Tlingit language survey under way

UNESCO estimates only about 300 fluent speakers left in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Monday, June 15, 2009

SITKA - In 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization listed Tlingit as a critically endangered language.

James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel
James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel

UNESCO estimated at the time that, after thousands of years of Tlingit culture in Southeast Alaska, there were only 300 fluent speakers left.

UNESCO also determined that the youngest of the remaining Tlingit speakers were grandparents who spoke the language "partially and infrequently."

As a result, twice in recent years Sitka Tribe of Alaska has listed preserving the Tlingit language as one of its top priorities.

It's easy to understand why.

For Tlingits and other Native people, language and culture go hand and hand - one cannot survive without the other.

"Our language defines us as a people," Jacqueline Geboe said recently, adding that is was difficult to articulate the critical nexus of language and culture among Natives.

Geboe, who is Chippewa and Arapaho, is in Sitka this summer, working with STA to determine the status of the Tlingit language here.

STA recently launched phase I of the survey, which involves gathering information about the number of Tlingit speakers in Sitka and assessing their ability to read, write and understand the Native language.

With a federal grant from the Administration for Native Americans, STA formulated a seven-page survey that, among other things, asks participants to provide their age and estimate on a scale of 1-10 how well they speak Tlingit.

The final question sums up what the survey is after: "What do you think is the best way to pass the Tlingit language on to the younger generation?"

STA's goal is to survey at least 250 Tlingits by mid-July, said Tristan Guevin, the project coordinator.

The data will then be used for a report on the status of the Tlingit language in Sitka.

STA has already applied for a grant to fund phase II of the survey, a two-year planning process that would examine how to sustain the language here.

Guevin said there are an estimated 700 Tlingit households in Sitka, and the survey group is using a list of enrolled tribal members to conduct research, Guevin said.

Geboe, whose father is Arapaho, was hired as a survey technician. She said sacred Arapaho ceremonies are performed in the Native language, and she has seen young people without language skills struggle to follow along.

The oral tradition is also essential to Tlingit culture, she said.

"We all have a critical need to retain our languages," Geboe said, explaining why she was interested in returning to Sitka to help with the language survey. "Everybody's eyes have been opened, realizing how critical it is. Without it (the language) who are we?"

Geboe lived here a few years back and was adopted into the Raven clan.

She works alongside another survey tech out of the Sitka Native Education Program office in the ANB Hall.

On a recent morning Ann Johnson, a 70-year-old Tlingit woman, sat down with Geboe to take the survey.

Johnson is SNEP's head language teacher. She spent a good deal of her childhood with her grandmother, and through that close association picked up the Tlingit language.

"I don't think I thought about wanting to learn it, I just heard it," Johnson said.

When Johnson rated herself as an eight, on a scale of 10, as a Tlingit speaker, Geboe said Johnson was being modest.

"We're taught to be humble and modest," Geboe said. "There's a lot of 10s."

Johnson said she could "pretty much" read Tlingit and could probably describe an event in the Native language.

In many ways, Johnson's story epitomizes the loss of the Tlingit language. Johnson's father died when she was young and her mother went to work, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, who spoke little English.

But this was during what is known as the "boarding school era," when speaking Tlingit was prohibited in schools, and could lead to severe punishments.

Johnson said her mother did not want her to speak Tlingit, which was typical in that day and age.

Guevin explained that languages become endangered with the loss of "inter-generational transmission," meaning that parents, for whatever reason, don't pass the language to their children.

These days there are very few fluent speakers who are of "child-rearing age."

That means that this generation of Tlingits is probably not learning the language at home.

During a recent survey, Geboe spoke to a single father in his 20s who was eager to learn the language so he could pass it on to the younger generation.

"It's really important to hear that from a young man who is a single father," Geboe said.

Johnson agreed.

"We need the younger ones to start taking over," she said.

Nine years ago, there were only 300 Tlingit speakers left, and the wide majority were elders. It's hard to imagine that the situation has improved.

And when the elders pass, they take a wealth of knowledge with them.

"We don't have very many of them left now," Johnson said. "We're finding out we're the elders."

SNEP has operated for more than 30 years and currently offers language classes for young students up through grade 12.

But the program is limited, and organizers hope the survey data will help them make a case for more support, and funding, for the effort to keep Tlingit alive.

Johnson said the language classes help young Natives to be "proud of who they are and where they come from."

She also said she'd like to see more Tlingit language classes in the Sitka schools.

During an emotional meeting at the ANB Hall in March, the Sitka School Board heard a plea to expand the Tlingit program at Blatchley Middle School, where a class for seventh graders has been offered.

Guevin said STA will find out in the next month or so whether the grant for phase II of the language project was accepted.

In the meantime, the surveys will continue.

"We have a pretty good idea what the numbers will be," Guevin said, estimating that there are between 12 and 20 fluent Tlingit speakers in Sitka. But the survey will codify the situation and give STA a solid launch pad from which to pursue other grants and efforts to save the language.

For more information on the survey, contact Rose Demmert at 747-6532.

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