Owls See Clearly At Night: A Michif Alphabet

BookCover Julie Flett,
Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L’Alfabet di Michif / Owls See Clearly At Night: A Michif Alphabet 

Simply Read Books, 2009.

Ages: 4+

Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet Book, Métis illustrator Julie Flett’s debut as an author, shows the artist’s commitment to her heritage. A result of the mingling of First Nations (mostly Cree and Ojibwe) and European cultures (mostly the French and Scots peoples), Michif has a long, rich history as an oral language, but its writing systems are fairly new. With this book Flett carries us along on a very unique alphabet journey.

From the introduction we learn that the Michif language, once spoken by thousands in Canada and the US, is now in danger of disappearing (as are so many of the minority languages of the world). Sadly, today very few Métis children speak or even understand it.

Owls See Clearly At Night introduces readers to the fact that the letters “Q” and “X” don’t exist in the Michif language, and that “whole sentences can often be expressed by a single word.” Fittingly, the book opens with A is for Atayookee!, which means Tell a Story!: a perfect nod to the oral history of the language and to the central place that oral storytelling has always had in the Michif culture.

Flett’s art – digitally manipulated hand-made drawings – displays her preference for clean lines and her superb use of white space. The elegant and reduced color palette lends itself beautifully to her shillouette figures amidst smaller colorful details, such as the two girls wearing dark moccasins, with tiny red and blue flowers on them, doing the jig in the letter J forLa Jig / Jig.  A perfect example of the artist’s feminine and lyrical style is the illustration for letter C, Lii Chiiraañ / Northern Lights, which shows the silhouette of a girl with black hair blowing in the wind, facing a beautiful northern light sky. We can’t see her face, yet we know: she is in perfect harmony with her environment.

A pronunciation guide for vowels and consonants and a list of useful websites and books on the history of the language are included.  Author’s notes at the back acknowledge the help of, among others, Métis language activist, Elder Grace (Ledoux) Zoldy. In a race against time, Owls See Clearly at Night represents an essential step in the direction of preserving and transmitting the Michif language to future generations. Kudos to Julie Flett for this very important contribution!

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