Hear our words

Language retreat at Glacier Bay Lodge affords an opportunity to speak Tlingit 24 hours a day

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

Study German or French in school and you can look forward to a European trip as a reward and an opportunity to further develop language skills in the real world.

"Unfortunately, there's not a Tlingit-speaking world for us to go to," said Roy Mitchell, a sociolinguist at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. "We're trying to do the next best thing, which is make one ourselves."

That next best thing was a 10-day Tlingit language immersion retreat.

"For many people, including most of the elders, this is the first opportunity they've had in 50 or 60 years to be in a situation where they're speaking Tlingit with each other on a 24-hour-a-day basis," said Mitchell, the retreat's coordinator.

More than 30 people attended the most recent retreat from Sept. 8 to 18 at Glacier Bay Lodge. Most of the participants were descendants of the people of Glacier Bay, according to Mitchell.

"It's been very powerful for the people here to be literally on the site where their ancestors lived," he said.

Those ancestors' Tlingit descendants today number between 13,000 and 14,000, said John Martin, who was in charge of protocol at the retreat.

"Only 140 to 200 of those are fluent Tlingit speakers," he said.

The retreat, funded by a $446,000, three-year federal grant to SHI, is intended to help increase Tlingit-language fluency among students and train Native language teachers.

Goldbelt Inc., Huna Heritage Foundation and the National Park Service were partners in the Glacier Bay retreat, contributing about $150,000 in travel, lodging and other in-kind services. An earlier retreat was held this summer in Sitka. Four more will take place in the next two years.

Rosita Worl, SHI president, said the grant was a "significant step toward perpetuating Native language." With fewer than 200 fluent Tlingit speakers, that may seem a daunting, but not impossible, task - at least according to participants at the Glacier Bay retreat.

"I am determined to learn this language," said Lance Twitchell, president of the Skagway Tribal Council and a retreat participant. His passion comes in part from a book he read in college that gave the Tlingit language only a 30-year life span.

"That became a major goal," Twitchell said. "To assist to make sure that prediction never comes true."

Sociolinguist Mitchell admits saving the Tlingit language won't be easy. "But at the same time, I know it is possible," he said.

Among all the Alaska Native languages, he estimates the number of young people now learning Tlingit is the second highest, behind those learning Yup'ik.

The immersion technique used at the retreat meant only Tlingit was spoken for 10 days. Those who are fluent helped those who were learning. For example, Tlingit speaker Nora Dauenhauer described herself as being used as a dictionary. To help those with fewer language skills get started, a small card with phrases was distributed. They included words such as Daa sa, for "what's that?" and Tsu ax éen sa for "name it again."

A group of fluent-speaking elders taught throughout the retreat. In addition to casual conversations, students also practiced Tlingit while learning to make baskets, carving and beading. Two language classes were held each day, and sessions in singing, drumming and dancing were held in the evenings.

Being immersed in a world where only Tlingit was spoken wasn't always easy. Linda Belarde is from Juneau but left in 1964 and most recently was a school principal in Zuni, N.M. She wrote a poem about learning Tlingit that included the lines, "Stupider and stupider. I must be from Jupiter."

Frustrations, however, were overpowered by determination.

Daphne Wright, who teaches in the Hoonah City Schools, held a water cup and used it as a metaphor.

"This cup is how much language I know," she said.

Then looking out the lodge windows to the waters of Glacier Bay, she said, "Out there is the whole Tlingit language. I came here to try to get a little more."

Kahlil Hudson came from Africa, where he is a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Benin, to attend the retreat along with his grandmother, mother and sister. During the last evening he admitted, "Growing up (in Juneau) I didn't always feel proud of being a Tlingit. That's a terrible thing to have to say. After these 10 days, I can say I've never been more proud to be a Tlingit."

Many felt similar emotions and pride. At 15, Nikka Mork from Juneau was the youngest to take part in the retreat. She said the experience changed her.

"I didn't want to come back (home)," she said.

Like many participants, Mary Folletti knew only a few Tlingit words growing up in Haines. But, like many others attending the retreat, she is determined to speak the language.

"I want to be able to teach my kids and grandkids the Tlingit language," she said. "I want to be able to pass on from my ancestors what they passed on to us."

"Knock on wood," Mitchell said, "I think in a few years we're going to see a few young families where the mother and father - maybe both of them - speaking Tlingit as a second language, will be raising their children as first-language speakers again."

Hans Chester grew up in Juneau speaking English. In 1996 he started studying Tlingit and has recognized what he calls "a fire inside" that keeps growing.

"Each year more firewood gets put on," he said.

Chester, one of the teachers at the Glacier Bay retreat, turned 26 recently. He is recognized as the youngest fluent Tlingit speaker in the world, an honor he tends to downplay.

"He (Chester) and others now have demonstrated it is possible in the 21st century to learn and become fluent in Tlingit," Mitchell said.

It was that realization that gives hope to the elders. Agnes Bellinger of Juneau told the students: "I won't lose sleep anymore. I know our language is safe."

The evidence for Bellinger's optimism was everywhere at the retreat, including a poem written and read by student Lily Hudson during the group's last night together:

"I looked in the mirror this morning

and saw your face as my reflection.

I opened my mouth to speak

and your words came pouring forth.

I sang and danced this afternoon

and felt your spirit dancing too.

Your art flows through my hands.

I crave the food you crave.

Your passions are my passions

And your path to pain is my own

Gunalchéesh my elders.

Gunalchéesh my ancestors.

Your seeds have well been sown."

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