Shelby Chubb

Having lived in Europe and learned bits of Spanish, Japanese and French, Chubb has always learned languages. She says she enjoys Talbot’s delivery of nursery rhyme lessons.

“She took the time to talk about the meaning behind the words. It wasn’t like a traditional grammar or language class because we were learning the words from the nursery rhymes she composed, but the music helps you learn. languages,” says Chubb. .

For example, Talbot translated the song “Let it Snow” and used the word her: kon, which is commonly used for “hello”, but is also used as “always” or “again”. In this song it is used, roughly, to mean “it’s still snowing”.

“I really appreciated all of this background information that Kristi shared,” she said. “I was able to expand on words I already knew and it was really exciting to learn things I didn’t already know.”

Talbot will now share the lessons even more widely. It is intended to teach nursery rhymes every Tuesday with the Art Gallery of Ontario throughout March.

She also plans to make recordings of the songs, of which there are more than 50, to help share them further.

“My ultimate goal as someone who has started reclaiming culture and language is to be able to encourage people to do the same,” she said.

“Through this work, I hope to reach… as many people as possible and share this knowledge, share these songs, bring them into the homes, classrooms and lives of as many people and children as possible. .”

This is all part of the larger project to ensure the survival of the language for future generations.

“It’s no secret that our languages ​​are in danger of extinction,” she said. “And we have to teach the children, but we also have to teach the caregivers and the parents in their lives.”

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