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'Sharing Our Knowledge' conference highlights crucial role of Tlingit elders

The full name of last week’s Tlingit Clan Conference, inspired by original organizer Andy Hope III, is “Sharing Our Knowledge: For those who come after us” (“Wooshteen Kanaxtulaneegí Haa At Wuskóowu: Haa eetí káa yis”), a phrase that points to the dynamic exchange that powers this three day event.

 

First held in 1993 in Haines and Klukwan, and held this year from Oct. 28-Nov. 1 at Centennial Hall in Juneau under the direction of Andy Hope’s brother, Gerry, the conference brings together Tlingit clans from all over Southeast Alaska and Canada to share not only knowledge but ideas, stories, emotions, and hopes for the future. This year’s sessions covered a wide range of disciplines, from geography to art to linguistics. Some speakers drew on academic research and scholarship; others highlighted expertise based on personal experience; many offered a combination of both.

Whatever the topic, presenters repeatedly returned to the idea of putting elders at the fulcrum of ongoing efforts to revitalize Tlingit language and culture.

Several sessions offered an opportunity for elders to address participants directly, including a Friday afternoon panel hosted by Norma Shorty on boarding school experiences, and a Saturday panel hosted by Alice Taff on reactions to the conference. In both sessions, elders who grew up in the first half of the 1900s spoke with emotion about the lingering shame and anger of being forbidden to speak the Tlingit language, about physical and emotional abuse and separation from family, and about the lifelong journey of dealing with the fallout.

Equally powerful were the elders’ descriptions of their joy in teaching their grandchildren and great grandchildren about Tlingit culture, of their excitement in hearing the Tlingit language increasingly spoken in public places, and the stimulation of participating in the clan conference itself.

 

HEALING FROM THE PAST

The concept of healing was one focus of Friday afternoon’s elders’ panel focused on the boarding school experience. The dozen elders who spoke at the session are part of an ongoing project organized by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation that is developing new school curriculum shaped by the elders’ real-life experiences. Project leader Norma Shorty, a Curriculum Development Specialist at Goldbelt and the keynote speaker for this year’s conference, has been meeting regularly with the elders on the panel since August. She said the curriculum is one in which “western and indigenous ways of knowing (can be) running parallel,” rather than having one replace the other. In introductory remarks, Shorty said the concept of perseverance is key.

“We are focusing on the ability of Tlingit people to persevere,” Shorty said. “We are still here and thriving.”

Elders on the panel were invited to share their boarding school experience or speak more generally about the curriculum project’s impact. The two hour time frame was not nearly long enough to accommodate all the speakers, and the final panelists were cut short, promoting Shorty to remind the audience of why the project is important.

“It’s to bring healing to our people. This is why we do this work,” she said.

Elders on the panel included Shorty’s mother, Emma Shorty, an inland Tlingit from Teslin. Emma Shorty described her terror and shock at being taken from her family home at age 4 in 1937 and being put on a bush plane to a residential school in Carcross.

“I was so frightened to be in that airplane,” Emma Shorty recalled, describing how her caretakers laughed when she tried to hide under her seat. She didn’t get to see her parents or home again for three years, she said, because the Canadian government wouldn’t pay for her return trip.

At the school, Emma Shorty said, the children often didn’t have enough to eat, and fashioned rabbit snares to catch their own food. They were locked in to their bedrooms at night despite the fact that there was no accessible bathroom. Speaking their language was forbidden. Some were sexually molested, others cruelly punished.

“Residential school just about killed my spirit,” Shorty said. ”I’ve come a long way. I learned to forgive. Today I feel proud of myself.”

Other panelists described being held down while pepper was poured in their mouths as punishment for singing songs the school authorities deemed inappropriate, while others said they found it too painful to describe the details of their experiences and instead talked about their sense of shame and confusion at being forced to abandon what had been a natural way of life.

In rebuilding their identity as Tlingit people, panelists spoke of drawing strength from relatives at both ends of the generational spectrum: their grandchildren as well as their grandparents.

“On behalf of our grandparents, we will endure,” said elder John Martin. “We haven’t really healed yet completely … but we are trying.”

 

MAKING PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Suggestions for how that healing can continue were a focus of one of the final sessions of the conference on Saturday afternoon, when elders and others sat in a circle to discuss reactions to the conference. Many spoke in Tlingit before translating into English.

Elder Ken (Xoolxhaa) Grant, said he used to feel that the Tlingit way of life was drifting away despite efforts to pull it back to shore, but has recently been encouraged by ongoing language revitalization efforts and more widespread interest in traditional knowledge.

Grant suggested putting more elders behind the podiums – in classrooms, at conferences – so more people can hear them.

