Creating a habitat for Tlingit

Total immersion language camp puts students in touch with another time

Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2002

Last week Tlingit language students made the equivalent of a trip abroad, or back in time, to a place where only Tlingit was spoken.

While students of French would fly to Paris, the seven Tlingit-language students and five fluent speakers spent a week at a camp near Berners Bay. There they created what they couldn't find elsewhere, a community where they would hear and speak only Tlingit.

"One of the things that's needed for any language to survive is a habitat," said Sealaska Heritage Institute sociolinguist Roy Iutzi-Mitchell. "For one shining moment, for five days, there was a Tlingit habitat here."

The immersion camp was a first for Sealaska Kusteeyi Institute, a Tlingit language and culture training program of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The only break from Tlingit was a brief interview with a reporter and photographer who came to visit the immersion camp Thursday. They followed bear trails across the marsh-meadow to a cluster of wall tents and tarp shelters on the edge of Cowee Creek.

While rain drummed on the blue-tarp ceiling, laughter punctuated conversation around the campfire below. To an outsider's ear, the Tlingit words were like the rustling of the chest-high grass in the marsh-meadow. But to students of the language, some of whom had studied for six years, there were jokes, wisdom, instructions and simple chit-chat.

"What's really neat here is that we can be around it all the time," said Hans Chester, the most advanced language student.

After studying Tlingit at the University of Alaska Southeast for six years, Chester converses in full sentences with his elders. Newer students struggled to keep up.

"I've been able to understand a lot of just the daily conversation because I've been studying longer," Chester said. "I'm able to sit and laugh (at what the teachers say), but these folks are left out."

Chester was left out sometimes, too, when the discussion moved beyond his vocabulary.

"There's been times, too, when they've been talking and I've just been sitting there with a blank look," Chester said. "That's a hard feeling."

As a first-year student, Mary Folletti knows the feeling well. In her family Tlingit hasn't been spoken since her grandmother was sent to boarding school.

"It's been really, really difficult," Folletti said.

Tlingit was working its way into her mind though. She found herself thinking in Tlingit and waking up speaking Tlingit words without knowing what they meant. She was learning as a child does, surrounded by the language.

After studying Tlingit on and off for 10 years, Yarrow Vaara was ready for the challenge of living in Tlingit.

"If we can't say it, we can't eat it," Vaara said.

Nobody went hungry, but they took their time. "Even if it takes us five hours to cook breakfast, that's OK," Vaara said.

A trolley over the river at the edge of the camp marked the boundaries of their Tlingit world.

"We told people, 'If you really, really, really have to speak English, come here and go to the other side,' " Iutzi-Mitchell said.

No one did. Even when the group took a field trip across the river, the members stuck to Tlingit, said Iutzi-Mitchell.

"They've been doing actually better than I thought they would."

The week started with four boxes of silver salmon, about 300 pounds. Together the campers built a smoke house and prepared the salmon in strips, speaking always in Tlingit. They cut young alders and built a steam room on the sandy banks of the river. They picked nangoon berries, elderberries and blueberries and ate them whipped with seal oil. On Thursday they harvested devil's club stalks, boiling the inner bark for a medicinal tea, powdering the pulpy center for medicine, and cutting the stripped stem into beads.

"They're learning brand-new things that they've never seen before in the city," said Florence Marks Sheakley, who teaches Tlingit at UAS. "Plus we have a pretty much different language for when we used to go to camp."

The fluent Tlingit speakers came from Juneau, Yakutat and Klukwan, giving students a chance to hear differences in the language. For instance, Sheakley from Juneau and Lorraine Adams from Yakutat knew completely different words for cockles.

The fluent speakers, who came as teachers, reveled in the opportunity to speak their Native tongue for such an extended period.

"The objective of this camp is so awesome and each and every person at this camp knows the value of our interaction," said John Martin, who spoke Tlingit as a boy in Tenakee. "You can hear the happiness, the laughter."

The fluent speakers remember days when Tlingit was a primary language in their lives, but for most of them that was decades ago. Only Sheakley still regularly speaks Tlingit when she visits with her mother and sister.

"We're almost like the last family members that still carry on in our language," Sheakley said. "We have more fun speaking in our language. We have more jokes."

As they brought the language back to life, it seemed almost as if others were there too, speaking.

"Whenever I speak the language, I speak for the elders," Martin said. "It's their language. Whenever I speak, they are standing behind me and egging me on, saying it's OK."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at

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