Institute says book teaches language, values

Sealaska linguist: children's book not like 'Dick and Jane'

Posted: Friday, December 24, 2004

When a Tlingit boy is rude to his mother and contemptuous of a piece of salmon, it's an opportunity to teach respect.

A new illustrated book published by Sealaska Heritage Institute tells a shortened version of an old story as a way to teach the Tlingit language and Tlingit values to young children.

"Moldy End" is the first book produced by the institute under a grant to create materials and lesson plans for school programs in which children in kindergarten to second grade would be immersed in Tlingit language and values.

They go hand in hand, the editors said.

In creating a culturally relevant curriculum, the institute asked how the Tlingit culture would teach about salmon, said Keri Edwards, a linguist and director of the language department.

"We think it would be done through a story," she said.

"When we look at the Tlingit philosophy of education," said David Katzeek, one of the book's editors, "for us the classroom is not a particular building or a particular place, but nature in its entirety. That classroom includes seeing salmon returning every year."

If uncles or aunts, parents or grandparents saw a child throwing a rock at a salmon, they would stop the child, he said.

"They would then take that as an opportunity to provide lessons on values as they relate to respect - respecting what is created," Katzeek said.

The short book serves as an icon, like a totem pole, that reveals its meanings not all at once, Katzeek said.

"A long time ago they would carve totems to tell the story," he said. "Now it's a transition to take stories from the totem and begin to be like a scribe, to scribe out the story. We're not the story experts, but the goal is to bring values to the young person."

Katzeek, Johnny Marks, Hans Chester, Nora Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer derived the story from a longer version, "The Salmon Boy Legend," told in 1904. Lisa Teas, a student at Sitka High School, illustrated the book.

The book comes with a CD on which Katzeek reads the text in Tlingit. The book's pages include Tlingit and English text. "Moldy End" with the CD sells for $25 and is available from the institute. The text can be downloaded for free from the Web site

Although it's an abbreviated version, and it's intended for young children, the language isn't simple, Edwards said.

"It's not like Dick and Jane," she said, referring to the famous elementary reading books. "But it's a first step in teaching it to kids."

A teacher could refer to the longer version, which is on the institute's Web site, for richer details, she said.

So far, with the institute in the last year of a $278,000 curriculum grant from the U.S. Department of Education, no schools in Southeast Alaska have a true Tlingit-language immersion program.

But the institute plans to be ready for the day.

It doesn't want to translate a Western curriculum into Tlingit.

"We're trying to create something that starts from the Native perspective by consulting with the right people and keeping things correct from the cultural standpoint," Edwards said.

At the same time, the curriculum should be teacher-friendly so that any teacher can enrich their curriculum with Tlingit culture, said Nancy Douglas, a curriculum specialist at the institute.

"It's a real challenging thing to try to merge two cultures," Katzeek said. "One (culture) comes at it one way and the other from another way. Striking a balance is important in being able to achieve it."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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