KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) – John Reese, a 93-year-old Tsimshian elder, had some advice for a group of about two dozen people learning to say, ‘How are you?’ in a conversational Shm’algyack language class at the Ketchikan Public Library.
“If you’re going to talk Shm’algyack, talk it loud. Am I talking loud enough for you?” he said.
His voice filled the room of students, about half of whom were children. The class answered – some said ‘yes’ and some said ‘oa,’ the Shm’algyack affirmative response.
“Good. When you talk Shm’algyack, you talk it loud. Ndella waan, Ndella waan! You say it,” he said, and the class repeated the phrase. “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. You’re proud to be able to utter these words. That’s that way I feel about it. If I say something, I want the people to hear what I have to say. Ndella waan? Let me hear you say, loud and clear.”
On Sept. 23, Reese and his language apprentice Terri Burr finished teaching a twice-weekly, six-week conversational Shm’algyack course at the Ketchikan Public Library.
The pair continues the language instruction with Beginning Tsimshian Language II classes in October, and Burr said they plan to continue with instruction in January in a three-part cycle that they’ve been hosting since 2009.
Reese is the last fluent speaker of Shm’algyack, the Tsimshian language, in Ketchikan, Burr said. Shm’algyack is one of at least 20 distinct Native languages throughout the state, according to the Alaska Native Language Center, and as the population of fluent speakers ages, many languages are endangered.
In Ketchikan, Reese and Burr are two of a number of individuals and organizations working to preserve and revitalize Shm’algyack, as well as Lingít, the Tlingit language, and X–aad Kíl, the Haida language.
Linda Schrack, a Haida who works as a cultural instructor and language apprentice for the Ketchikan Indian Community, hosts X–aad Kíl classes and leads a family program where she regularly visits Haida language learners in their homes. Ketchikan local and Tlingit “Capt.” Joe Thomas has also led classes in Lingít through KIC.
Alaska Native languages became secondary to English over the past century, especially as Western-style schools became common.
Many Native school children were discouraged – sometimes violently – from speaking their languages in schools. Burr said her grandmother was attending a pioneer school in 1887 when her knuckles were so harshly rapped for speaking Shm’algyack that her parents pulled her out of the school.
However, Reese – who grew up speaking Shm’algyack in Ketchikan – said that wasn’t his experience when he began learning English as a 5-year-old at a Bureau of Indian Affairs grade school in Ketchikan.
“Other people told me that when they spoke Shm’algyack in their classes, the teachers would whack their hands to make them stop, but now, in the government school that I went to, it didn’t matter,” Reese said. “We could talk in whatever (language) we wanted. In the class, we’d speak English. Out on the playground, we spoke Shm’algyack.”
As he and other children in his generation continued through school, Reese said many adopted English as their first language, and when older generations began to die, the population of Shm’algyack speakers and many other Native language speakers began to dwindle.
“Well, unfortunately, when I grew up, all the Shm’algyack-speaking people died off, and when all the youngsters picked up English, that was all they spoke,” Reese said. “Even the ones that I spoke with when we were children, we spoke Shm’algyack all the time like children do, but as we progressed through grade school and middle school and high school and ... college, most of the language they spoke disappeared through all the progress of education. When the older generations die, a lot of the language goes with them.”
As younger generations grew, the use of Native language generally became less common. Schrack said her parents and grandparents all spoke X–aad Kíl, but would often switch to English when speaking to her and her siblings as children.
“When we got up and went into the kitchen, (her grandparents) would quit speaking (X–aad Kíl) and switch to English, so I learned a little bit from them, but most of my learning of the Haida language has been since they passed, when there’s been more of an emphasis put on the revitalization of the language,” Schrack said.
A Native language revitalization and documentation effort began in the 1970s when the population of fluent speakers began to age and decrease.
The Alaska Native Language Center – now part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks – was established by the Alaska Legislature in 1972 as a research and documentation organization for Native languages and it continues to offer classes and publish written and online resources. The ANLC also announced this past week that the Institute on Collaborative Language Research will be held at the UAF campus in the summer of 2016.
Other UA campuses offer Native languages courses, workshops and seminars, and organizations like KIC and the Sealaska Heritage Institute have supported mentor-apprentice programs that pairs fluent elders with language learners.
