When author Ernestine Hayes thinks of the stories and nursery rhymes she learned as a child in Juneau, she remembers farm animals and phrases like “a cow goes ‘moo.’” Why, she wonders now, should children growing up in Southeast Alaska, a place with no real farms, hear stories about cows instead of stories about bears and ravens?
“It really does a disservice to Alaska children to tell them stories about farm animals,” she said.
Hayes, who is a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan and the author of the American Book Award-winning memoir “Blonde Indian,” has written a new story specifically for the children of Southeast Alaska. “Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegí” (“The Story of the Town Bear and the Forest Bear”) is believed to be the first original children’s book published in the Tlingit language.
The story, a retelling of the fable “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” came to Hayes years ago while she was working as an interpreter on the state ferry. She’d been tasked with coming up with a children’s program and thought the classic story could be adapted to be relevant to Southeast Alaska. In Hayes’ version of the tale, Town Bear visits his relative in the forest and watches him fish, pick berries and dig roots, then invites him to observe the easy - but dangerous - city life of digging through trash cans.
“It’s not a book about Native children, it’s a book for Native children,” Hayes said. “I really like that distinction - it’s really important.”
The story was just the beginning. A few years ago, Hayes and editor/publisher Liz Dodd were both in a Tlingit language class at the University of Alaska Southeast, where they both also teach. They were discussing Tlingit reading materials when Hayes revealed that she had a story for local children.
An idea was hatched, and Dodd set the project in motion, involving illustrator Wanda Culp from Hoonah, The Alaska Association of School Boards, linguists, elders, graphic designers and printers. Together, they have produced a children’s book now available in both Tlingit and English, as well as an audiobook and a separate study guide for educators and students.
Hayes’ original story was written in English, then presented to linguist and teacher Roby Littlefield and elder Ethel Makinen of Sitka, who prepared a translation into Tlingit, with additional assistance from elder Isabelle Chulik. Translation is never an easy process, and the project’s challenges were compounded by words in the original story that just didn’t exist in Tlingit - hamburger, bird feeder, bear-proof garbage can, for example.
The Tlingit translation - without the original story - was next given to linguist Keri Eggleston, who worked with elder Helen Sarabia to prepare a new English translation. The resulting story, passed “through the Tlingit language filter,” is different from the original. Those who have seen both, including Hayes, seem to agree that something magical happened in the re-translation process, and that the new English version is richer and more nuanced for it.
The book was released first in Tlingit, and then in English, by Hazy Island Books, the local publishing company Dodd co-owns with Kim Metcalfe.
At the book’s launch party held in May at the Goldbelt Hotel, a father read the book to his children, a linguist read the book to an elder, and plenty of conversations - some fluent, some hesitant - in Tlingit could be heard around the room.
This is exactly what those who worked on the book hoped would happen.
The Alaska Association of School Boards’ Initiative for Community Involvement, which funded the project, wants to foster healthy relationships between adults and children and encourage adults in Alaska communities to support children.
So far nearly 400 copies of the Tlingit book, with study guides and audio books, have been distributed free of charge to educators and students around Southeast Alaska under the grant, Dodd said.
The discussion questions in the study guide, which Hayes prepared, encourage readers to discuss how they relate to the places they live.
“Why is the forest bear unhappy after his relative comes to talk to him? What are they afraid of in town? What should you do with your garbage? And where do you belong? What sort of food should you be eating?” Hayes said in a presentation at the launch. “(The book) not only communicates a fun story that’s funny and interesting and totally in the Tlingit language, but also communicates the values, the lessons, that we want to teach not just Native children but all children - to ask these questions: How should I be living? How should relate to the place I am living and how should I treat other beings?”
Native Tlingit speakers Florence Sheakley and Paul Marks read the story for the audiobook recording which accompanies the study guide. Tlingit orthography is relatively new, so reading Tlingit does not necessarily come easily to elders who grew up speaking Tlingit as children, and Marks said reading the story for the recording took a some practice.
“It took a village to raise this book,” Hayes told the group of people at the launch, nearly all of whom had contributed to the project in one way or another. “And a whole village can get together and can be proud of what’s done here.”
The book has attracted international attention, thanks largely to an article in the London Guardian. Dodd said they have even gotten inquiries from New Zealanders interested in doing a similar project.
Last Saturday Hayes and the book’s illustrator Wanda Culp were at the Mount Roberts Tramway for a book signing. Over a hamburger at the tram’s restaurant during a break, Culp laughed about being a fish out of water in Juneau. Like the forest bear in the story, she’s more comfortable in the forest.
“We’re used to this,” she said, pointing out the window to the hemlock and spruce trees - not trying to figure where you can park in downtown Juneau.
Culp is Chookaneidí (Eagle-Brown Bear Clan) and lives in Hoonah. She prepared 34 original watercolors to illustrate the book, drawing inspiration from Chichagof Island for the forest scenes and basing the town scenes on Hoonah (“which nobody sees as a city,” she laughed).
Hayes has a new children’s story in the works - “It’s to do with Raven, and its storyline reinforces clan identity” is all she will say at this point - but she has no interest in cornering the market on Tlingit children’s books.
“We want it to be like a beginning of a series,” she said, “and encourage others (to write) so there’s a series of books in the Tlingit language, for Tlingit children and in the Tlingit voice ... We don’t want it to be a curiosity, we want it to be a trend.”
Educators are encouraged to visit aasb.org for information on ordering materials for classroom use. The audiobook is available for free download on the site. The book is also available at Hearthside Books in Juneau.
• Katie Spielberger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.