User-friendly Tsimshian-language curriculum is basis for courses

Perhaps only a few dozen in Alaska can speak fluent Shim-al-gyack

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003

Debi White, a Tsimshian Indian in Ketchikan, said her mother remembered elders speaking their Native language when they didn't want the children to understand what they were saying.

"So when I was growing up, a few words were spoken but not the language," said White, who runs a cultural program in the schools for the Ketchikan Indian Community.

Now, as part of a resurgence of Native culture, parents want their children to understand the traditional languages. A "user-friendly" Tsimshian-language curriculum developed by a former Alaska couple will be the basis for courses this summer in Southeast.

Over the past 10 years or so, Donna May Roberts and Tony Roberts of Metlakatla, who now live in Portland, Ore., have created teaching materials for Shim-al-gyack, the language of the Tsimshian Indians.

Most Alaska Tsimshians live in Metlakatla or Ketchikan. In the 1990 census about 1,650 Alaskans identified themselves as Tsimshian. The question wasn't asked in the 2000 census. Tsimshian also live in British Columbia, where the culture originated.

It's hard to say how many people fluently speak Shim-al-gyack, said sociolinguist Roy Iutzi-Mitchell of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. He suggested perhaps a few dozen in Alaska and 200 in Canada.

"We are really interested in helping revitalize the language, to bring new life back to the language as a living language," he said.

Sealaska Heritage Institute will include Shim-al-gyack courses in its summer language program in Ketchikan for the second consecutive year and in Juneau for the first time. Iutzi-Mitchell called the Robertses' work "the first user-friendly collection of Tsimshian learning materials."

Donna May Roberts was raised by her Shim-al-gyack speaking grandmother in Metlakatla, an Indian reservation on Annette Island, about 15 miles south of Ketchikan.

She began teaching the language in about 1993. Why?

"I can answer that in one word: grandchildren," she said. After a grandchild was born, "I just started thinking, 'OK, what am I going to be able to tell this little child about her background?' "

For the Robertses, it's been a labor of love. Their initial efforts derived from meetings of elders to create a dictionary. Except for a little help early on, they've developed workbooks, a cultural study guide, teachers' guides, cassettes, and now CDs and CD-ROMs with their own money. They formed a nonprofit organization, Dum Baal-dum, meaning "We will try," to promote their materials. Its Web site is Sealaska Heritage Institute also sells the materials.

"Right down to the binding of the books, we do it right here," Tony said from their Portland home.

At times, Donna May has taught the language in University of Alaska courses in Metlakatla and Ketchikan. But now the only courses in Alaska are through Sealaska Heritage Institute's summer program, which includes instruction in Tlingit, Haida and Shim-al-gyack, and any workshops the Roberts give.

The Robertses call their method "language by osmosis." Students learn words and phrases by following the teacher's commands to make certain physical actions, such as standing or turning around. Students reinforce their knowledge through workbooks that show stick-figure drawings of the movements. Students associate what they hear, see and do.

Most Native-language instruction has been in English in which the teacher talks about the spelling, grammar and vocabulary of the other language, Iutzi-Mitchell said. But the Sealaska Heritage summer program teaches some classes all in the Native language.

"What we're really excited to see is language instruction where the instruction itself takes place through the language," he said. "Because then people are actually learning to listen and get real, authentic meaning from the language."

White, who runs a cultural program in the Ketchikan schools, has taken a course with Donna May.

"Learning it and doing hands-on activities through games and songs and stuff - it goes into your long-term memory," White said.

"Our grandparents and ancestors have passed on their culture. It's important for us to be keepers of our tradition and pass it on for our children."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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