Learning numbers and colors and animals is a time-honored ritual, with children sitting on a parent’s lap to recite two, or yellow, or frog.
Now, though, some can recite niizh, or ozaawiziwag, or omakakiig.
Skyler Kuczaboski, a young woman from St. Paul who is now a freshman at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has created a children’s book in the Ojibwe language. It came about through a course called Language Revitalization, offered by Dartmouth’s Linguistics and Native American Studies programs.
Her instructor, linguist Hilaria Cruz, had developed a children’s book in her own native language of Chatino, spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“I was talking to her about how great this was and how I wish we could do this for Ojibwe, which is a passion of mine,” said Kuczaboski, who is Ojibwe. “She told me I could translate her book into Ojibwe for my final grade.
“It was the first time I could have the support — that I could do what I want to do.”
Kuczaboski doesn’t consider herself fluent in Ojibwe, but she does have a basic knowledge of the language. “I knew these words because I went to the American Indian Magnet School at Harding [High School in St. Paul],” she said. “Conjugating them was a little challenging. And I had to find a word for ‘pink.’ ”
The book called “Agindaasodaa!” has been a group effort. (The word translates as “he/she reads, she/he writes.”)
Former teachers helped her with language and proofreading. She used a software illustrator program for the images, but now an actual illustrator is providing original drawings. The final touch: Cruz’s mother sewed together the cloth pages, just as she did for the books in Chatino.
For Cruz, the books represent a longtime goal. As a child in the Oaxaca region, she’d grown up speaking Chatino, a tonal language with no written equivalent. But when she attended a distant school, everyone spoke Spanish.
“I couldn’t understand a word,” she said. “For me, it was completely shocking.”
She also learned that languages could be written. Eventually, through a linguistics program at the University of Texas, Cruz and her sister developed a written system for their indigenous language. But efforts to do a book were stymied until Cruz arrived at Dartmouth, which backed her project.
“My dream was to have a book to read to my daughter,” Cruz said. “This touches a core in me, and really elevates the language.”
The Dartmouth project now has created books in Chatino, Ojibwe and Hupa, a language of the Athabaskan community in northwestern California. The class plans to make digital templates available so that the books can be created in any language.
They’re working with a publisher to make the books available, but expect that it will take some time.
For now, Kuczaboski’s book may be most accessible through a YouTube video of her reading the book. (Visit YouTube.com and type Agindaasodaa! in the search field.)
Kuczaboski hasn’t declared a major, but is studying sociology, Native American studies and linguistics.
“I have tons of ideas in mind,” she said.