If language and health are linked, then the ten Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian language apprentices recently gathered for a talk on the subject were embarking on a journey not just to reclaim a vital aspect of their culture, but to better health, both for themselves and for their communities.
Sealaska Heritage Institute has expanded upon its Tlingit Language mentor-apprentice program, which recently completed its three-year span, and begun a new program that includes all three Southeast Alaska Native Languages: the Haa Shuká Community Language Learning Project.
The Tlingit language is called Lingít; the Haida language is Xaad Kíl; and the Tsimshian language is Smalgyáx. The new program involves four communities (Juneau, Sitka, Metlakatla and Hydaburg), 10 apprentices, five mentors, and kicked off its three-year span at the beginning of April.
The full list of mentors and apprentices, provided by SHI, is as follows: In Juneau, Lingít speaker Florence Sheakley (Kaakal.aat) is mentoring Mary Folletti (Daaljíni) and Michelle Martin (Keiyákwch Yawu.á), and Paul Marks (Kinkaduneek) is mentoring Kyle Demientieff Worl (Kaayák’w) and Michael Hoyt (Aak’wtaatseen and Gashax). In Sitka, Lingít speaker Ethel Makinen Daasdiyáa is mentoring Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield (Laakdu.oo) and Lakrisha Brady (Chookan). In Metlakatla, Sm’algyax speaker Sarah Booth (Goodm ‘Nluułgm Xsgiik) is mentoring David Robert Boxley (Gyibaawm Laxha) and Kandi McGilton (Mangyepsa Gyipaayg). In Hydaburg, Xaad Kíl speaker Cherilyn Holter (T’aaw Kuns) is mentoring Andrea Peele (Sgaan Jaat) and Bonnie Morris.
A big pad of listed goals off to the side of the room during a talk on language and health from University of Alaska Southeast affiliate assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages Alice Taff, created earlier in the program orientation, included the goals “to speak (my) language with my children, family, friends, other speakers;” “to be able to read documents;” and “to participate in cultural events in my language,” among others.
Lingít apprentice Michael Hoyt, apprenticing with Paul Marks, said part of what drew him to the program was “the high rate of success that the mentor-apprentice approach has.”
Hoyt works for Juneau’s Indian Studies Program. He has been studying Lingít for four or five years now, teaching it some as part of his job, he said.
His goal for the end of the three-year period, is “having the language be at an almost instinctual level.”
“Speaking English as a first language, you just think and speak without really having to piece it together in your head,” he said. “Speaking Tlingit can be a kind of halting process for me.”
Kyle Demientieff Worl, also apprenticing with Marks, said his goal is to be able to call himself “high intermediate.” The word “advanced,” he said, makes him think of fluent speakers like Marks himself.
“‘Advanced’ is something I’ll be striving for, but at least, at the end of three years, I want to be able to talk with speakers and be comfortable,” he said.
Marks, who also served as a mentor in the Tlingit language mentor-apprentice program, said this time around, he has more of an idea what he wants his apprentices to learn, and will work with them on language they’ll use in everyday situations.
“My ancestors’ philosophy was that by teaching our language and our values to our grandchildren, (they are) living lives through what you teach them,” he said. “So I’m living the life of my ancestors. They’re living within me.”
Kandi McGilton, a cofounder of Metlakatla’s Haayk Foundation, has been working with Smalgyax, the Tsimshian language, for three years now. She said she’s “walking away with a lot of language tools” after the orientation. She and David R. Boxley are hoping to double their speaking time with their mentor, Sarah Booth, from the required five hours per week to two hours per day, she said.
“We’re all in this canoe together trying to save our languages,” she said. “They’re all equally important.”
SHI employee Katrina Hotch is the project’s language specialist, but she’s also currently filling in as the project coordinator for a coworker on maternity leave.
One thing different about Haa Shuká from the Tlingit language mentor-apprenticeship program is the presence of recorders, she said. This time, each mentor-apprentice session will be recorded, so that apprentices can refer back, listen as many times as they need, and not need to repeat questions. They’re also asking apprentices to spend time listening to other recordings in their heritage language, some of them older, to increase their exposure to the language.
Another different thing from the previous program is the pairing of one mentor and two apprentices. That has several benefits, not least of which is expanding the linguistic reach of an elder. Another is the chance for apprentices to learn from and teach each other.
Haa Shuká will organize three-day “immersion intensives” twice a year in the participants’ home communities.
Thirty-five people applied to the program after SHI put out a call this January, Hotch said. SHI project staff and the regional language committee, formed just last year, reviewed the applications and scored them on a point system, prioritizing those who have already shown a commitment to language.
By the end of the three years, each apprentice will have spent at least 1,400 hours listening to audio. They’ll also take structured classes in their languages through the University of Alaska. Some will do a presentation in their language as a final project; others will complete hours of transcription, depending on their abilities.
And, of course, they’ll have spent a minimum of five hours per week speaking with and learning from their mentor in their heritage language.
“There’s not a place we can go and be surrounded by the language all the time. We have to create those environments for the language, and create those times and spaces until it can be our life,” Hotch said.
• Contact Capital City Weekly editor Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.