Ketchikan Indian Community’s new technical training center has a wing dedicated to language preservation. Almost daily, fluent speakers are recorded either at the center or in their homes, with the goal of not only maintaining an audio record of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages, but eventually creating a series of textbooks to teach the Southeast Native languages into the future.
KIC also offers beginner classes for each of the area’s Native languages, and the class that’s happening now teaches Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language.
“We have learned a lot from trial and error over the last 30 years, all the attempts to preserve language and teach it,” said instructor Terri Burr. “Originally, everybody followed the Westernized academic method. We tried to teach our Native languages the same way that English is taught, but it didn’t work.”
Burr said the best way of sharing a language seems to be the tried-and-true method of one-on-one sessions between mentors and students. KIC’s language teachers bring that method into the classroom.
For example, when a student traditionally comes to visit an elder, they must announce themselves in the Native tongue before they can come inside.
“So you would hear a knock, knock, knock at the door, and if you’re the visitor, you would announce yourself, or an elder might say from the other side, ‘Nayu gwa’a?’ ‘Who is here?’ And then you need to announce yourself on the other side of the door. I would say, ‘Terri gwa’a.’ I can’t come in until they say, ‘Tseen, tseen.’ That’s our Tsimshian way of saying come in,” she said.
The students in Burr’s class go through that exercise each day, taking turns playing the role of mentor and novice. Once they’ve made it through the door, students practice simple conversation skills with each other, such as “How are you?” and “I am fine.”
Burr also gives cultural context to her students, telling stories that she’s heard from elders. She said part of that cultural context is a sense of fun.
“In our Tsimshian culture, we’re a very humorous people, affectionate people, so we have a lot of laughing,” she said. “And I think that’s another part of distinguishing our teaching style apart from the Westernized academic method. When we teach, when we’re handing down knowledge, there’s a lot of heavy responsibilities, but you don’t have to do it with a heavy heart.”
Burr’s students range from the very young to elders. She said the older students often are “dormant speakers,” and recognize words as the class continues.
Included in the lessons practiced during a recent class were common animal names.
“Who remembers the word for seagull?” Burr said. “Gugoom. That’s that deep G. Sounds like you’re gargling. Or gurgling.”
The students took turns putting simple sentences together, using those animals, and some
new words that Burr introduced.
Student MaryTerry Haldane Kennedy is a Tsimshian, originally from Metlakatla. She sits quietly in class, takes careful notes and pays close attention to the lessons. She said she often heard Sm’algyax spoken when she was a child. Now though, it’s rare.
“I think I was very fortunate to hear it, and I understood it,” she said. “But as time went on, our fluent speakers passed away, and so I heard it less and less, so then the next time I heard it, I’d understand less, and then because it hasn’t been in our communities as much, it’s harder to understand.”
Kennedy said words often come back to her during class, and she appreciates the opportunity to reacquaint herself with her people’s language.
“And so I think more needs to be done to have programs so that we can carry on our language,” she said.
The classes are open to everyone, regardless of their ethnic heritage. Burr said beginners don’t even have to wait for the next class session; they can come in any day and start learning Sm’algyax.
For example, in a single class, this reporter picked up a few things. One: There’s a letter called the barred-L, which is challenging. Two: Metlakatla is called Ta-guan, which means “of the island.”
And then: This great phrase: Ashkadee anogoo shket – I don’t like spiders.
Click here for audio samples of simple phrases in the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida languages : http://www.kictribe.org/programs/chas/language/translations/index.html