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I recently received a letter from Dr. Walter Soboleff, telling of the upcoming annual convention of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood Oct. 2-6 in Kake.
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I remember a convention 40 years ago also held at Kake where I gave a short key note address. As I recall, my main message was the importance of the Tlingit language, the need to preserve it, to educate the young and to carry forward the traditions of the people.
Two of the stalwarts I recall meeting were my friend Cyrus Peck, of Angoon and Juneau, and William Paul, of Wrangell. William told me that when he was a young boy, he remembered that my grandfather, graduating from a life as a fisherman on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and at Anan Creek, near Wrangell, becoming a barber and then a store owner.
In the 19th and early 20th century there was a flood of immigrants who came to America mainly from Europe. Many had a hard early struggle in life. When they got to America, they exalted in the freedom and the opportunity. It was not important for them to teach their children the language of their birth. They wanted them to excel as Americans.
In the same period in Alaska, in the educational system, the emphasis was primarily on the English language and the native languages were often neglected.
Of course, today it is not like that. Everyone wants their children to have the opportunity to learn more.
A language reflects the history and personality of a people and a geographical place. I was once reading a story of words in the Eskimo language and it said that there were many, many ways to describe ice and the cold. English, which comes from northern Germany and England with a moderate climate, has far fewer such words.
I looked in my English/Tlingit dictionary by Constance Naish and Gillian Story printed in 1963 for a similar comparison. There are many Tlingit words for the wind. In addition to the directions of north and south and west, there is an offshore wind and a shore wind, a strong wind and a stormy wind, and one we know today from its Tlingit name, the Taku wind.
A native language permits one to mirror the nature of the country he or she inhabits. Wouldn't it be enriching if we all could speak Tlingit? Wouldn't it give a marvelous dimension to our lives, to be able to speak and think in the culture that is historically rooted in the land and the sea?
Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.