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Khuteeyi Téik’ Áwé Kei Uxeexch, ‘Even the Littlest Stone is Turned’

On Wednesday, January 23, respected Elder of the T’akhdeintaan clan, Kenny Grant, shared this Tlingit proverb with SHI staff. The topic of proverbs, parables, riddles, and other old Tlingit sayings was initially raised that day by the Vice Chair of SHI’s Board of Trustees, Albert Kookesh of the Teikhweidí clan. Appropriately, Kenny, whose carries the Tlingit name Káaxhkhaatuklaghé, responded to the topic that had been brought out by his Teikhweidí opposite.

Káaxhkhaatuklaghé began by addressing everyone in Tlingit, saying how good he felt to be among them and noting that these old sayings are an especially powerful and respectful way of addressing the opposite moiety. They can be used to console during times of pain and to inspire before difficult tasks. Unravelling their compacted and indirect meanings requires deep thinking and an intimate connection to oral traditions.

Káaxhkhaatuklaghé explained that when he was young his father seemingly out of the blue said to him one day, “Yítk’, khuxh idahán. Yoo xh’atánk i jeedé kkhwatée, ‘Son, stand at ease for a moment. I’m going to give you some words’.” His father then told him the proverb. Káax̱ḵaatuklag̱é led everyone through the pronunciation: Khuteeyi téik’ áwé ‘even the littlest stone’ . . . kei uxeexch ‘is turned’. He then related his father’s explanation of the extended meaning of the proverb, which isn’t apparent in the words taken literally.

Over the course of millions of years, mountains are raised up from the earth, creating little pebbles and grains of sand that are carried up thousands of feet to where they now wait upon the summit. A major task in someone’s life, whatever it may be, is like ascending a mountain to turn over one of those little stones. The idea of turning over a little stone may seem easy and relatively insignificant. But the core of the proverb lies in precisely what it leaves unstated: the stone is at the summit of a mountain and you’re the one to turn it. Everyone has a unique purpose, a specific little stone waiting for them on a mountain summit. To reach the summit, one encounters steep slopes, sheer cliffs, devils club patches, snow, and countless other obstacles. Like the simple words of the proverb compared to its broader context and meaning, the tasks we focus on in life are often only minor moments in the real work involved in completing them. The real task is more often the one that isn’t readily apparent—the long, exhausting, and often unacknowledged climb that shortens the distance and makes it possible to encounter the stone at all. Káaxhkhaatuklaghé used this proverb metaphorically to give encouragement and strength of mind to everyone present for whatever goals and difficulties they may be facing or striving for in their lives.

Contrary to many popular beliefs, oral literary traditions are rigorous discourses with established conventions for citing one’s sources. Káaxhkhaatuklaghé concluded, “Yéi áwé yee een sh kaxhwdlineek axh éesh xh’éidáxh, ‘I’ve told this to you all the way I heard it from my father’.” Highlighting oral transmission across generations, it is not merely the simple words of a proverb that carry their meaning, but their extended explanation and elucidation, which came to Káaxhkhaatuklaghé through his father. On a certain level, the proverb itself offers a way of thinking about proverbs. Being able to pronounce the words khuteeyi téik’ áwé kei uxeexch is one thing, akin to turning over a tiny pebble; transmitting the backgrounded context orally across generations is a task of a wholly different scale, like ascending one of the great peaks in Tlingit country that has carried the stone over millennial to its current resting place.

Also present was Ruth Demmert of the Khaach.ádi clan, whose Tlingit name is Khaanákh. After Káaxhkhaatuklaghé concluded, Khaanákh spoke to students of the Tlingit language seated around her, using the proverb as an encouraging comparison for their language learning journey. “Ayáxh áwé yatee yee een. Xhwasikóo yagaxhyeedlaaghí, yéi áwé axh toowúch. Yee gu.aa yáxh x’wán.” (‘This is how it is for you. I know that you will succeed, that’s how I’m thinking about this. Have strength and courage.’). The students responded, “Yéi kghwatée, gunalchéesh.” (‘It will be, thank you.’) Khaanákh and Káaxhkhaatuklaghé exemplified how proverbs such as this are not simple sayings meant to be repeated, but structured forms for thinking upon which skilled minds can place a range of meanings in order to suit diverse occasions, audiences, and purposes.