“All of us are hungry,” said Grant. “We want to learn our grandparents’ ways.”

Elder Paul (Khinkadueek) Marks, whose first language was Tlingit, said he is grateful for the ways Tlingit culture is beginning to take root within the younger generation, and said students who learn directly from elders will think differently about themselves and their culture, while benefitting from elders’ expertise.

“We need to know the cultural values our language was designed for,” he said. “We need our elders.”

Lyle James, a Language and Cultural Specialist with Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, spoke in support of Xh’unei Lance Twitchell’s current effort to create a Tlingit language immersion school in Juneau; Twitchell, Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS, presented a session on the schools on Thursday at the conference.

Elder John Martin agreed, pointing to the success of immersion language schools in Hawai’i.

“We can follow in the footsteps of the Hawaiians … (and) follow a mechanism that’s already been successful,” Martin said.

According to information provided by the Hawai’i State Department of Education, Hawai’i established its language immersion program in 1987, partly in response to pressure from parents and community leaders. There are now 20 schools, which are credited with contributing to a dramatic resurgence in the number of Native speakers from an estimated 1,500 speakers in the mid-1980s to an estimated 30,000 speakers of varying levels of ability in 2013, according to the Ka’iwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center. A bill supporting similar language charter schools in Alaska was introduced in March by Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, whom Martin praised along with Twitchell.

Conference participants spoke of their pleasure in hearing Tlingit spoken during the three-day event. Session moderator Alice Taff, Affiliate Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS, said she was encouraged by hearing from several people that they heard more conversational Tlingit being spoken at this year’s conference than in previous years.

 

ORATORY IN ACTION

An example of the complex ways in which the Tlingit language is intertwined with cultural values was presented at the governor’s mansion Thursday evening by celebrated elder Nora Marks Dauenhauer, who read Tlingit oratory by Hoonah elder Jessie Dalton. Dauenhauer had translated Dalton’s speech earlier in her career along with her husband, Richard Dauenhauer, as part of their book “Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory.” Thursday's event, organized by First Lady Donna Walker to highlight indigenous poets and writers, also featured poets Ishmael Hope, Lance Twitchell and Maria Williams.

Dauenhauer’s recitation was delivered in Tlingit and in English with Hope and Twitchell, who stood on either side of her and provided the audience responses throughout the speech (such as the untranslatable word “aawé,” which the Dauenhauers have said “is something like ‘amen’”). The Tlingit reading offered audience members a sense of the art form’s lyricism, and the English translation highlighted important themes of strengthening social relationships, honoring ancestors and history, and easing suffering.

Dauenhauer said before the reading that the oratory also shows the way in which ancestors continue to be present long after they are gone from the physical world.

“When I read, I talk like they are still here. All of my relatives are still here,” Dauenhauer said.

 

FIRST LADY ADOPTED

At the end of the indigenous readings event, the First Lady was adopted into a Tlingit clan during a surprise ceremony. Walker was given the name Koodeishghé, once held by the late Lydia George of Angoon, and adopted into the Deisheetaan clan. Deisheetaan clan elder Selina Everson, of Juneau, approved the adoption, embracing Walker afterward with the affectionate words, “Now you’re my grandmother,” a reference to her close relationship with George, Walker’s namesake.

Ishmael Hope performed the ceremony with his uncle Gerry Hope, elder Paul Marks, and Lance Twitchell, as Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and his wife, Toni, stood by.

“This name (Koodeishghé) is from a wonderful elder,” Hope told the First Lady, “and that shows the value Selina and the Deisheetaan have for you and your family.”

Audience members were asked to bear witness by repeating the name four times after Hope. Money was held to the First Lady’s forehead by Gerry Hope as the name was pronounced, and then handed over to elder Marie Olson of the Wooshkeetaan clan.

Gov. Walker was adopted into the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan in April, making him part of the Eagle moiety. The First Lady is of the opposite moiety, a Raven, following Tlingit tradition for marriage partners.

•••

The first Tlingit Clan Conference was held in May 1993 in Haines and Klukwan, pioneered by the late Andy Hope III. In recent years, conferences have been held in Sitka (2007 and 2012) and in Juneau (2009 and 2013).

This year’s organizational staff included executive director Gerry Hope, event coordinators Alice Taff and Peter Metcalfe, and organizing committee members Dione Cadiente-Laiti, Steve Henrikson, Ishmael Hope, Marsha Hotch, Harold Jacobs, Sergei Kan, David Katzeek, Harold Martin, Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy  and Lance Twitchell. The conference was sponsored by Tlingit Readers, Inc., with grant funding from the National Science Foundation, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and Northern Light United Church. 

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