A whole group portrait at the final celebration for the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí project on August 19, 2022.
In the Boat & On the Shore
Immersive Learning Experiences with Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathways
Photos and Text by Stacy Unzicker
Along the back of a banquet hall sits a long table holding pictures of beloved elders and ancestors that look on as various speakers wearing precious regalia share their memories of the immense work that goes into revitalizing Indigenous languages.
Se’iga Liimii Da Ts’m Ksey Marcella Asicksik speaks to the crowd of guests and language scholars during the culminating event of the Summer Language Institute.
“Our ancestors are listening to us,” remarked Se’iga Liimii Da Ts’m Ksey Marcella Asicksik, a Sm’algya̱x teacher from Anchorage and new appointee to the SHI Board of Trustees. Elder Florence Kaakal.áat Sheakley stood and told the room of scholars, “I’m really proud of all of you for speaking our language.”
Elder Florence Kaakal.áat Sheakley speaks to the room of language students and teachers.
The scholars and their mentors had gathered in Juneau to commemorate the enduring work of the learners and teachers in the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathways project. This Sealaska Heritage program supports the restoration of the Indigenous languages of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska, which are Lingít, X̱aad Kíl, and Sm’algya̱x, respectively.
The Xaad Kíl cohort sings their translated version of “The Language of Our Ancestors” at the final celebration of the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí project.
Held in August, the event featured days of in-person language immersion work, octopus bag making, and a final ceremony to mark the accomplishments of all the scholars as well as the valuable work done by the language teachers.
Language mentor and professor Jaskwaan Bedard from Haida Gwaii looks forward to continued collaboration to help raise more Xaad Kíl speakers. Bedard found her way into language revitalization during her first pregnancy and found a corollary for language trauma during a season of stressful medical events. This situation allowed her to empathize with the ancestors saying, “When survival is on the line, the first thing you put down is your language.”
Dedicated language mentors and champions traveled to Juneau to share their own teaching methodologies with the scholars, to aid them in their learning, and to provide them with strategies to implement in the community teaching events that the scholars will continue to host.
The language teachers and mentors at the final celebration for the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí project on August 19, 2022. From left to right: Jaskwaan Bedard, Nae Brown, Se’iga Liimii Da Ts’m Ksey Marcella Asicksik, Shiggoap Alfie Price, Ggoadm 'Teebn Victoria McKoy, and Daxgyadim Amim Timlaanit David Nelson III.
Cross-language games and physical activities, many integrating American Sign Language, helped the scholars engage with interactive learning modalities to enliven their teaching.
A learning cohort pairs sign language gestures as they practice in the afternoon language immersion sessions during the Summer Language Institute. From left to right: Tukshaak'éi Sarah Peele holding Gyáa’aang, Kugíin-g Duu Lauryn Framke. Shiggoap Alfie Price.
Students, graduates, and mentors alike were given thoughtful gifts like braided sweet grass to keep the heart open and at peace, and a pouch of sweet pine to help with taking big breaths to reassure the learners they are not alone. Framed art pieces featuring scenes with canoes depicting those on the journey and those on the shore welcoming them home from such hard work were presented as well.
Braided sweet grass and framed artwork were given to the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí project participants.
During the ceremony, the song “The Language of Our Ancestors,” originally in Hawaiian and translated with help from X’unei Lance Twitchell into each of the heritage languages, was performed for and dedicated to Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Kaaháni Worl.
The Lingít cohort, led by Skeenyáa Tláa Nancy Keen (left, front) sings their translated version of “The Language of Our Ancestors” to SHI president Kaaháni Rosita Worl (back).
Worl said of the scholars, “I think I could cry… they’re so beautiful,” as they sang and drummed each translation of the song for her in their respective tongues. “Thank you for making this one of the happiest days in my life… you guys give me hope.”
SHI president Kaaháni Rosita Worl speaks at the final ceremony as she describes the textured history of revitalizing Indigenous languages after colonial contact.
