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Tlingit book collaboration turns new page in Alaska kids' reading

Posted: May 14, 2011 - 9:06pm
Roby Littlefield, left, holds study guide materials as her daughter Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield holds a copy of "The Story of the Town Bear and Forest Bear,"  on May 9, 2011 in Sitka, Alaska. The book is the first ever written entirely in the Tlingit language.   (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)   JAMES POULSON
JAMES POULSON
Roby Littlefield, left, holds study guide materials as her daughter Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield holds a copy of "The Story of the Town Bear and Forest Bear," on May 9, 2011 in Sitka, Alaska. The book is the first ever written entirely in the Tlingit language. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)

SITKA — “The Story of the Town Bear and Forest Bear” will be recognizable to anyone who has read the classic tale about a pair of similarly diverse mice.

But not many will be able to read it — at least at first — because the book is written entirely in the Tlingit language.

The illustrated children’s book is the result of a collaboration among contributors living in Sitka, Juneau and Hoonah, including fluent speakers, storytellers and an artist. The book comes with a CD to help with pronunciation and a separate English translation and classroom discussion guide.

Roby Littlefield, of Sitka, says that as far as she knows it’s the first of its kind.

“It was something we thought needs to be done,” she said. “No one else is doing it.”

The children’s story was written by Ernestine Hayes, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, and translated into Tlingit by Ethel Makinen and Littlefield. Wanda Loescher Culp, of Hoonah, illustrated the book.

The book tells the story of a visit by the Town Bear to see his cousin Forest Bear in the wilds, in a variation of “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.” Forest Bear then joins Town Bear for an adventure in town. They compare the food, challenges and dangers of their respective environs. (Spoiler alert: they each go back to their homes in the end.)

The English translation and classroom discussion guide — which is a separate book — points kids to discussions that compare city life to a life in the bears’ natural environment. There are also lessons about the bears’ behavior, and the benefits to humans from the proper disposal of garbage in order not to attract bears to town.

Hayes came up with the idea for the children’s Tlingit book, and talked to publisher Liz Dodd, co-owner of Hazy Island Books.

“The proposal was to make a children’s book all in Tlingit,” Littlefield said.

But no one was sure it was possible.

Hayes, who is Tlingit and a member of the Wolf House of the Kogwanton, is not a Tlingit speaker, and needed help. Roby’s daughter, Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield, a UAS student and intermediate Tlingit speaker, agreed to pass four pages of text around to fluent Tlingit speakers for a trial run to see if the book could be translated.

“We knew it could be done, we have fluent speakers who can do this,” Littlefield said.

But Hayes and publisher Liz Dodd agreed that translating the book on paper was not going to be enough, since there is also the issue of pronouncing the Tlingit words correctly, Litttlefield said. The single project grew into three, with the children’s book, an audio companion, and the translated text and “classroom discussion guide.”

They pitched the idea to the Association of Alaska School Boards, which agreed to fund the project.

Littlefield said the project was a true collaboration.

Tlingit speakers Florence Sheakley and Paul Marks of Juneau recorded the Tlingit story, with sound effects help from Sitka radio producer Steve Johnson, and production help from Jeff Brown at KTOO-FM in Juneau.

For the classroom discussion guide and translation, other Tlingit speakers were consulted, including Keri Eggleston and Helen Sarabia.

Makinen and Littlefield received help with their translation work from Isabelle Chulik, who served as a “backup translator” and was able to add some verbs that others didn’t know, Littlefield said.

Dodd, who is a co-owner of Hazy Island Books, comments in the introduction to the classroom discussion guide that finding the right Tlingit expression could be tricky, since the story includes words that basically don’t exist in Tlingit.

Littlefield found that in the process of fine-tuning the translation back and forth from Tlingit to English, “You could see the Tlingit world view emerge.”

“It was brilliant,” she said. “It brought the Tlingit world view into the Tlingit language version of the story.”

Littlefield said it took about a year and a half to complete the book and CD package. A reception for the authors, translators and all involved with the book was held earlier May 8 in Juneau.

Littlefield said the process was interesting and challenging. She felt it was a project that promoted an awareness of the need to preserve the Tlingit language.

“I like to feel I’m giving back to my community in a way that’s valuable and needed,” she said. “I want to give back to the elders, who have given me so much.”

Littlefield, who is non-Native, has been studying the Tlingit language since 1975. Her first teacher was her father-in-law, Ed Littlefield. She now teaches two sections of Tlingit at Blatchley Middle School, and two at University of Alaska Southeast, Sitka Campus.

Littlefield said she “played around” with the language until 1981, when she took a class from linguist Michael Krause, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the Alaska Native Language Center. He gave an assessment of the health of the Native language in the state, and assessed the Tlingit language as one “in bad shape, and dead in 20 years.

She said the class, and Krause, changed her life.

“He gave me a clear vision of what I could do, to not let the language evaporate,” Littlefield said. “The children have to be learners; if the children aren’t learning, the language is dying. If the youngest speakers are 50 or 60, it’s dying or it’s dead. ... I realized time was getting short. We have to start to get to work or the language will die.”

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