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Area Voices: Cousins team up to tell family story

Photo of "How the Birds Got Their Songs" book with a bright blue cover and eagle and hermit thrush
Andrew Dziengel
The cover of the book "How the Birds Got Their Songs" by Area Voices guests Travis and Sam Zimmerman.

Travis Zimmerman and his illustrator cousin, Sam Zimmerman, turned one of their grandmother's recorded stories into a book: “How the Birds Got Their Songs."

In an ever-changing world, family traditions and cultural ties matter. Travis Zimmerman is working to preserve the stories of his family.

In the new book How the Birds Got Their Songs, Travis brings to light the stories his father recorded from his grandmother.

The story goes like this: Mother Earth was very young, and the Great Spirit had created all the beings and noticed how quiet it was. The Great Spirit decided to hold a contest so that each bird could earn its perfect song. Each bird would fly as high in the sky as it could and when they returned to Mother Earth they would receive their song. The bird that would fly the highest would earn the loveliest song. Find out which bird flies the highest in the book.

Photos of Travis Zimmerman on the left and Sam Zimmerman on the right
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Travis Zimmerman, left, and Sam Zimmerman who collaborated together to make the book "How the Birds Got Their Songs."

Preserving family history

The idea of turning the story into a book started a few years ago. Travis found the stories written down in pencil and literally disappearing off the pages.

“It just kind of hit me... My dad's getting older," Travis said. "He's 83 now, and so I thought, ‘Well, if I'm gonna do anything with these stories, we should do something sooner than later.’”

Travis reached out to his cousin Sam Zimmerman, an artist, to see if he would illustrate the book. Sam agreed, and he also brought in a friend named Marcus Ammesmaki who could translate the book to Ojibwemowin as well.

For Sam, this was the first children’s book in acrylic. He received the story in both English and Ojibwemowin before illustrating it. There was some conversation with Travis about different illustrations, but Sam had free reign to create what he wanted.

When asked why it was important to have the story in Ojibwemowin before he began illustrating, Sam said, “There's a beauty in our language, and so it really did help me get a sense of how to put the images in a sequence to follow that kind of rhythm.”

While Sam was excited to bring the story to life, he was also excited to be able to work with and spend more time with his cousin.

“I think it's really quite beautiful and without our good nature and our good humor with each other, I don't think the book would have been as beautiful,” Sam said.

Illustration by Sam Zimmerman from "How the Birds Got Their Songs" featuring a hermit thrush and eagle.
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Illustration by Sam Zimmerman from "How the Birds Got Their Songs" featuring a hermit thrush and eagle.

Passing the story

Traditional Ojibwe stories were passed down orally — especially in winter, when snow is on the ground — and were not supposed to be written down. But there is an exception with “How to” stories, according to Travis, who works in historical preservation.

“Sometimes people pass away with these stories and if no one's ever really paid attention or really documented the stories somehow, then they do get lost," he said. "So, it was important for us to write these stories down.

It was just equally as important to do it in Ojibwe cause Ojibwe is an endangered language, so to be able to have Ojibwe out there and written down now, that'll be out there forever.”

Sam added, “I don't remember seeing a lot of books when I was younger that had Ojibwemowin written down. And so, to bring this, especially a children's book... It's just really exciting.”

Travis understands generational stories are essential, and he said he hopes readers understand it as well.

“I think family stories are really important," he said. "And it's really important to pass them on and to keep them alive... but also stories were meant to really kind of instill certain morals and values.”

Sam added, “I think it's also important for Ojibwe kiddos to see that there are Ojibwe writers and authors and illustrators who are putting books out and that they can do this and encourage them to do this.”

This book is very special to Travis and Sam. Travis wrote this book not only to honor his dad but also to pass down to his own kids and grandchildren.

“And hopefully they'll tell their kids or their grandkids the story someday,” he said.

Sam was excited to give the first copy of the book to his father.

“I think this is just a beautiful gift," he said. "... We went into it to honor our family, and I think we did them proud."

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Area Voices is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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