Nicole Chooshdatláa Anderson, an education program manager and mentor from SHI, reflected on the past three years, “I can't help but remind myself of the words of Kichnáalx̱ (George Davis), ‘Gunalchéesh x̱á aaa. Adaanáx has wudanaag̱í yá ḵustí yá haa Lingítx̱ sateeyí. Thank you, yes. For rising to it, to this culture, this our people.’" She described how the fifteen scholars who participated in this program are “answering the call that still echoes in the air, first spoken in 1981 by our beloved elders. It has been an honor to watch the language growth of the scholars in X̱aad Kíl, Sm'algya̱x, and Lingít.”
Nicole Chooshdatláa Anderson shares prepared remarks about the successes of the language students before inviting each on stage to receive their certificates and gifts.
The pandemic dealt significant blows to the implementation of the program in its original three-year lifespan, as language acquisition efforts are even more challenging without the ability to learn together, in person. However, in addition to the obstacles came novel opportunities to bend and stretch creatively, which ultimately allowed the program to reach a larger audience, in turn strengthening the intent of the revitalization efforts.
Language mentor Nae Brown shares her hope that Lingít will be spoken alongside English everywhere in the community, like at the check-out stand at Fred Meyer. Brown said of the path towards full revitalization, “Just keep speaking, every day.”
The paradoxical nuances were captured succinctly by Anderson, as she extolled the scholars, “Navigating the waters with program staff, contractors, and scholars wasn't always easy or pleasant, but seeing the community's momentum to pull this canoe together made all the heartaches and trials worth it. Thank you, scholars, for sharing space with our staff to lift our hands to continue to carry the knowledge left in our care.”
The Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí team that put on the Summer Language Institute the week of August 15-19, 2022. Back, from Left to right: Daxootsú Judith Ramos, N’daa lołchin Leah Urbanski, Éedaa Heather Burge, Mansyndoga da Gyet Nancy Barnes, Jacqueline Bennum, Sheridan Cook, Ggoadm 'Teebn Victoria McKoy. Front from left: Nicole Chooshdatláa Anderson, Mis tahks ah ki Rachael Demarce.
At the capstone ceremony, six scholars were the first onshore as they received their teaching certificates. Continuing, nine remaining scholars will work towards the goal of gaining their certification as well. Four scholars began the undertaking more recently in the Spring of 2022 and three of the original cohort are only one course away from their goal.
The Lingít cohort pairs sign language gestures as they practice in the afternoon language immersion sessions during the Summer Language Institute. From left to right: Alyssa Duncan, Skaydu.û Autumn Jules, Shaash Kwan Raven Sevenson, Gooshdeihéen Ricardo Worl, and Kuchien Aidan Bowers.
Between 2018 and 2022 this program has helped ensure that an additional 120 Alaska Native students have access to heritage language education in Southeast Alaska, which represents a 4% increase.
The Sm’algyax cohort sings their translated version of “The Language of Our Ancestors” to SHI president Kaaháni Rosita Worl (far right).
Through this process, a strong partnership between UAS and SHI was forged and will further solidify with a second-generation program called Our Ancestors’ Echoes. The new grant objectives will focus on growing the number of language educators by 26%, establishing a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous Studies in Language, and securing three faculty positions at UAS to ensure that each language is properly supported for the life of the grant.
Se’iga Liimii Da Ts’m Ksey Marcella Asicksik helps the Lingít cohort as they practice conversational games in the afternoon language immersion sessions during the Summer Language Institute.
Dr. Worl’s words at the first graduation event harnessed the exciting momentum of the future of the language community’s efforts: “I believe we are going to have success in the full and total revitalization of our languages so thank you all!”
The language scholars at the final celebration for the Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí project on August 19, 2022. Back, from left to right: Shaash Kwan Raven Sevenson, Ggoadm 'Teebn Victoria McKoy, Dag Júus Robert Yates, Neelaatughaa Julianna Clock, Kuchien Aidan Bowers, Kaax̱ Tséen Herb Sheakley, Gooshdeihéen Ricardo Worl, and Skaydu.û Autumn Jules. Front, left to right: Kaasgiteen Jalynn Gregory, Tukshaak'éi Sarah Peele, and Kugíin-g Duu Lauryn Framke (unpictured).