Noted Tlingit elder Cyril George Sr., leader of the Deisheetaan (Raven/Beaver) clan from Khaakáak’w Hít (Basket Bay Arch House) of Angoon, died April 15 in Anchorage at age 92. George, former mayor of Angoon, had lived in Juneau since 1975.
George was remembered this past week for his gifts as an orator, storyteller and culture bearer, as well as for his role as a bridge between generations. Right up until the last months of his life, he regularly visited Tlingit language classrooms at the University of Alaska Southeast, documented Tlingit history and language through video recordings, and forged strong bonds with young people, including his 84 grandchildren, telling them clan stories over and over so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
“He was one of the most gifted indigenous knowledge bearers of our time, from studying the storytellers of many Native American cultures, to getting into the thick of the documentation of Tlingit culture and language,” said Tlingit storyteller and writer Ishmael Hope. “It would be a very accurate statement to call him one of the master storytellers of our time, on a worldwide, indigenous level.”
His granddaughter, Lillian Woodbury of Angoon, said George was able to bring old ways and new ways together in his daily life without apparent conflict. When he spoke Tlingit it was old-school, full of poetry, but he was also a fan of email and used it daily to communicate with her and his other grandchildren into his 90s. He also found a way to incorporate his strong Tlingit identity with his Christian faith.
“That’s one of things I really appreciated about my grandfather,” Woodbury said. “There are a lot of cultural beliefs, religious beliefs and modern day (beliefs) that don’t mesh so well. My grandpa managed to walk eloquently through all three roles.”
Woodbury said it was very important to her grandfather to pass on his stories and history, and to do what he could to support the continuation of the language. His own six children didn’t learn to speak Tlingit, as they were raised during a time when the language was being actively suppressed in Southeast. But George carried it within him, Woodbury said, through those years, and was very pleased to see it coming back.
“In 1922 we knew then, it was drifting out of our heads, our way of life, our language,” George said in a video interview. But now, he said, as he watched the young people learning Tlingit and listening to his stories, he was filed with hope for the future.
“I always feel wonderful when I look among the faces of my grandchildren and they are learning,” George said.
The video interviews were conducted by UAS professor of Alaska Native Languages Lance Twitchell, along with Hope and others, in a joint effort between UAS and Sealaska Heritage Institute to document elders speaking their Native languages.
George was a frequent visitor to Twitchell’s Tlingit language classrooms at UAS, accompanied by longtime friend Kathy Ruddy, who transcribed classroom conversations for him on her laptop when his hearing began to fail.
“He loved to speak Tlingit and this young group of students, they loved to hear him,” Ruddy said. “And I loved to take him so they could hear him. I would type the question in English and he would just take off in Tlingit. They were awestruck. They all soaked it up because his Tlingit was poetic, old-school and powerful.”
Ruddy, who had known George for 30 years, said his vision of the world was expansive, encompassing huge stretches of time.
“He was forward-thinking all the time, and I think he could see down the generations, as he could feel the generations behind him,” she said. “He was a culture bearer, carrying precious intellectual property, these stories from before the time of the ice, into the next generation. This man was a national treasure.”
George’s Tlingit names were Khaalkháawu, Kaatdaa, Khaakáak’w and L.átkádú.een. He was born in Hood Bay in Angoon on October 4, 1922, to Willis and Lilly George. He attended Sheldon Jackson high school and college in Sitka, where he learned to build boats and work as a machinist. During World War II he worked at a war plant in New Jersey; as he was unable to enlist due to an injury. At 24 he became mayor of Angoon and served again from 1971 to 1976. He also worked for Tlingit and Haida Central Council for 10 years, and was actively involved with the Salvation Army and the Alaska Native Brotherhood, among other organizations. He was also a seine boat captain, woodworker, accomplished guitar player and amateur photographer.
He had six children, five boys (Richard, Jeffrey, Byron, Joseph and Cyril Jr.) and one girl, Roberta (whom the town nicknamed “Sister Girl”) with his first wife, Lillian, who died in 1968. He remarried in 1971, and in 1975 he and his wife, Judy, moved to Juneau.
Two of his sons, Byron and Cyril Jr., are now deceased and the rest of his children live in Angoon. George also informally adopted two men, both non-Native, one as his son (Jason Hooley) and the other as his brother (Aaron Campbell). Woodbury said both are considered members of her family.
Following Judy’s death in 2005, George remained very active. He was often called upon to address public gatherings, most recently giving the Elder response to the keynote speech at the Alaska Native Studies Conference in March. And he was still dancing at age 90, at the most recent Celebration in 2012.
A devoted family man, he shared clan stories frequently with his grandchildren, Woodbury said, especially toward the end of his life.
“I don’t know what triggered him to start telling us, but he would tell us stories, and he would tell them over and over and over so they were etched in our minds,” she said.
Hope, himself a storyteller, said George and his uncle, Robert Zuboff, have long been two of his role models. He based an original play, “Cedar House,” which debuted at Perseverance in 2010, on the stories told by these two men. Beyond his gifts as a storyteller and orator, Hope said George was an “enormously welcoming human being.”
“It really felt like when we were sitting down (together) I was being nourished with my whole being. I felt it in every part of my being, I felt it physically and I felt it most directly in my heart. I felt like he was nourishing and feeding my heart, by just being there with him. And just on a personal level, that relationship helped me give up alcohol, give up tobacco, and to be deeply committed to my family. And to try to give my whole life to something greater than me — to try.”
George’s daughter, Roberta Jack, said she was grateful to Hope, Ruddy and Twitchell, along with Harold Jacobs and many others, for the kindness and love they showed her father after he left Angoon.
“When he left Angoon, we were worried about him being here. Even up until recently, we were worried about him,” Jack said. “But to see how many people here in Juneau loved him and actually looked after him, even his neighbors at his condo, who were always checking on him. I told him, ‘Dad, I was worried for nothing. So many people love you over here.’ And I’m so thankful for those people.”
Woodbury said Friday that in the wake of her grandfather’s death, she and her mother and other family members were working to honor his memory by living the way he lived: with forgiveness and compassion, and an effort to see the good in every situation and every person.
“There are no words in the English language to describe that kind of love and commitment and compassion to everything he held dear,” Woodbury said. “His faith, his family, his culture. I don’t know how you put that into words. Right now we have to find a new normal. And try to carry on what he’s taught us.”
Services for Cyril George are scheduled for Wednesday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in Juneau, and the family will take him back to Angoon Thursday.