Language Camp

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

It is a crisp, summer day, maybe unofficially one of the first of autumn. A group is gathered in the open air around a propane stove - some are sitting, some are standing, but all are focused on the contents of the cooking pot.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

It's seal fat (tsaa eixí), cooking in its own oils - no additives are necessary for this dish. The fat has been cut into bite-sized chunks. When cooked, each piece will hold its own shape - crispy on the outside with a light, airy center.

As the fat comes to temperature, the group breaks out into a Tlingit song. Mary Folletti (Daaljíni) momentarily reassigns her stirring spoon to play the role of a drumstick. As, she sings, she gently beats the spoon on the side of the pot, keeping the beat.

In a nearby smokehouse, another meal is in preparation. This smoked salmon (áx akawdudlis'eigi xáat) was cut into strips earlier in the day and has been smoking for a few hours. Hans Chester (Naakil.aan) removes the smokehouse door to check on the salmon's status.

Chester is one of about a dozen attendees at a Tlingit language immersion retreat, held over Labor Day weekend at the Eagle River United Methodist Camp. He and others from Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities have come to speak, hear and learn about the Tlingit language. This retreat isn't the first of its kind, but past gatherings of this nature have been funded and sponsored by organizations. These Tlingit speakers and learners are here on their own dime, simply because of their passion for the language.

Vivian Mork came to the retreat from her home in Wrangell, where she is one of only a handful of Tlingit speakers. She'd like to see the language emphasized more prominently in everyday life. Something as simple as printing street signs in both Tlingit and English would raise general awareness of the language and culture, she says. The language is part of who she is, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be celebrated, she said.

The speaking ability level of the retreat's attendees ranges from intermediate to fluent. The main goal of the weekend is to surround speakers and learners with Tlingit language, with as little English as possible. If it can't be said in Tlingit, it may be better left unsaid.

"We have a community, but rarely gather for this sole purpose, and not for much time," Chester says.

The retreat is meant to help Tlingit learners integrate the language into everyday life, so the gathering is filled with everyday activities. Games are played, stories are told and food is prepared, the latter serving as the lengthiest of the recreations.

In review, participants reported that all the cooking was an excellent way to practice speaking, with a tasty reward upon the project's completion.

"I enjoyed being busy with the Tlingit food - stirring the pot of seal fat to render the oil," said Linda Belarde (Satóok'). "It brought back many memories of seeing my mom and grandparents cook seal fat on the stove at Excursion Inlet. I also enjoyed the camaraderie of the group - knowing that we were all in this 'learning Tlingit boat' together. Being able to hear Tlingit in context was great for showing me what I could understand. Even though I didn't know every word, I got the meaning."

Alice Taff (Woodisheeyi Tláa), Alaska Native languages research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, took value from the food preparation as well as simply being exposed to Tlingit in everyday use.

"I took home a list of the Tlingit words and phrases I know," Taff said. "My list is short, but I can use it as a base line for judging my learning progress."

In making her vocabulary list, Taff reflected on a few different ways of "knowing" Tlingit words and phrases. First, there are words and phrases that are known but to which meaning is not yet assigned. Next, there are words that are understood only when heard, which differ from those that are able to be spoken in the correct context.

"We know that we need such retreats often," Taff said. "In between the retreats we need to somehow network, on a consistent basis, to keep reinforcing our knowledge."

Chester also hopes to see the retreats increase in occurrence. After returning to "life as usual," he said it has been hard to get the immersion retreat off of his mind.

"It was great to see friends and family that I haven't seen in years," Chester said. "I think it sparked us once again to use Tlingit as much as we can wherever we are."

• Contact Libby Sterling at

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