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Why should anyone learn Native languages and cultures?

Posted: June 4, 2012 - 10:52am  |  Updated: June 5, 2012 - 11:00pm

A week ago, I spent a few hours at the home my good friend, Cyril George — Khaalkháawu of the Khak’weidí and the Deisheetaan. I left his home filled with hours of storytelling, anticipating years to think about the old time wisdom Cyril has left in our care. He told the Deisheetaan Cycle, which tells how the Deisheetaan of Angoon came to be. It starts in the Interior, where the people began their journey to the coasts, because, as Cyril said, “We loved the taste of salmon.” The people encounter the Khusaxha Khwáan, the Cannibal Giant — a giant the people overcame but not without scars left behind to remind us of our humanity, of our frailties as well as our triumphs. It continues on to journeys through rivers and glaciers, and on to this beautiful rainforest we call home — Lingít Aaní. The story is the cultural memory of the people’s relationship to the land, bringing us closer to home, uniting us with our community and with the land and the sea.

I also visit Marie Olson — Kaayistaan. Kaayistaan of the Aak’w Khwáan of the Wooshkeetaan clan lives in her ancestral land in Auke Bay. She tells the Dukt’óotl’, Strong Man story, to children in schools around Juneau. The story tells of inner strength, of persistence and humility in the face of great challenges. The story teaches us how to become adults, how to give our lives to our communities, how to integrate with our surroundings. Marie was raised by her mother with Lingít Tundatáani — Tlingit Thinking. Her mother told her stories, such as Aak’wtaatseen — the Salmon Boy, Raven stories, and Dukt’óotl. She now tells them as her mother and her ancestors did, teaching us how to be Lingít, how to be human.

I also visit Nora Dauenhauer — Kheixwnéi and her husband Richard. During my last visit, Nora literally opened the Yaakhoogé Daakeit — the Box of Wisdom. She showed me the art of her gifted family, such as the carvings her father Willie Marks — Keet Yaanaayí, and the beadwork of her mother Emma Marks — Seigheighéi, and her many siblings. Nora is an outstanding poet, and a powerful ceremonial orator. She has worked with her husband over many decades to share the great wisdom of the Tlingit Elders. She has talked to me many times about how overwhelmingly beautiful the words of Tlingit tradition bearers could be — orators and storytellers like Jessie Dalton — Naa Tláa, Austin Hammond — Daanaawáakh, George Davis — Kichnáalxh, and Robert Zuboff — Shaadaax’. Now Nora has become an Elder herself, after deeply learning from those who have gone before us, and I know she is making them proud.

I also visit with Nora’s sister, Florence Sheakley — Khaakal.aat. She tells me about growing up in a deeply traditional family, how names get passed on, how things are done in the Khoo.éex’, the Tlingit ceremonial gatherings, and what it was like to grow up surrounded by Tlingit Elders. I started learning the Tlingit language from Florence, and she has initiated this great journey for many young Alaskans — the path to learning the language, the deep link to ancestral knowledge.

I am now learning from Marsha Hotch — Ghuneiwtí. She says that our grandchildren will look back on us and question whether we have done anything about the loss of our language. She says that this is our final hour.

This is our chance. Our grandchildren are going to look back and say that the people fought for them, as they always have. There’s no other option. If you know these people, if you have listened to them, if you really listened, there really is no other choice. It is a choice of joy and healing. It will be a lot of hard work, but was anything worth having ever easy?

I’ve learned from these people, and many more beautiful, bright teachers and peers. They’ll share with anyone who is sincere, courteous, and interested in what they have to say. When you first encounter them, it might not be so obvious just how precious they are to all of us. But if you take the time to listen, to understand the kind of knowledge they hold in their hearts and minds, you’ll know. You just might change your life.

Gunalchéesh,

• Hope is a student and storyteller. He lives in downtown Juneau.

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