There was concern raised that day that many proverbs, parable, riddles, and other sayings are being lost and forgotten. To an extent, this is unfortunately true. However, as Káaxhkhaatuklaghé and Khaanákh made apparent, this indeed continues to be a living tradition. And additionally, there are many great examples of these kinds of sayings that have been documented directly from the words of fluent Elders who have since passed on. There are at least six proverbs in the book Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives, which are highlighted below. These are some of the finest examples of yaxh at ghwakú ‘proverbs’ and at kookeidí ‘parables’—here occurring within the context of Tlingit oral narrative. Each of these proverbs are situated in very specific social and oral literary contexts, but like the stories and events they emerged from, they offer an enduring way of addressing “the ‘ambiguities of the human condition’ with which we all must come to grips: coming of age as adults, alienation, identity and self-concept, conflict of loyalty, pride and arrogance, separation and loss—and many other experiences that are part of being human” (Dauenhauer & Dauenhauer 1989: ix). Tlingit proverbs are indirect statements about being human. With thanks to Albert Kookesh, Káaxhkhaatuklaghé, and Khaanákh for highlighting this topic and demonstrating its continued relevance, here are six examples of Tlingit proverbs referenced in Haa Shuká, presented with the accompanying published translations and commentaries:

(note: For compatibility with this platform, the Tlingit content throughout this post uses the "email orthography", employing an "h" rather than an underline on uvular consonants.)


(1) Willie Marks, Kéet Yaanaayí of the Chookaneidí clan, tells in the story of Naatsilanéi:


A xhánt uwagút wé ghantas’aatí.
A daa yoo koolnúkgu áwé,
aaxh yóot awsixhút’
wé s’aakh kát.
Ách áwé yéi at ghadudlikóo,
“Óodáxh kát kawdziteeyi yáxh woonei.”

Ch’a náanáxh shawdinúk.



He went by the sick man.
While he was feeling around him
he pulled the bone spear head
out of him.
That’s where the proverb comes from
“he was like the man who had a spear

He sat up without feeling pain. (1989:

The Dauenhauers comment that the proverb Óodáxh kát kawdziteeyi yáxh woonei can be more literally translated as “he became like one from whom a spear point was removed,” and that “This proverb can be applied culturally to someone who is feeling better after feeling ill” (1989: 337).

(2) Frank Johnson, Taakw K’wát’i of the Sukhtineidí clan, tells in the story of Dukt’ootl’ or “Strong Man”:


Áwé tle yawtwatsákh.
Tle du shóodáxh deikéexh dultsaaghí áwé tle yá
yaakw géegit uwashée.
Yéi akanéek tle aaxh akaawatéixh’.​
Tle dáaghi khoon aawayeesh. Aagháa áwé
       tsaa a yíxh woogoot.​
Á áwé ch’u yeedát a yáxh at ghat.lkóo nuch,
      “ch’a wé sheen xh’ayee áwé áxh woogoot."


They didn’t want him to go.
When they were pushing away from him
he reached for the stern of the boat.
They say he twisted it off.
Then he pulled it up on the beach with the
       men in it. That’s when he stepped in.
Even till now there is a proverb from this,
      “He just went as a bailer.” (1989: 144-45)


The Dauenhauers comment on this proverb at length:

“to go along as a bailer” is a proverbial expression in Tlingit that can appear in various forms: “I’ll go along as a bailer,” “he can go along as a bailer,” “take me along as a bailer,” etc. This phrase is used by, for, or about someone who is about to undertake an important task. The idea is that anyone who bails a boat keeps it from disaster, but there is even more implied in the proverb. Part of the message is not to look down on or overlook the poor, the different, or seemingly low. Even a person performing such a seemingly trivial task as bailing the boat may, in fact, come to the rescue. Here the nephew does not go along as the skipper, mate, or prestige crew, yet, as the story evolves, he “saves the day.” So, there is a twofold message here: first, that each person can play his or her part in a task, however seemingly humble, and, second, that things are not always what they seem, and true power may come from places where we overlook or least expect it. As the story unfolds from this point we see the pride and arrogance of the uncle leading to his demise, and the true inner strength of the nephew manifesting itself. (1989: 356)

