Tlingit children's book to be released Sunday

An original, all-Tlingit children’s book, “Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegί,” is scheduled for release this Sunday, on Mother’s Day. Written by Juneau author Ernestine Hayes, the book is believed to be the first of its kind.


The project began several years ago, when Hayes adapted the classic English children’s tale “The Story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse” to “portray the experiences of modern day Tlingit people who are living between two worlds here in Southeast Alaska.” After clearing the copyright to the story with the U.S. patent office, Hayes approached Liz Dodd, co-owner of Hazy Island Books, a local book publishing company, about possibilities for illustrating and publishing the book. Dodd raised the idea of turning the story into a Tlingit language children’s book that could be used in the K-12 Tlingit language curriculum, and Hayes liked the idea. As an illustrated tale full of meaning and told in few words, it was not hard for them to imagine young learners engaging with the story and memorizing and acting out its parts.

Hayes was inspired to write the story when as a shipboard interpreter on the Alaska state ferry she was asked to compose a children’s program and wanted to present something that would be relevant to children in Alaska. In the story, Forest Bear is happy living in the woods until one day his relative comes to visit. After a long day of looking for roots, berries, and fish, the bears are still hungry. When Town Bear tells Forest Bear about the food waiting for them in special cans in town, Forest Bear leaves the forest and travels back to town with his relative. But Forest Bear soon finds out that meals in town come at an unexpected price. A uniquely Alaskan work, “Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegί” (“The Story of the Town Bear and the Forest Bear”) tells a timeless tale of the dangers of giving up something we love for the promise of an easy life. An English version of the book will be published later this spring.

Illustrator Wanda Culp brought the bears to life in 34 original watercolor paintings, and the text was translated into Tlingit by the Sitka team of Ethel Makinen, Roby Littlefield, and Isabelle Chulik.

“When I presented the illustrated text to Ethel and Roby at dinner one night last spring, both immediately embraced the story and agreed on its potential as a teaching tool. On that evening last May, ‘Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegί’ was born,” Dodd said.

In addition to the work of the Sitka translators, Juneau linguist Keri Eggleston collaborated with Helen Sarabia to refine the final text. The book was designed by local graphic artist Alison Caputo.

The project was funded by the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement. According to Director Sally Rue, Alaska ICE will be providing the materials to Tlingit language classrooms free of charge and selling the book on the AASB website at A study guide containing the English translation and discussion questions will be available on the website, too, along with a downloadable version of the audio book, featuring the reading voices of Florence Sheakley, Paul Marks, and Kassy Littlefield.

The public is invited to a book release party on Sunday, May 8, beginning at 4 p.m. in the Lobby Meeting Room of the Goldbelt Hotel. Refreshments will be served, the author and illustrator will sign books, and the translators and other contributors will be on hand to talk about the challenges inherent in creating an original Tlingit text.

Ernestine Hayes is the author of “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir,” which won the 2007 American Book Award. Wanda Culp is a well-known artist in several media who grew up in Juneau and has spent much of her life in Hoonah and Excursion Inlet. Hazy Island Books is publisher of “In Sisterhood: The History of Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood,” edited by Kimberly Metcalfe.


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