Learning Tlingit language is challenge and joy for children

Samp weaves education with whale and animal activities

Posted: Sunday, July 24, 2005

On a clear Friday afternoon, third-grader Michaela Martin told her camp teacher "it's sunny outside" in Tlingit.

Children, who are learning how to speak the Native tongue, really shine at the Juneau School District's summer culture camp, said parent Mariana Goodwin.

"We've got books at home," Goodwin said. "But kids seem to listen more to strangers."

The camp is funded by a federal grant to Sealaska Heritage Institute and passed on to the school district.

Juneau hosts several opportunities for children to learn about Tlingit culture. Some involve canoeing and fishing; this camp focuses on language.

About 20 children ages 3 to 5, plus a dozen older elementary students, are spending their afternoons at Gastineau Elementary School, singing songs and doing activities related to killer whales, frogs, wolves and beavers.

"It ties back to who we are," teacher Nancy Douglas said. Native clans were named after animals.

The animals are archetypes in the Native culture as well as the centerpieces for educating children about Tlingit words for numbers, colors, the weather and other subjects.

"I like whales because they can hold their breath for a long time," said 8-year-old Cora Bontrager, who added she cannot hold her breath as long as a whale.

Making whale puppets and dorsal fin hats and then singing Tlingit-language whale songs to the tune of "Bingo" helps kids relate to a culture steeped in tradition, said teacher Kitty Eddy.

"We have to create a lot of what we do," she said. There are no catalogues of Tlingit education materials to choose from, so teachers make their own curriculum.

At the end of the two week-camp, each student takes home a CD of the Tlingit songs to listen to at home. Some students make journals.

As instructors develop more materials, Eddy hopes elementary schools can share the tools used in the camp.

This is the first summer the camp is educating pre-schoolers. Children too young to read and write English are picking up Tlingit.

"They can say words back to me right away," teacher Hans Chester said. It's typically harder for adults to learn vocabulary and pronunciation, he added.

Because of programs like the camp, Chester said, many Tlingits are no longer afraid their culture and language are disappearing.

The camp starts its second week on Monday. The group will perform Saturday for a Tlingit memorial party at the Alaska State Museum.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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