But institutional change is still happening. Former Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 216 on Oct. 23, 2014, recognizing 20 Alaska Native languages as official in the eyes of the state. In September of 2014, a federal judge in Anchorage ruled the Alaska Elections Division violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act in failing to provide ballot and candidate information in Native languages to Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in rural Alaska, and the Alaska Legislature formed the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council in 2012.
Schools are getting involved in preserving and teaching Native languages, too. Hans Chester is a Tlingit language and culture teacher at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, where he has been working with all students in small enrichment groups and large class settings since January.
Chester said teaching Lingít in school is “key for us to get it back into our homes.”
“I know there are small handfuls of families who are working really hard to learn (Lingít) and then use what they learn with their own kids at home,” Chester said. “But I think if we are able to do something school-wide within every school, kind of like what we’re doing here at Glacier Valley, it’s going to bring more awareness to our language, and hopefully more students will start using language they learn from us at school at home.”
In March, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins proposed new legislation to encourage and support Native language charter schools in Alaska, including immersion programs, which Schrack said would be one of the most effective ways to teach X–aad Kíl.
“The ideal thing for us to actually revitalize the (X–aad Kíl) language would be having immersion, but unfortunately, we don’t have the resources for doing that right now,” Schrack said. “It’s been really challenging, because we don’t have that many teachers and (have been struggling in) just trying to capture the interest of more students.”
Schrack said children play a vital role in the revitalization effort, and many programs focus on a family learning environment.
“When I have families coming to my evening classes, it’s the children that are retaining the language quickly, and they, in turn, help their adult sponsor, whether it’s their parents or auntie or uncle,” Schrack said. “That’s (one) reason that the family participation is encouraged, because it’s easier for children to learn languages.”
Learning about language often goes hand-in-hand with learning about culture. Though it is important to learn and be able to use vocabulary and understand grammar, Burr said elders give Native languages meaning to new speakers.
“(Reese) has so much to offer besides just words and speaking practice. He can put the whole context there,” Burr said. “He can tell the stories and the history, and that’s what we’re missing. All three nations – Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida – we’re missing the context. It’s one thing to learn individual words and memorize phrases, but we need the full picture. We need to hear the old stories. We need to hear the history. We need to feel the humor and the affection and rekindle all those connections, and that will support the language.”
Language is an important part of a person’s identity as an Alaska Native, Reese said.
“It’s the only true way to say, ‘I’m a Tlingit and you’re a Haida and you’re a Tsimshian.’ The language that you talk, that shows you. Like me, I speak Shm’algyack, and they hear me talking, and they say, ‘He’s a Tsimshian,”’ Reese said.
Sara Weston brought her children to Reese and Burr’s class on Aug. 18. She said her family is Tsimshian from the Eagle Clan, and has recently started becoming involved in their culture by joining a Native dance group and attending the Shm’algyack classes – opportunities that she didn’t have as much growing up.
“There were dance groups and language classes, but they were pretty spread out and fewer and far between,” Weston said, adding “that’s why (now) I’m like we’re going. My kids were kind of crazy for a little bit, but they’re here, and we’re going to be back tomorrow, and we’re going to be back every week.”
Though interest in revitalization by institutions and individuals is increasing, many of Alaska’s Native languages remain endangered – Schrack said she didn’t know if she “will ever become fluent (herself)” in X–aad Kíl.
“But the way look at it is I’m paving the way for the generations after me to help create teachable resources and have the audio available to hear,” Schrack said.
Burr said she is panicked and afraid about the state of Shm’algyack language loss in Alaska, but that she remains hopeful.
“Another elder, Gertrude Johnson, always said, ‘Don’t you feel afraid, because you’re going to do the best you can and that’s going to be pretty good,”’ Burr said. “All’s I know is to keep teaching. ... We just teach it, and then we’ll have speakers. We’ll just keep on teaching, and we’re already seeing successes and benefits. We’ve had some young parents with young children and babies, and their first words were in Shm’algyack. Babies saying wayi wah, ‘let’s go.”’
For Reese, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, he said the classes that he teaches and language that he passes on to younger generations are part of his legacy.
“When I’m gone, I’d like to leave something, and (Burr) asked if I could help her learn the language,” Reese said. “So I did.”
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com