Workshop works to revitalize Tlingit language

Elders, fluent Tlingit speakers, language teachers and learners gathered in Juneau recently to work towards Tlingit language revitalization.

The “Honoring Our Ancestors, Teaching Our Language” workshop was sponsored by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation through an Administration for Native Americans language grant.

The grant, titled “Tlingit Language Flowing Through Generations: A Region wide Approach to Language Revitalization,” was awarded in 2009 enabling elders and teachers from Southeast Alaska communities to work collectively together to enhance language learners understanding of Tlingit verbs. Tlingit is one of the most complex languages wherein one verb could have numerous conjugations.

Teachers work with elders throughout the year enhancing their understanding of the verb forms and then take that new knowledge and translate it into language lessons for youth. This dynamic team then convenes for a summer workshop to share and refine lessons informed by the traditional knowledge of fluent speakers. For the last two years, the Juneau Tlingit & Haida Community Council has supported the refinement of language lessons by hosting their elementary and middle school culture camp at the same time as the workshop providing the perfect opportunity for teachers to pilot their language lessons with youth. Goldbelt Heritage Foundation has welcomed supporting the culture camp as well through its “Wooch.een: Working Together” grant in place to enhance culturally responsive education.

One of the workshop’s highlights was Ruth Demmert facilitating a TPR language exercise lesson in Tlingit with elders Selina Everson and Margaret Dutson dancing the Tlingit twist. Demmert’s method for teaching language includes a hearty dose of humor.

“Laughing is just like medicine, it’s good for your soul. It’s good for your spirit,” Demmert said.

Throughout the week, the workshop highlights the strengths of each individual language teacher’s method for sharing the language in their classrooms and in our communities.

Every member of this team is committed to language revitalization and the benefits inherent herein to heal past historical trauma many of our elders experienced from being punished for speaking their first language within schools. Holding on to the language is a crucial endeavor as teachers strive to learn from our fluent speakers. Last year’s workshop was highlighted by the guidance of Walter Soboleff, who at the age of 102 was our eldest fluent speaker. With his recent passing and the passing of elders Anita Lafferty, June Pegues and so many others, the group is more cognizant of the importance of their work to hold on to our elders and to hold in high esteem their knowledge of Tlingit language and culture. Demmert highlighted the importance of initiatives to provide parents opportunities to learn the language alongside their children as central to preservation of our heritage language.

“It is so good to work with our elders and to listen to them speak in the Tlingit Language which is good for the beginners,” GHF Cultural Specialist Paul Marks said. “To hear the sounds subconsciously I believe will help the beginner, as well as those who are relearning their mother language. Once the sounds are in the mind it stays there and a learner will have it to help them to learn to speak the language.”

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