Story last updated at 1/29/2014 - 2:01 pm
Tlingit elders and language learners gathered at the Sealaska Heritage Institute at the end of January to begin a project that's been long in the making: Tlingit language mentor and apprentice pairings.
Formally called "Bridging Challenges to Fluency through Partnerships: A Tlingit Mentor-Apprentice Language Program," the project pairs elders and apprentices from Yakutat, Sitka and Juneau for a three-year language learning project.
"I'm excited to hear our language alive," said SHI Director Rosita Worl in opening comments for the orientation and training workshop. "Every time we lose a speaker, it hurts us all, but we should also be celebrating that as each day goes by, our language becomes stronger."
Jasmine James, the project coordinator for the partnership, said the goal is for each mentor and his or her apprentice(s) to spend 10 hours per week the first year and five hours per week the next two years speaking the language. There is also an immersion retreat over the summer, which will bring the hours in the first year to a total of 300.
Paul Marks, a Juneau Tlingit speaker and mentor, said he'd like the project to go beyond verbs, nouns, and direct translations. He'd like to help facilitate a switch out of an English-based framework and way of thinking, into a Tlingit one.
"It's actually a very strengthening thing," he said.
Many echoed that desire.
Trainer and presenter Phil Albers, a member of the Karuk Tribe of California, helped with teaching and learning strategies. Albers was once an apprentice of the Karuk language himself. Albers said part of immersion is relating ideas "all the way from where we came from - creation stories," he said. "That's what the language was created out of."
Community Liaison Marsha Hotch told the group that a trip to Hawaii was formative for her in conceptualizing what she wants for Tlingit.
"We as a region need to strategize ... to all hold together region-wide so we can keep our language," she said. "We've come a long way in 10 years, but going over there (to Hawaii) and hearing babies crying in their language, knowing they're in an English-dominant world ... hearing little two-year olds pouting in their language ... was tear-jerking for me. I want to hear our children. You guys are the hope," she said.
Worl spoke of a time that leaders, punished as children for speaking Tlingit, thought they were doing the right thing in encouraging their children to speak only English.
"Fortunately they began to realize the strength of our culture is embedded in our language, and they were strong enough to reverse that position and begin to support the maintenance of our language," she said. "Our native languages have a wealth of knowledge ... a worldview, knowledge about our environment, our history ... all of that is embedded in Native languages."
She also credited many who "are doing great things in terms of our language" throughout Southeast Alaska.
"You are the select ones," Worl said. "You are going to be the ones who ensure that our languages survive ... it's such a heavy burden on you. It will be you who bring our languages into the future."
Only about 200 Tlingit speakers remain, Worl said. Many are elderly.
In total, there are six teams of Tlingit mentors and apprentices.
In Sitka, Tlingit speaker Ethel Makinen will mentor Duane Lindoff, and Anne Johnson will mentor Jamie Bradley. Tristan Guevin and Heather Powell are community liaisons.
In Yakutat, elder Lena Farkas will mentor Jaclyn Milton, and Nellie Lord will mentor Devlin Anderstrom. Amanda Porter is the community liaison.
In Juneau, Selena Everson will mentor Hans and Jessica Chester, and Paul Marks will mentor Ishmael Hope and Joshua Jackson, with Marsha Hotch as community liaison. SHI is partnering with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and the Sitka Tribes of Alaska in the project, which is funded by a grant from the Administration for Children and Families - ANA, Native American Language Preservation and Maintenance.
Contact CCW staff reporter Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.