Bessie Cooley used to get punished for speaking Tlingit. Now, she's receiving an award from the queen of England for using her Native language.
On Saturday in Whitehorse, Cooley will accept a Golden Jubilee Medal from the premier of the Yukon Territory, Dennis Fentie, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen serves as Canada's head of state under its constitutional monarchy.
The award is granted to Canadians who have made significant contributions to the nation in the past 50 years. It is part of the Golden Jubilee celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the queen's accession to the throne.
Cooley, 58, is a fluent speaker of Tlingit who worked for five years as an interpreter for the Yukon territorial government. She is from Teslin, a Yukon town east of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, and moved to Juneau in December to work as a Tlingit language specialist with Sealaska Heritage Institute. Longtime friend Jim Smarch of Teslin nominated her for the award.
"For me, for her, for a lot of us that went to mission schools, we've lost our tongue due to the beatings we used to get when we communicated in our own language," Smarch said. "... However, Bessie hung onto hers."
Cooley attended a residential school in Carcross in the Yukon, where she and other Native youths were forbidden to speak their language.
"But when we'd go home we'd get right back into our Native culture," Cooley said. "My mom didn't speak or understand much English, so my dad encouraged us to keep up the language. My dad was a very farsighted man."
At age 52, Cooley left Teslin to attend college and to master the craft of writing Tlingit. She earned an associate's degree in Native language education from Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1998 and a bachelor's degree in Alaska Native studies with a Tlingit language minor from UAF in 2000.
"In any Native culture, the culture and the language are so intertwined that it's impossible to separate it," she said. "We've always been taught that it's part of our identity, part of who we are. Why would anyone want to give up part of their identity?"
Sealaska Heritage Institute hired Cooley to help develop a Tlingit immersion curriculum.
"Bessie is a key member of our Tlingit curriculum development team," said Institute President Rosita Worl. "She is one of the very few people who is a fluent speaker of Tlingit and has earned college degrees and certificates in the areas of Tlingit language and Alaska Native studies."