Voices of Our Ancestors Language Summit: Fluent speakers come together for historic event
Sealaska Heritage’s first-ever language summit brought together nearly 70 fluent speakers and more than 200 language learners in Juneau to recognize and celebrate the Elders who continued to speak their languages in the face of intense opposition.
SHI President Rosita Worl giving opening remarks
“The pain caused by efforts to stamp out our languages lives in all of us, even our young people who experienced the trauma through past generations,” said SHI President Ḵaaháni Rosita Worl during opening remarks Tuesday. “But we are not here in sorrow. We are here in gratitude. We are here to celebrate our fluent speakers who kept our languages alive. We honor you. We cherish you. We thank you for carrying our languages in spite of all that you endured and for keeping our ancestors’ voices on the land.”
Encouragement and gratitude
The three-day summit was organized into moderator-led presentations, breakout sessions, and open forum sessions to allow as many speakers as possible to have a chance to speak. Many Elders took the opportunity to offer words of encouragement to language learners.
David Katzeek adressing the summit
“The spirit of our language is strong,” said Elder Kingeistí David Katzeek. “It is like the tide coming back to us. It is like the tide… I believe in you. I believe in you. May you have strength.”
Ruth Demmert addressing the summit
“Take courage, young people, guard yourselves very well. Guard being Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida,” said Elder Ḵaanáḵ Ruth Demmert. “Take courage, all of you. And if you’re a mother, a father, or a grandparent, stand behind them.”
Herman Davis addressing the summit
“Have strength and courage, all of you,” said Elder L’eitu.eesh Herman Davis. “I feel like crying seeing all of you here for our languages. Our language will come back to us … Just as it’s going away from us, it’s coming back to us.”
Language learners also expressed their gratitude to Elders for their leadership.
Naakil.aan Hans Chester addressing the summit with Alice Taff
“Those of you who are Elders, those of you who may have been hurt, those of us that are younger feel the pain you may have felt,” said Lingit language learner and teacher Naakil.aan Hans Chester, who served as a moderator. “Your grandparents, our grandparents, they were hurt, they were done wrong… but as we gather together we get stronger. My spirit is dancing inside of me upon hearing your voices.”
Moderator X̱’unei Lance Twitchell addressing the summit
Moderator X̱’unei Lance Twitchell compared Elders’ role to that of a mother chewing up food for her babies.
“Long time ago, the mothers used to chew the food up for their babies, before they ate food,” he said. “This is the way it is to us. You feed us as you share your knowledge.”
Thursday morning Twitchell shared a song he composed, offered in response to a previous song led by Katzeek. Elders and learners gathered in the center of the room to dance.
Ishmael Hope dancing
“It is with joy that we are dancing,” said Ḵaagwáask’ Ishmael Hope, who also served as a moderator. “We have begun to move forward. Your grandchildren are yearning for the knowledge that you have.”
Tsimshian breakout session
Ideas for moving forward
Other sessions held during the summit provided a forum for sharing ideas about how to improve and expand current revitalization efforts. On Wednesday, breakout sessions on major issues facing each language group – Lingít, X̱aad Kíl, and Sm’algya̱x – were followed by reports from moderators Twitchell, K’uyáang Benjamin Young, and Huk Tgini’its’ga Xsgiik Gavin Hudson.
Haida breakout session
Reporting on the X̱aad Kíl breakout session, Young said a major issue in Hydaburg is the lack of fluent speakers and shared the group’s suggestion for a resource center where learners could access audio and visual materials. He also said that though the integrity of the language is of the utmost importance, that focus has to be balanced with an approach that encourages learners to make mistakes.
“Everyone, no matter where they’re at in their learning journey, if they’re saying something wrong, they should be corrected in a respectful and loving and caring manner,” Young said.
He also shared ideas for creating impromptu immersion sessions.
Ben Young leading a breakout session
“Whether it be going out fishing, going out on a drive, whatever it may be, (let’s) make sure to take the matter into our own hands, and say ok, we’re going to create an immersion environment even if we sound silly, even if we make a lot of mistakes, because that’s how we learn,” he said.
Gavin Hudson (center) at a breakout session
Hudson, reporting on the Sm’algya̱x breakout, echoed Young’s concern about access to fluent speakers but noted that one positive change in recent years has been the introduction of technology that allows learners to communicate with each other and with Elders over the internet and social media. For example the Juneau-based Sm’algya̱x Learners Group uses Google Hangouts (video conferencing) to share knowledge.
“That was an inspiring solution to a very profound problem,” Hudson said.
