The publication of Michael James Isaac’s new book was a landmark event for the Mi’kmaq culture, for Roseway Publishing, for the illustrator and for Isaac himself. How the Cougar Came To Be Called the Ghost Cat / Ta’n Petalu Te-lui’tut Skite’kmujewey Mia’wj is Isaac’s first book. It is Roseway’s first children’s book. It is illustrator Dozay Christmas’s first children’s book, and this beautiful and colourful book makes a significant contribution to the body of children’s stories available in Mi’kmaq.
At a recent event at the Mic-mac Native Friendship Centre, Isaac read his book in English and Kirsten Denny accompa-nied him in Mi’kmaq. It is a beautiful language, fluid and melodic, and the readers did full justice to the story of Ajig, a young cougar who strays deep into the forest. Unable to find his way home, he looks to other animals and birds to help him. They become friends, and Ajig learns to adapt to his new home, putting aside his cougar nature so he can fit into the world of his new friends.
When Isaac went to school at Listuguj First Nation in Quebec, he and his classmates were taught in English.
Banned from using his lan-guage, Isaac gradually lost the ability to speak it. Today, he understands Mi’kmaq but speaking it remains difficult.
“It is slowly coming back,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Cape Breton, “but I need to re-learn the spoken words. There’s still a way to go to recover my fluency.”
In the story, Ajig finally realizes that a part of himself is locked away, tucked far down inside. He decides to go back and find others like him. But the other cougars don’t see a brother in Ajig. They see someone who has changed, someone who is no longer one of them, and Ajig is caught between two worlds, forever yearning to belong and never quite fitting in.
The story of Ajig the cougar is a story of lost identity, of giving up part of yourself to fit in. It is a story taken from Isaac’s own lived experiences.
But it is not just for small children, says Isaac. Children of all ages relate to Ajig. They understand his dilemma as he struggles to find where he belongs.
Isaac speaks passionately about his community and the need to promote and preserve all that is good about his cul-ture. He came to Cape Breton as part of the Tribal Police Force, policing the community in which he lived. “It was difficult,” he said. “It is hard to be effective without proper resources and funding.” He saw his community “as a large family. I never took anything personally and would discuss problems when things calmed down.”
When the tribal police force was dismantled at the end of the 1990s, Isaac turned to education as a way to contrib-ute to his community. He be-came a teacher. And while he was working on his masters degree in education at St. F.X., he was given an assignment to write a children’s book. He looked to his lived experiences for inspiration and the result is How the Cougar Came To Be Called the Ghost Cat / Ta’n Petalu Telui’tut Skite’kmuje-wey Mia’wj.
He used the book in his classes, reading it to all grade levels. One day, a new author visited the school and Isaac listened and was inspired. “I knew my book was just as good,” he said.
Last Christmas, he sent the manuscript to Roseway Publishers, and the rest, as they say, is history. Isaac feels that publishing his book in two languages is an important step. “We need our own stories, where our children can see themselves. They need to see themselves in the curriculum.”
“Kirsten is part of the first cohort of immersion students in Eskasoni,” says Isaac. He believes that a strong founda-tion in their first language gives young people confidence and a strong sense of identity.
And Isaac has every reason to be proud. How the Cougar Came To Be Called the Ghost Cat / Ta’n Petalu Telui’tut Skite’kmujewey Mia’wj is an engaging, fanciful story which is brought to life by Christ-mas’s beautiful illustrations. The theme is timeless and it speaks to children across cul-tural boundaries. They will all see themselves in Ajig as he struggles to find his place in the world.
–Judith Meyrick is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.