Getting a Tlingit language lesson

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2000

When teacher Nancy Douglas talks to her students about "our clan," her hand gestures in a circle toward them.

Douglas, Kitty Eddy and elder Florence Sheakley are teaching a class of 17 kindergartners and first-graders at Harborview Elementary in the Juneau School District's first bilingual and bicultural classroom. Nearly all of the children are Native.

"Sometimes our kids are kind of categorized as Natives," Sheakley said. "I see this as opening the door for the community to come together. We have non-Natives in here. It makes them understand what kind of people we are."

When Douglas led a classroom of kindergartners, first-graders and third-graders in a song used to enter a Tlingit clan house, she reminded them to sing until the last person is inside, "so we're supporting each other."


Tuning up: Teacher Nancy Douglas, left, leads first-graders Marcus Worthington, center, and Samantha Skan in the Coming In song Wednesday as they prepare for a potlatch at the Alaska State Museum. Elder Florence Sheakley is in the background.


The children learn more than Tlingit words; they learn values, their teacher said.

"That's every day, all day long," Douglas said.

"Especially respect," Eddy said. "Respect for the environment, respect for one another."

The pilot class, begun this fall, is funded by a $400,000 grant over two years from the U.S. Department of Education to the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, in partnership with the school district.

"We want to help children in the school district be proud of their heritage," said Sandy Samaniego, education director at the foundation.

"We assume that pride in their heritage will melt into pride in themselves and lead to increased opportunity for educational success and therefore success in the world, in their lives," she said.

The class is required to meet state and school district academic standards and assessments. Annie Calkins, a former school district administrator, is evaluating the program as well.

The school district wants to intervene early enough in Native students' lives to be sure they are successful in school, Calkins said. "But it's going to require a long-term commitment. The teachers are creating this curriculum, doing tremendously hard work," she said.

It's too early to say if the students' ability in English and other subjects will be helped by a bilingual and bicultural approach, as its promoters hope.

Certainly the children are eager. During a class last week they shot up their arms for a chance to make a design for a clan house. Sheakley said the children challenge each other with how much Tlingit they know.

"Even when they're coloring, they're asking for the colors by the Tlingit name, not the English name," she said.

The kindergartners and first-graders recently joined with two third-grade classes to prepare for a potlatch at the Alaska State Museum on Friday. One class would be the Eagle clan, which would visit the clan house of the Ravens.

The children made regalia and learned several songs in Tlingit with the help of tapes they studied at home. The student clan leaders practiced reading a scripted protocol in English with a sprinkling of Tlingit words. Douglas showed Jonas Decena how to pound his staff four times to command attention.

The children sang the traveling song and danced around the classroom, their arms paddling a canoe through the air as Douglas beat a drum. One boy, Tyler Johnson Poquiz, took matters in hand and showed the kids how to dance by making two short steps with each foot.

"Now, this song was to help us so we could cooperate when we were traveling so we could get where we need to be," Douglas told the children.

Afterward, Douglas said they would eat Native foods such as seaweed and herring eggs at the museum. She told the children not to complain if they didn't like the taste. It's a matter of respect, partly for the people who eat that kind of food, but also for something more. "We never talk badly of any food or anything that nature provides us," Douglas said.

Later that afternoon, the kindergartners went home and the first-graders left the third-graders and returned to their classroom.

"You can tell when you walk in it's a culturally based classroom just by what we have in the room," Eddy said. "I've never had so many things hanging."

Regalia, mock-wooden hats and painted paper salmon hang from a wire across the room. A poster shows the weather in Tlingit. A bulletin board displays drawings of animals with their names in Tlingit and English. Plastic boxes for each student hold Tlingit vocabulary words with drawings. The paper-towel dispenser has signs in English and Tlingit.

The children learn the Tlingit words for colors by playing a bingo game with colored squares. Sheakley calls out the markers in Tlingit. The child who wins has to repeat all the colors that form her bingo.

Sheakley also plays Simon Says with body parts, saying the Tlingit words for head, shoulders, knees, toes and so on, while the children point to them on their own bodies.

Al Castillo, who picked up his niece after class, said the program is great. "I wish they started it when my boy was in Harborview," he said. "I'm just glad they're getting exposure to a Native language. You know, we don't want to have the language die out."

Sealaska Heritage Foundation and the school district have applied for a federal grant for a Tlingit program for higher elementary grades. After the first grant expires, the school district will have to decide whether to continue the program at the earlier grades on its own.

If the program expands, the school district will need to find more Tlingit-language teachers and create a more advanced curriculum. About 12 teachers are learning Tlingit and how to teach it and are developing materials, said Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

"We spend a lot of time trying to develop what we can use," Eddy said.

Eddy doesn't speak Tlingit. Douglas doesn't speak it fluently. Sheakley, who also teaches Tlingit at the University of Alaska Southeast, is a fluent speaker.

"We have to use elders because it's more than just language. It's language and culture," Samaniego said. "Whoever is participating needs to have a sound foundation in both. And that's our tradition: We learn from our elders."

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