When Sheena Potts was five, her grandmother brought home a tiny chalkboard and desk, set them up downstairs and instructed Potts to be a teacher, while her younger cousin would be the student. Her grandmother was a soft, kind and humble woman who taught Potts to know and love her culture. She also taught her to teach.
Throughout her life, Potts, (Mai’stoistowaakii – Crow Pretty Woman) continued to teach. She worked as a school teacher, principal and educational director for Treaty 7. Today this manifests as passing along the traditional ways to her granddaughter, just like her grandmother did for her.
Among the 4,000 or-so members of the Piikani Nation where Potts was born and raised, only about 10 per cent speak Blackfoot fluently, Potts says. Now, she’s working to revitalize the language through a children’s book she wrote for her granddaughter, Sophie (Aahkya paahkwiinamaaki–Coming Home Pipe Woman) before the last fluent speakers pass away.
“These are the kind of people that we need to hold in high esteem within our communities so that we can carry on the language,” says Potts.
Last year, the Calgary Public Library held a two-week writer’s academy. Fifteen of 20 Piikani, Siksika, Kainai, Stoney and Tsuu T’ina writers ultimately had their work published, and Potts was among them. The project was in response to a lack of kids’ resources at the Calgary Public Library.
“There were no children’s books written in Blackfoot,’ says Potts. “There were lots of books written, but they were written in English.”
When she heard of the opportunity, she “jumped at it,” and wrote her first children’s book called Aakomimmihtanii (Love), inspired by her granddaughter.
“Sophie is the reason I wrote my book. I wanted her to know that when she came into this world that she was loved.”
The book, which was illustrated by her niece, is about strength, bravery, nature, tradition, and above all else, the love of family.
“I want my granddaughter to love. To know that materialism is secondary in life and our teachings and spending time with our grandparents and our relatives is much more important,” says Potts.
When Potts looks back on her life, many of her memories are of her grandmother’s love and teachings.
“She was the one that reminded me that we needed to stay close to our culture and stay close to our language.”
On September 25, she shared her book and journey through an online event, hosted by the Lethbridge book and magazine festival.
At the event, she says love is the gift she gives to her granddaughter.
“I want her to know our culture,” says Potts. “I want her to be a leader in our culture. I want her to grow up close to our pipe. I want her to be kind, loving and gracious in life.”
Aakomimmihtanii (Love) is available at some Calgary Library locations, you can reserve your copy here.