“Lingít tundatáani.” Loosely translated, the phrase means “Tlingit perspective” or “Tlingit world view.” Asked about the last three years in Sealaska Heritage Institute’s mentor-apprentice program, Hans Chester (Naakil.aan) of Juneau said that’s what the program has given him.
Yakutat apprentice Devlin Anderstrom (Shagaaw Éesh), 19, said the same, adding that his apprenticeship with Yakutat elder Lena Farkas helped provide a sense of identity.
“As she’s teaching me Tlingit language, she’s really teaching me about being Tlingit. What it means to be Tlingit,” Anderstrom said. “It’s been a one of a kind experience, really, to be able to do something like this.”
For three years now, Tlingit language learners have been paired with elders in Sitka, Yakutat and Juneau. At the end of July, mentors, apprentices, and other language learners and teachers gathered in Juneau for the third of three Lingít immersion retreats, graduating from the program on the final day of the week.
The apprenticeship program “was designed to strengthen our region’s language community and to revitalize the Tlingit language by increasing the number of fluent Tlingit speakers under the age of 60,” wrote Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl in an email.
Elder David Katzeek said he thinks this retreat was a “significant improvement” and now feels more positive about the future.
“The language that we have is a language of love, kindness and appreciation,” Katzeek said. “It’s contained in our music. How we love our land, how we love our grandchildren, how we love our children, and how we love each other. And that was sung over and over and over again. And when you begin to do something over and over and over again it actually becomes something not of the intellect, but of the soul and of the spirit.”
At the retreat, learners and mentors played language games, told stories in Lingít, sang in Lingít and more.
One language game consisted of cards with a verb, and objects that could be associated with that verb. Lingít uses different verbs, for example, if a speaker requests a full object versus an empty object.
“It depends on the object you’re asking for,” elder Selena Everson told learners arranged around a table.
Another game matched common phrases, like “wáa sá iyatee” (how are you) with answers.
To language learners, Anderstrom says “just go for it.”
“Try to put yourself in a situation where you’re around fluent speakers, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and get things wrong. Because that’s going to happen. It’s part of the learning process,” he said. “Don’t let things get you down… For the most part, people (in the Western world) treat what we’re doing as a hobby, or as some kind of quirky interest. To us, it’s not really that at all. Even though it’s a struggle, I would say don’t give up. Don’t give in. And try to use the language as much as possible.”
Elder Paul Marks, for whom Lingít is a first language, said immersion is at its best when only Lingít is being spoken, no matter a person’s skill level.
“I’m not there for anybody else. I’m there for our ancestors. That’s who we lift up,” he said. “This is who developed the language. This is who taught the language.”
Worl said SHI is looking for money to expand the program for all three of Southeast’s indigenous languages — Tlingit, Sm’algyax (Tsimshian language) and Xaad Kíl (Haida language.)
To read a story about the start of the mentor-apprentice pairings, go to http://www.capitalcityweekly.com/stories/012914/ae_1191577138.shtml.
Mentors and apprentices
The official list of pairings is mentor David Katzeek and apprentice Joshua Jackson in Juneau, mentor Selena Everson and apprentice Jessica Chester in Juneau; mentor Lena Farkas and apprentice Devlin Anderstrom in Yakutat; mentor Florence Sheakley and apprentice Hans Chester in Juneau; mentor Paul Marks and apprentice Ishmael Hope in Juneau; mentor Ethel Makinen and apprentice Jamie Bradley in Sitka; and mentor Anne Johnson and apprentice Duane Lindoff in Sitka.
Other mentor/apprentice teams and language teachers include “JP Buller, Kim Buller, Marry Knutson and Alison Bremner, who are supported by the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe; two teams from Hoonah who work in Hoonah City Schools — Heather Powell and Mary Rudolph and Daphne Wright and Genevieve Cook; and the self-sustained mentor-apprentice team of Virginia Oliver (Tlingit teacher in Wrangell) and Ruth Demmert (former Tlingit language teacher at Kake city schools). SHI also invited language teachers Nae Brown — who teaches in Anchorage schools — and Kyle Worl — who teaches in Anchorage schools and the University of Alaska Anchorage and volunteers his time to teach evening classes with adults. Goldbelt Heritage Foundation has a program that focuses on Tlingit language teacher apprenticeships,” Rosita Worl wrote in an email.
The program retreat is part of “ANA Building Bridges to Fluency: A Tlingit Mentor Apprentice Program.” Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Sitka Tribes of Alaska are partners in the effort, and each hosted a retreat as well.