Keepers of Tlingit language a dedicated group
November 18, 1992
Development of the modern Tlingit spelling system or orthography began in the early part of this century. Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, and Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit from Klukwan, provided the basis for the orthography with their 1917 article “Grammatical Notes on the Language of the Tlingit Indians.”
Constance Naish and Gillian Story (working on behalf of the Wycliffe Bible Translation Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics) refined the Boas/Shotridge orthography with publication of a Tlingit noun dictionary and spelling book in the early Sixties. The University of Alaska published their major work, The Tlingit Verb Dictionary, in 1973. The Naish-Story publications were all based on field work conducted in Angoon, working with tradition-bearers Lydia George, Robert Zuboff, George Betts and others.
Jeff Leer, working with Tlingit speakers such as Dr. Walter Soboleff, Jenny Willard and John Marks, learned Tlingit as a teenager. Beginning in the late sixties, Leer worked with Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, Naish, Story and Dr. Michael Krauss on development of the modern Tlingit orthography. Leer and Krauss are now affiliated with the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The ANLC published Tongass Texts, edited by Leer, in 1978. The Dauenhauers, working at Sealaska Heritage Foundation, have edited a number of important source publications on Tlingit customs and traditions in the last 20 years.
The Tlingit language workshops of the early Seventies were critical to the development of the orthography. The language workshop had an open-entry, working format in 1972. Virtually anyone with an interest in the Tlingit language could participate.
Resource people Included Krauss, Leer, Naish, Story, the late A.P. Johnson (Tlingit teacher SJ), Walter Soboleff, the late Robert Zuboff I a Tlingit songmaster of the Kakweidi clan of Angoon), the late John Fawcett of Hoonah, John Marks (of the Lukaax.adi clan of Haines), the late Henry Davis (Native Studies Director at SJC), Katherine Mills (of the Chookaneidi clan of Hoonah), and Richard and Nora Dauenhauer (then affiliated with Alaska Methodist University).
Ed Scholz of the SJC staff taught me how to prepare simple photo “masters” and to operate the photo offset press in the school print shop. From 1971 through 1973, I printed a number of pamphlets and booklets at the print shop. The pamphlets included articles by Louis Shotridge, excerpts of the Goldschmidt-Haas report on the Possessory Rights of the Natives of Southeast Alaska, a book on Tlingit crests, and several publications of the Tlingit language (some were developed by Tlingit language workshop participants) under the Tlingit Readers imprint, a press founded by Dick and Nora Dauenhauer and myself.
The modern Tlingit orthography has evolved through the efforts of the above-mentioned people and many others. The Dauenhauers and Jeff Leer will be making major presentations to the Tlingit Clan Conference scheduled for early May 1993 in Klukwan. The Tlingit language workshop met for the last time in the summer of 1973.
The 1972 session of the Alaska Legislature enacted a bill that established the ANLC at UAF. The ANLC has had a decidedly academic, ivory tower orientation in the past 20 years. In a 1992 article, Jim Kari contrasted Alaska Native language policy with that of the Yukon, Canada:
” … the Yukon Native Language Centre … does not have a research and publication mandate as does the ANLC. The central theme has been a well-organized teaching program … I feel that there is need for “expandable discussion and review of Native language issues and linguistic resources in Alaska with all interested groups. Many issues merit discussion; new ideas for potential language activities, economic issues such as funding for a wide range of jobs in language work, the delivery of technical training in language work skills, etc.”
The economic issue that Kari refers to is the challenge to create job opportunities in Native language programs. I moved my family to Angoon in the spring of 1973 for an independent study practicum. My real purpose in moving to Angoon was to learn from Tlingit elders. My grandfather was born in Killisnoo a few miles south of Angoon.
I remember visiting Sitka in the fall of 1973 after living in Angoon for several months. I spoke with my late uncle Ed at a family dinner. Uncle Ed complimented me on my interest in Tlingit language and culture. He advised me that it would be very difficult to provide for a family if I were to pursue my interest much further. He told me that it would be next to impossible to make a living. Ed’s advice rings true today, nearly 20 years later.
One of the things that struck me while writing this column is the number of people who worked on development of the language that have passed on.
There are limited Alaska Native language job/career opportunities. Usually these are in Indian education programs that are, for the most part outside of the school system. There are no programs by which one can learn the technical skills that would enable them to become interpreters, translators or language instructors of Tlingit.
With few job opportunities, there is little incentive for Natives to participate in language and cultural programs. If one wishes to learn Tlingit language and culture, one must have independent means to do so. One must accept the challenge and do it.
There are faint reasons for optimism, however. Congress approved the Native American Languages Act of 1992. That bill, which President Bush signed into law on October 26, will provide funding to tribes through the administration for Native Americans for (1) projects that facilitate and encourage the transfer of Native American language skills from one generation to another; (2) training of Native Americans to teach others to enable I them to serve as interpreters or translators; and (3) development, printing and dissemination of ” materials to be used for teaching and enhancement of Native American languages.
Georgianna Lincoln introduced similar legislation in the last session of the Alaska legislature, but the bill went nowhere.