Drawing on tradition to teach her own tongue

Sheakley is the first in Juneau to become a certified Tlingit teacher

Posted: Friday, January 07, 2000

At an age when most people begin to pace themselves, Tlingit language teacher Florence Sheakley has just found her stride.

Sheakley, 59, is the first fluent Tlingit speaker to complete official certification to teach her native language.

``As far as I know, I am the only one in Juneau with that teacher's certification,'' she said proudly, as she threaded a beading needle for a culture camp student during Christmas vacation.

Mornings, Sheakley teaches in the Tlingit-Haida Head Start program in West Juneau, but her ``main thing,'' she said, is teaching Tlingit at the University of Alaska Southeast. She has taught beginning Tlingit at UAS for four years, adding intermediate Tlingit for the first time in fall 1999. She teaches eight hours a week evenings at UAS, but still finds time for afternoon language classes at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

Her classes are ``very popular,'' said Mary Lou Madden, UAS dean of faculty. ``And we are very pleased to have someone of her caliber to teach for us.''

Florence Marks Sheakley is one of 16 siblings, of whom only eight survive. Author Nora Dauenhauer is her older sister. Her brother Johnny, 57, is one of the few other fluent Tlingit speakers in Juneau. Florence, Nora and Johnny grew up on Douglas Island at a family homesite called Marks Trail, closely supervised by her parents, Willie and Emma Marks, and her grandmother, Eliza Marks.

``We were lucky that we grew up traditionally and spoke the language at home,'' Sheakley said. ``We grew up in the era of subsistence. My father was a fisherman with a 36-foot seining boat. As soon as school was out, we were put on that boat and taken fishing. We had camps at Swanson Harbor, Home Shore and Funter Bay, and we were in and out of Hoonah and Deer Harbor.''

Sheakley's tone lightens when she discusses fishing, and darkens when she broaches the subject of her own schooling.

``I first remember being in the government school in the village (near Willoughby Avenue),'' she said. ``I remember a little girl being spanked, their lifting her dress and spanking her. And I remember standing in line for vitamins.''

Sheakley also remembers how she and her brother Jimmy were punished for speaking their language to each other.

``We were disciplined - but yet when they needed someone to translate to other village kids, they came and got me,'' Sheakley said. ``That was totally confusing - I could speak (Tlingit) when they wanted me to and not when I wanted to.''

``At home with Grandma, we could not speak English. But, among ourselves, we kids practiced English harder. When somebody made fun of my handwriting once, I went home and practiced that much harder,'' she added.

At age 9, she went on to St. Ann's Catholic School. And her mother, named a master beader by Gov. Bill Sheffield, began to teach her the skill.

She left high school early to marry, and soon had five children. What motivated her to return to school was processing fish in cold water at a cold storage plant and freezing her arms above the elbows. ``I decided this wasn't the life for me,'' she said of slime-line work.

In 1967 she graduated as a clerk typist. At first she could get only part-time jobs. Finally, in 1969, the Department of Economic Development hired her full-time.

Ill health forced her to quit, but she soon aimed at further training. ``There was a lady in vocational rehab, Amanda McCloud, who said I was college material.''

That encouraging phrase stimulated Sheakley, who by then was divorced, to uproot herself and her brood and move to Anchorage to attend UAA. ``When I think back on it, I wonder what in the world possessed me to go that far away and think I could raise that many kids by myself,'' Sheakley said.

Doing beading paid for groceries when she attended college full-time for two years. Then she married Sergius Sheakley, bore two more children, and stayed home until they graduated from high school.

She encouraged other mothers to follow suit.

``I think my first kids got short-changed when I worked outside the home,'' she said. ``The ones I stayed at home with graduated from high school. At the time I didn't think it was that important, but when you see the end results, you see it made a difference.''

The Head Start Tlingit preschool program has 17 children enrolled, 3 and 4 years old. Every Wednesday night, Sheakley also teaches a two-hour session to parents, passing on all their kids have learned during the previous week.

``Florence has an immense amount of Tlingit culture knowledge and language knowledge,'' said Katy Harman, supervising teacher of the Head Start classroom. ``She is extremely valuable to this program - and to the whole revitalization of the language effort.''

Working side-by-side with Sheakley for 18 months, Harman continues to be amazed at her contributions.

``She puts 110 percent into her work, and she is creative in materials development - always thinking about new ways to present language,'' Harman said.

In her limited spare time, Sheakley still perseveres at beading, following designs created by her brother Jimmy. She created barrettes and earrings for years, but now that her mother cannot see to bead regalia, she has begun to make beadwork appliques.

``When you are exposed to something, you are interested,'' she said, speaking of beadwork and language, while showing a boy how to finish a seam on a red and blue headpiece.

``When you are not exposed, you are not interested. Children need to be exposed to the speaking, the dancing. They have to see their parents are interested, too. (Tlingit culture) won't come back by itself; both sides have to work at it.''

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