National Book Festival: Children's Ojibwe book wins Minnesota's Best Read for 2011
"Awesiinyensag Dibaajimowinan Ji-Gikinoo'amaageng," a monolingual Ojibwe book for young readers, was chosen by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress to represent Minnesota this year in the National Book Festival.
"Awesiinyensag Dibaajimowinan" or "Animal Stories," named Minnesota's Best Read, is a set of stories originated by Ojibwe first speakers to entertain children, teach them the language and culture with modern, fun, humorous stories. The book is illustrated by watercolor paintings by Wesley Ballinger and published by Wiigwaas (Birchbark) Press, owned by Heid Erdrich.
Anton Treuer, Bemidji State University Ojibwe professor and editor of the book with John Nichols, said about 1,000 people in the United States and about 10,000 in Canada are fluent speakers of Ojibwe speakers. So the language is near the brink of extinction.
"We're worried," Treuer said.
However, he said there has been a big comeback in the last decade. Schools like Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School in Bena and Waadookodaading Ojibwe Immersion Charter School in Hayward, Wis., are creating first speakers among youngsters, Internet sources abound, BSU has a strong program and the body of Ojibwe literature is growing, He said.
The impetus for "Awesiinyensag Dibaajimowinan" came out of a question Treuer posed to Niigaane teachers: "What do you most need?"
The answer was books in the Ojibwe language. Previously, all teachers could do was to paste Ojibwe translations over the lines of print in English language story books.
He organized a group of elders and asked them to make up stories using animal characters and humor in a culturally relevant way. They expressed some hesitation, he said, but with encouragement, they were able to rough out stories for the first book in about three days. Treuer said they actually produced enough material for six more storybooks.
One story that will be in a subsequent collection came from Nancy Jones. He asked her to tell a story from her childhood, and recalled doing chores for her grandmother. Her grandmother would brush a hand over her own white hair and then over Nancy's dark hair. Her grandmother said she was giving Nancy white hair, a symbol of elders' wisdom, one hair at a time. This idea was transformed into the story of "Migiziins," a young, dark-headed eagle growing into his shining white-feathered head.
After the storyboards were designed, a transcriber wrote out the stories, being faithful to the various Ojibwe dialectal differences, and Treuer and Nichols edited the stories with the authors' guidance.
"We are starting to develop a literary tradition for what was originally an oral language," Treuer said.
He acknowledged that some Ojibwe speakers resist the idea that it should be a written language, but he said the change is necessary.
"If Ojibwe is going to be spoken in Minnesota in 100 years, this is a powerful tool," he said.
Other challenges to overcome were publishers who were reluctant to put out bilingual Ojibwe-English books, let alone a monolingual Ojibwe book, for fear they won't sell. But Treuer said initial reception of "Awesiinyensag Dibaajimowinan" has been enthusiastic, and the Minnesota's Best Read award will provide additional impetus.
"I just love it that anyone who wants to read the best book in Minnesota this year has to read it in Ojibwe," he said. People realize there's a market for this."
He said a great satisfaction in the success of the book is the affirmation it gives the storytellers.
"They grew up their whole lives with a skill set no one valued," he said of their fluency in Ojibwe. "I think it's a really great turn now that they're the ones who have the knowledge and authority and receive an accolade for their work."