JUNEAU (AP) — Mallory Story, Will Geiger, Andrew Williams and Richard Radford show respect for the people who have lived in Southeast Alaska since time immemorial by learning, and helping to perpetuate, the Tlingit language. Six months ago, the four started a free Tlingit workshop at Juneau’s downtown library.
“We’ve been given a lot of knowledge,” Story said. “We want to keep studying and share that knowledge.”
Radford, who has been learning Tlingit for two and a half years, said one of the main goals is to create a space where Tlingit is spoken.
“One of the things I had heard many times from X’unei (University of Alaska Southeast professor Lance Twitchell) was that if you want to learn French, you can go to France. If you want to learn Italian, you can go to Italy. But if you want to learn Tlingit, there is no place to go where Tlingit is spoken. Instead, you have to manufacture that place, create that space. The Tlingit Language Learners Group is an attempt at creating another space where people in the community can come to speak, listen, share, and learn,” he wrote in an email.
Story’s experience with Tlingit began in a class about Alaska Native social change that was taught by Twitchell.
“It just made me a lot more aware of how little I knew about Tlingit language and culture, and I grew up in Juneau and went to public school here,” she said.
On a recent week, the workshop started off with pronunciation practice. There’s the difference between “gooch” — hill — and gooch — wolf — for example. There are high and low tones.
Geiger and Story broke phrases and sentences into their constituent parts, making them easier to understand. “Sá” literally indicates the vocal chords; when it’s used, it indicates a question. “(Your name) yéi xat duwasáakw” — My name is (name) literally means “I keep being named this;” the “kw” indicates repetition.
Students in the workshop, which varies in size from week to week, repeated the phrases, asking each other questions and answering them.
Elders’ aging adds urgency to their efforts.
“There are a lot of resources like dictionaries and linguistic documents, and grammars. Those are really helpful, but without the elders who actually know the stuff and have internalized it, .” said Geiger.
There’s another reason to learn when there are people to learn from: Along with language, history is forgotten and mis-remembered.
“In the totality of Juneau as a whole, I think people have forgotten a lot of history here. Some of it’s passive, but a lot of it’s really deliberate,” Geiger said.
Ellen Story, Mallory’s sister, attended a recent workshop. She’s a special education teacher at Auke Bay Elementary School and has taught some of the language in her classes and morning meetings.
Workshop attendee Kevin Koenig, 26, is Tlingit, Scottish, Irish, Inupiat and Japanese. He started learning Tlingit at Yakoosge Daakahidi, with Lyle James.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s going to be one of my deals . not letting the language die.”
His grandmother helped get ANB and ANS Camp #3 reinstated, he said; he hopes to continue “in the great work that she started.”
“It’s an exciting time because it’s being taught in the school system,” he said. “My ancestors were being punished for speaking their language. Hopefully (Tlingit) will start to pick up too.”
Those who organize it think of the group as a learning group, not a formal class.
“Anyone’s welcome to it,” Story said. “We absolutely would love any fluent speakers to come in and do a lesson, but total beginners can come in, too. It’s just exciting to have learners at all levels. It’s totally open for families, too.”
“None of us who facilitate the group are teachers, we’re learners sharing what we’ve learned,” Radford wrote. “It’s not a formal classroom environment. We are very open to having people who attend share with the group. Some community members have shared things about art, music, language, and religion, not just from Tlingit culture, but from many different places. Recently we were taught how to introduce ourselves in Persian from a group member. Multicultural openness is key to this work.”
Radford wanted the class to be at the public library was so it was visible and could bring the language into the public consciousness, Geiger said.
“It’s just one little piece that needs to be there in revitalizing Tlingit,” Story said.
“The tools, the resources — books, videos, language speakers, teachers, culture bearers, and other learners in our community — to become a Tlingit language learner are available to everyone, for free. What it takes is a commitment, to say, yes, I am a part of this effort to revitalize Tlingit language and culture. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what your background is. If you live in Lingít Aaní, that means you are a part of this revitalization effort, and you are making a conscious choice to participate, or to not get involved,” Radford wrote.