Tlingit elder Ka Seix Selina Everson, 85, was forbidden to speak her language when she left Angoon for Sheldon Jackson College, then a boarding school for Native children. Now, she's working to preserve the Tlingit language. At Harborview Elementary School, she's known as "Grandma Selina." She's also serving as a mentor in a three year Tlingit language mentor/apprentice pairing.
Story last updated at 1/29/2014 - 2:01 pm
Ka Seix Selina Everson was thirteen in the early 1940s, when she first went to Sheldon Jackson College, then a boarding school for Native children.
She was born in Angoon, and grew up hearing her elders, her parents and her grandmothers speak Tlingit. Her grandmothers and her mother spoke only Tlingit.
So it was a shock to arrive in Sitka and find the use of her language discouraged, even forbidden. But it's a shock she doesn't remember - it was just too painful.
"I wiped it out of my mind," she said.
Her brothers, forbidden from speaking Tlingit on the campus "ground," would jump up in the air to speak to each other.
"I feel like our people had a sense of humor to escape the hurt," she said. "We felt the oppression against our language, our culture, our dances. I can't imagine how it hurt our elders to be made to feel like second-class citizens of our own land... So we have a lot to overcome, and we're still trying to."
She's a fluent Tlingit speaker, and the language has been a passion for her throughout her life.
Her parents worked tirelessly for the family. Her father was a purse seiner, a hunter, and a trapper, providing food for Everson and her 12 siblings, six of whom died in a pneumonia epidemic in the 1930s.
He was considered one of Angoon's sharpshooters, Everson said.
"We never knew that," she said. "He wouldn't talk about it."
Her mother put up food for the winter, was a master basket weaver, and sold moccasins made from deer and seal hide. Everson didn't learn those crafts.
"They probably thought it would be easier for us if we stepped into the white man's world," she said.
The Angoon she grew up in was close-knit, with grandmothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and the kind of small-town feeling that made even those who weren't related honorary family.
One of her grandmothers was regal. The other was strict, and told her she was a lady; she shouldn't move her head too fast, and she should walk a certain way.
So Everson became a tomboy, climbing upside down and playing marbles.
"The love we grew up with ... we never lacked for love and guidance," she said. "There's a lot of people that were involved in my life that I learned something from."
She graduated from Sheldon Jackson in 1947. Soon afterwards, she married her first husband and spent nine years in Bellevue, Washington.
In a family story, her aunt flew to Seattle to visit her son - a very frightening thing for someone who had never flown and didn't speak English. The attendant gave the speech at the beginning of the flight, pointing to different exits in the plane. When she disembarked, her aunt said she'd been worried until the attendant blessed the plane. Everson never corrected her. It's something she still smiles thinking about.
She credits much that is good in her life to her second husband, Murlin "Mike" Everson, to whom she was married for 51 years. When they first married, he worked for the Ketchikan Daily News. She was very shy. He told her she was just as good and intelligent as anyone else, and that she shouldn't let anything intimidate her. He encouraged her to speak.
"I am where I am today because of him," she said. "His encouragement, and his love."
She worked as head waitress at the Baranof Hotel after moving to Juneau. The Alaska Native Sisterhood has also been a big part of her life; she served three terms as Grand President, beginning in 1990. Her mother was president of Camp Seven (Angoon), conducting meetings in Tlingit.
She's been working at Harborview Elementary School for almost 15 years, five days a week. There, she's known as "Grandma Selina."
"The first time I ever saw the influence of our language on our children... they heard me speak Tlingit in school and their heads lifted up with pride," she said. "That really influenced me ... to stay and do what I can to teach our language and help with the learning process of our language."
Now, she travels all over Southeast Alaska for Tlingit immersion workshops. She has five children, seven grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren, and she's working as a mentor in a three-year mentor/apprentice Tlingit immersion program put together by Sealaska Heritage Institute.
"I hope that this continues ... that our language will be here forever, and that our grandchildren will learn," she said. "Sometimes I reflect on our culture. We were taught early on respect for all life around you. Even the rocks, they have a spirit. The trees, they have a spirit. The elders were so adamant about respecting nature, respecting each other, and most of all respecting yourself."
Contact CCW staff reporter Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.