Rare smarts show up in ‘Raven Paints the Birds’

• Dorothy Robert Cline’s new book available locally and on Amazon.com
By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Mike and Dorothy Cline with Dorothy’s new book, “Ravens Paints the Birds.”

HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda - Mike and Dorothy Cline with Dorothy’s new book, “Ravens Paints the Birds.”

A long time ago, birds were colorless, a dull gray that displeased Raven and his friend Jay. Ever industrious from his lofty perch, Raven finds a colorful river bank, plucks a feather from Jay and sets to solving the problem.
The result, based on an ancient Athabascan story, is retold by retired Paul Banks Elementary teacher Dorothy Cline, who many will know as Dotty. The seeds of the story published in “Raven Paints the Birds” came to her four decades ago while working in the village of Tanana. 
“I played with the story for 40 years. It’s a little tale that was told to me in Tanana about why ravens are black. It was the kind of story you could think about and stretch it in your mind,” Cline recalled. “I would tell the story over and over through the years, to students, to my children and now my grandchildren. I’m still telling the story and finally, I decided to just write it.”
The story of raven’s ultimate cleverness isn’t without trickery. We find out why the grebe lacks a tail, how come the loon looks splattered and why the tanager twins come in separate coloring. The legendary bird’s behavior in the story documents an ancient knowledge of raven’s  arrogance, his inventiveness and his generosity. 
The indigenous tale, told to Cline by the late Lee Edwin, Sr. of Tanana, held these concepts even in its briefness. Cline “stretched and embellished” it, mindful of showing respect for the original story.
“Lee told me the story about ‘Crow’ who discovered a special place on the river where the clay was many colors.  He used the clay to paint the birds, but when it was time to paint Grebe, Swan and Loon he was tired, so he painted them any old way and that made them mad,” Cline recalled. “The three birds threw Crow in the dark mud, making him black.  In retaliation he kicked Grebe so it didn’t have any tail, he put ashes on the swan, which made it white and he splattered the loon.”
Cline adds in other bird species for a colorfully illustrated story book both children and adults can love. The town’s fondness for the Sandhill crane, for example, isn’t overlooked. Cline will tell  you how he received a red crested head. 
Colorful as the book is, the illustrations posed the biggest challenge for the author. To get Raven’s postures right, Dotty and her husband, Mike Cline, sat at the McNeil Canyon dumpster for hours observing them in action. In her worry about how to give his eyes correct expressions, she consulted Alaska artist Gary Lyon. 
“He said, ‘here’s what you do.’ He showed me how to make bird’s eyes more expressive. And he encouraged me. That kind of encouragement really helps you.”
Cline began with finger paintings by three of her five grandchildren. Then she cut shapes out and pasted them to a scenic background also made of the cutouts. The result gives the illustrations the look of playful but accurate shapes.
Both Mike and Dotty Cline were longtime teachers. She came to Tanana in the early 1970s as young teacher who acted as an intermediary for village people enrolled in a teacher education program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The idea was to help the college students remain in their own villages while completing their teaching certification. Cline was the “bridge” between villagers and the UAF. (One of her students was the daughter of Lee Edwin Sr., who had told her the story.) She met Mike when he also began working with this program. The two taught in Noorvik and Deering before their move to Homer where they wanted to raise their two children around their own culture. Dotty taught music 19 years at Paul Banks Elementary and served four years as the school librarian. 
In retirement, Mike has written and published “Bear Hunter: Adventures of a Koyukon Boy.” The Clines help and encourage one another on their projects. During the work of “Raven Paints the Birds,” Mike urged his wife on through encouragement. 
A seemingly simple children’s book can become complicated when it deals with an indigenous Alaskan tale. 
“I went through a lot of stories searching to see if it was written down by others, and I found only one reference to it in a collection,” Cline said. “I wanted to honor my responsibilities to the owners of the story. I struggled with that for a while. But it’s wonderful when we can share one another’s stories. We’re honoring that connection.”
Already at work on a new project, Cline is collecting photos and stories for a children’s biography on Paul Banks. He was a Homer homesteader, the school’s janitor and a musician whose songs she also compiled in a book. This will give new generations a knowledge of his many contributions. 

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Posted by on Dec 14th, 2011 and filed under Feature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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