Hudson also encouraged attendees to make learning their language a priority.
Gavin Hudson reporting on a breakout session
“We need to remember that our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents went through some very difficult times, their languages ripped from their mouths. But we have the opportunity to make it a priority, if we make the investment, to heal those old wounds that maybe never closed,” Hudson said.
Twitchell, reporting for the Lingít breakout, said that Elders should encourage learners not to think of Lingít as hard to learn, but as something that should be used every day.
“The language is made for all of you,” he said. “We will try and we will make it … We want to work with each other with love and kindness.”
Elders working in the schools also shared ideas.
G̱uneiwtí Marsha Hotch
“I believe we need to really move as a region to more immersion style in our communities and when we have gatherings like this,” said G̱uneiwtí Marsha Hotch. She also emphasized the importance of speaking languages in the home, so that children learning in schools would have continuous exposure outside of the classroom.
Florence Sheakley (in red vest)
Ḵaakal.áat Florence Sheakley said anyone who can speak their language should consider teaching—she never expected to become a teacher herself but stepped forward at the suggestion of her sister, Nora Marks Dauenhauer.
“If you speak Tlingit, try to teach people. That’s how we will keep our language.” Sheakley said. Like many speakers, Sheakley emphasized the idea of togetherness between all three tribal groups as essential in moving forward.
“We are strong because of our language—the Tlingit, the Haida and the Tsimshian,” she said. “We are one people, one people. Even if we speak different languages, we are still one.”
One day two of the summit, we got word that fluent Sm’algya̱x speaker Benny Eaton of Metlakatla was gravely ill. Plans for the afternoon sessions were set aside to focus on holding up the Sm’algya̱x speakers and raising funds for the family, following tradition. Benny passed away the following week.
The idea of togetherness was illustrated Wednesday afternoon, when attendees learned that one of the few fluent Sm’algya̱x speakers in Metlakatla was gravely ill. Plans for the afternoon sessions were set aside to focus on holding up the Sm’algya̱x speakers and raising funds for the family, following tradition.
“Heavy things have fallen upon you,” said Ḵinkawduneek Paul Marks. “We are holding you up. We are holding you up. Have strength, have courage. Have strength. Have strength. Let us share our strength with you.”
Worl said although the development was tragic, the response to the tragedy showed viewers watching the live broadcast the strength and vitality of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures.
“Those of our children who saw this today are going to remember how we all came together to support the Tsimshians. Even with this sadness we have a lot to be grateful for.”
SHI President Rosita Worl
Community support at every level
In remarks made at the end of the summit, SHI president Rosita Worl said when SHI made language revitalization a priority 20 years ago, there was no clear path forward—no trained teachers, no curriculum, no funding. Then as now, SHI turned to Elders for direction.
“The first thing we had to do was to eradicate the shame that had been placed on Native people for being Native and for speaking their language,” she said. “They said that we had to proclaim to the world, to the schools, to the communities that we are bringing our culture and our languages out.”
This process took time and though great progress has been made, Worl noted that the continuation of the three languages will require community support at every level—from the legislature and the governor’s office to the school board and the classroom, as well as every person who attended SHI’s summit.
“It’s going to take the commitment of each and every one of you,” she said.
In closing, Worl said her overwhelming feeling at the end of the summit was of pride and gratefulness.
“You’ve heard stories about how our language speakers were subjected to all sorts of suppressive acts, how they were punished for speaking their languages … but even with all of that, you continued to speak our languages. And so it is you we want to celebrate today. It is for you that we had this summit. Thank you for continuing to speak our languages even in the face of all the hardships you had. We thank you all.”
The majority of SHI’s language summit was conducted entirely in Lingít, X̱aad Kíl, and Sm’algya̱x, with interpretation provided by Daalatjáa Fred White, Ḵaakal.áat Florence Sheakley, G̱uneiwtí Marsha Hotch, and Keiyishí Bessie Cooley (Lingít); K’uyáang Benjamin Young (X̱aad Kíl); and Gyibaawm La̱xha David R. Boxley, Ma̱ngyepsa Gyipaay Kandi McGilton, and Ahl’lidaaw Terri Burr (Sm’algya̱x).
Support for the summit came from Sealaska, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, the University of Alaska Southeast, Haida Heritage Foundation, SEARHC, Tlingit and Haida Central Council, and individual donors. SHI broadcast the event live on 360 North and YouTube with the help of Mikko Wilson of KTOO and Betsy Sims of Studio A.
Blog written by Amy Fletcher. Photos by Nobu Koch, Lindsey Brollini and Sydney Akagi