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Preserving language and identity

Miss Kristi Talbot chats about the importance of revitalizing Indigenous language and culture through a series of singing circles.

Miss Kristi Talbot

image courtesy of Miss Kristi Talbot

In celebration of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032, the AGO has teamed up with early childhood educator Miss Kristi Talbot for a series of family-friendly singing circles in the Mohawk Language. Designed by Talbot for children, caregivers, parents and teachers, participants are taught classic nursery rhymes and children’s songs like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Head and Shoulders, translated from English to Mohawk. With formal training in early childhood education, visual arts and the Mohawk language, she dedicates her time to developing tools to share her culture and language with children and families in and out of her own community. 

To learn more, we met with Miss Kristi Talbot to dive deeper into her use of music in teaching the Mohawk language. 

AGOinsider: What started your journey in designing Mohawk Language Nursery Songs?

Talbot: Going back to the very start, I began my own language journey as a fresh graduate of Early Childhood Education in 2013. I began teaching for Fort Erie Aboriginal Head Start, where we taught Mohawk language vocabulary. I was learning alongside the children and saw firsthand the impact it was having on their lives, as well as my own. I wanted to share the language with more children and families, so I started designing curriculum resources that helped educators and caregivers share the language with the children in their lives. This past year, this work included translating the nursery rhymes. I knew that translating these classic children’s songs would be a perfect way to engage with the language in a fun and inviting way. I offered a public class to share the songs and received overwhelming interest. The opportunities to share the language and the songs keep coming and the best part is that the journey is truly just beginning. Soon the songs will be recorded and available to download. Eventually, I hope to turn them into children’s books. There are so many possibilities and I am very excited to share them with the world. 

AGOinsider: What are some of the unique features of the Mohawk language? Are there various dialects?

Talbot: Mohawk is unique in that it is a descriptive language. Each word is a sentence in its own right and often that sentence is in motion. Rather than a simple label for an animal or a shape, we are describing how it acts, looks, or behaves. In English, we use the word “bee”, while in Mohawk we say “Katsikhe’tón:nis” meaning “It makes sugar [or honey]”. The elders say that in order for us to fully immerse ourselves back into our culture, we must know our language as our teachings are entwined in our words. The word “bee” is a perfect example that highlights this knowledge. As Indigenous people, we have immense respect for Mother Earth and the creatures that cohabitate with us here. We understand that we are all equals and we honour the bee by giving it a name that recognizes its importance. We know the bee has an important job and our word to describe the bee helps us remember why it is important. 

Yes, just like most languages, Mohawk has different dialects. The people of the Mohawk nation are dispersed throughout South-Eastern Canada and Upper State New York. Throughout the generations, these various factions of the tribe have developed unique expressions, pronunciations, and spelling in the language. My generational ties are to the Mohawk community of Six Nations on the Grand River and this is where I attended the full-time adult immersion program “Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa”. 

AGOinsider: From your perspective, what power does music have as a learning tool?

Talbot: As an educator, I recognize that music is a very powerful learning tool, especially when learning a language. In my studies, I learned all about how music is a universal language and helps connect a certain part of our brains when we are learning something new. In my experience as a teacher, I used music every day to help the children learn. I would hear them humming the songs during independent play and I knew that I was reaching them. At the end of the year, we would put on a concert entirely in Mohawk. The children were so proud to share all that they had learned with their families. I know that as an adult I still remember the songs I learned as a child. Music has that power. To reach a part deep in your spirit and carry on with you throughout your life. 

AGOinsider: What are the takeaways you'd like children, parents, teachers and caregivers to leave with from your singing circles?

Talbot: I have one goal in mind with all of my endeavours -- I want our language to thrive and our people to be strong. It is my hope that my songs and teachings inspire more people to begin their language journey. I remember what it was like to start and I know it can be intimidating. I teach my classes and create my resources with that in mind – remembering how it felt to begin. I want people to know that the journey is worth it. There is so much healing along the way. 

AGOinsider: Out of all the nursery songs you've translated, what's your favourite?

Talbot: I have a soft spot in my heart for Rock a Bye Baby. I translated all of the songs while I was pregnant with my daughter. When I was singing them, I imagined her inside of me listening and feeling them. I felt this the most when I was writing Rock a Bye Baby. Due to the original nature of the song, I decided to change the words to something more pleasant. In Mohawk, I wrote “My baby, will you please go to sleep? If you wake up, it will be ok. I will put you to sleep again.” I remember writing this and thinking about how excited I was to hold my baby for the first time. Every time I sing this to her now, I remember how I felt when I wrote it and how I knew I was writing it for her. 

Interested in learning more? Join Miss Kristi Talbot’s Mohawk singing circle sessions every Tuesday morning in March for free, via Zoom. Registration is required. For more details, the song list, lyrics and to register, visit the website.

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