Ketchikan mourns loss of Tlingit elder

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2003

KETCHIKAN - A Tlingit elder is being remembered for her contributions in teaching her language and culture.

Esther Shea, 86, died on Thanksgiving Day in Ketchikan.

Shea spent nearly 30 years in the classroom. Daughter Martha Denny said her mother taught in local schools until she was 84.

"She enjoyed it," Denny said. "She thought it was really important, because many of our younger children don't have cultural information. She thought it was important to leave it behind, to teach them."

Shea was born April 21, 1917, in Boca de Quadra within Misty Fjords National Monument and lived in Ketchikan and Saxman. Her Tlingit name was Taayei, which means "basket with the sun shining through."

Shea's mother was of the Taantakwaan Teikweidee, or Brown Bear of the Tongass tribe. Her father was from Kiks.adi frog clan of Wrangell.

Shea was of the Xoots' Hit, or bear house, and the Teikweidee brown bear clan, Denny said.

Shea, who had 14 children, established a traditional family structure and passed on oratorical skills and history, said son Richard Jackson.

"Her expectations were very high of family and we'd work to meet that," Jackson said. "She always said, 'Use care with your words. Words are like rocks."'

Shea started teaching Tlingit language and culture in 1968 at the Methodist Church day care in Ketchikan, sharing Tlingit songs and words.

Shea spent many years teaching at the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan, the Totem Heritage Center and with the Sealaska Heritage Institute's Kusteeyi Program. She taught generations of Ketchikan School District elementary students through the Johnson O'Malley Program.

The University of Alaska Southeast awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters in teaching in 1994.

Priscilla Schulte, an anthropology professor at UAS Ketchikan, said Shea changed people's lives.

"Esther was a true teacher," she said. "She brought a depth of understanding about Native culture that you really can't get from a book."

Ed Thomas, president of Tlingit-Haida Central Council, worked with Shea when the Ketchikan School District's Indian Education Program was getting off the ground in the 1970s.

"One of the good things about her was that she understood not only the culture, but the history of Native people in the Ketchikan area," Thomas said. "She knew firsthand and was very knowledgeable about the various clans that were part of the Ketchikan area."

Shea learned how to drive when she was 75 or 76 after the death of her husband, Clifford Shea. Her head was barely visible over the steering wheel, Jackson said.

"The only thing that slowed her down was getting old," he said. "She wouldn't have slowed down otherwise."

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