Tlingit class enters 13th year
Students in the Sheldon Museum’s Tlingit language come for different reasons, but the class has proved its staying power as it enters its 13th year, said Kathy Friedle, who organizes it for the museum.
"Typically attendance runs between 10 and 15 students, but it’s gone as high as 18. I think people enjoy the language and it’s a connection to the history of our valley."
The class is held 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, October through May. Evelyn Hotch and Elsie Spud have served as teachers in the current session. The atmosphere is informal and Native and non-Native students take turns bringing cakes and refreshments.
Karlie Spud, 15, of Klukwan, has been taking the class six years and it’s rubbing off. "I can carry on a conversation for quite some time, but I’m still learning. We’re all learning together. I learned a lot from gram (grandmom Evelyn Hotch) and from my whole family."
Spud said she hopes she can use her language skills teaching Tlingit one day at a planned cultural center in Klukwan, but that her interest goes beyond that. "The language is who we are. It’s in our blood. It’s important."
Ron Jackson, a federal forester who retired to Haines, said a big plus in the class is hearing Native students and teachers, particularly older ones, tell stories of Native life and culture. A recent story was that traditional, fork-shaped eulachon nets, though primitive-looking, were more effective than modern dipnets.
Jackson has taken the class five years. "I wanted to learn more about the culture. I felt I was living in Tlingit country and this the language of the land." Perhaps unsurprisingly, some Tlingit words sound like a raven’s vocalizations, he said.
Since taking the class, Jackson can now pick out words and phrases when he hears conversational Tlingit. "I can get the drift of what they’re saying, though I might miss half the words."
Museum facilitator Friedle for nine years has taken the class she describes as bridge between Haines and Klukwan. "Since we’ve had the class, it’s been easier getting guest speakers from Klukwan" to make presentations at the museum.
The museum and the village of Klukwan now partner to present "Culture Days," an annual spring event in Klukwan. "I don’t think that would have happened without this," Friedle said.
Keri Edwards is a Haines-raised linguist who is shepherding a project cataloguing Tlingit verbs. Although students in language classes like the museum’s don’t necessarily become fluent, there’s still much value in such programs, she said.
"Any amount of Tlingit language experience is going to enrich your life on a personal basis because it’s so different from our language in its structure and the way things are described. You’re getting a different window on the world."
"I think the language is worth preserving to any extent that we’re able to," Edwards said. "(Learning the language) also gives you access to the written materials on the culture. Once you start recognizing words here and there, having that connection brings meaning to those things that are still surviving and doing well," Edwards said.
"And being able to say even a few words in a heritage language means a lot to people," she said.