(3) Willie Marks, Kéet Yaanaayí of the Chookaneidí clan, tells in the story of Ḵaakex’wtí:


Kóoshdaa kháaxh áwé aksanéek.
Tle yéi ayawsikhaa du yátx’i
“ixinaadéi haa kdunáa.”
Ách áwé yéi at ghadudlikóo
“chush keekaadáxh Ghunanaa aa 



He claimed they were land otter people.
So Ḵaakex’wtí told his children,
“They’re telling us to go down the bay.”
That’s why there’s a proverb
about “sending Athabaskans down the

       opposite bay.” (1989: 162-65)

The Dauenhauers comment that this proverb “is used for someone who passes up a golden opportunity” (1989: 368).

(4) Frank Dick Sr., Naakil.aan of the L’uknax̱.ádi clan, tells in the story of Xóotsxh Xh’ayaakhuwdlighadi Shaawát, or “The Woman Who Married the Bear”:


Yáax’ áwé wulik’oots
wé ách yaa nasyaan át​
ayaan dzaasí.
Yóo áyá duwasáa yá tíx’​
ayaan dzaasí.
Ách áyá a yáx̱ at ghwaakóo,
“ch’u ayaan dzaasí nghwak’oots jeewahaayi át."

Yéi xh’ayadukhá.​
Ei-ei-ei-ei nak’utsch.



Here they broke—
the things she was packing with,
Athabaskan thongs.
This is what they called this rawhide:
Athabaskan thongs.
This is why there is a proverb,
“Even an Athabaskan thong would break.”

This is what we say.
Ei-ei-ei-ei the straps would break. (1989: 196-99)

The Dauenhauers note that this proverb is “used when something bad is going to happen” (1989: 382).

(5) J. B. Fawcett, Tseexwáa of the Wooshkeetaan clan, tells in the story of Kaats’ :


Wé atghaa khushée
wé du keitlx’í
du keidlí
yanaxh áwé ash wooxheech.
Ách áyá at kookeidéexh sitee,
“Ash tayee
yá a káa yéi s khéich.”

S du yei.ádi haaw áwé s du yei.ádeexh sitee
       wé át.


While he was searching
for those dogs of his,
his dogs,
she buried him.
That’s why there’s a saying
the thing they sit on.”

Spruce boughs are their beds, the beds of
       those animals. (1989: 222-23)


The Dauenhauers were uncertain of the significance of this, commenting, “The context and meaning of the proverb are not clear to the editors at this time” (1989: 394). It is worth noting that Tseexwáa uses the term at kookeidí ‘parable’, rather than a variation of yaxh at ghwakú ‘proverb’ as seen in the other five examples.

(6) Amy Marvin, Khooteen of the Chookansháa, tells in the story Sít’ Khaa Káxh Kana.áa, or “Glacier Bay History”:


Woosh daa tuwdzinóokw xhá.
Hél aadéi áa jeexhduwanaaghi yé; yées
       shaawát áwé,
yées shaatk’.​
Aaa, yaxh at ghwakú, “at x’aakeidí sákw áwé,
Áwé yéi yan kawdiyáa.
Aagháa áwé tle yéi ḵuyaawakhaa
“Ha ch’a tlél wáa sá utí yaaxh wugoodí.
Yaaxh ghaaghagoot.”


People used to cherish each other, you
There was no way they could have left her
       there; she was a young woman
a young girl.
Yes, like the saying, “they had her sitting
       for seed.”
This is when this happened to her.
This was when people said,
“There’s nothing wrong with her coming
Let her come aboard.” (1989: 272-73)

The Dauenhauers comment, “A young woman of child bearing age would be the wealth and seed of the people, their hope and guarantee of the continuing survival of the group” (1989: 423).

These six examples have been extracted out of their fuller literary and social context. They should therefore be thought of more as little stones waiting to be eventually turned rather than simple concepts or lessons that are easily grasped. One possible mountain to climb, then, which would bring their meaning into closer proximity, would be a sustained attention to the words of Tlingit elders and a long, intensive, trying study of the Tlingit language.

Written by Sealaska Heritage Institute Research Specialist William Geiger, Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.