Tlingit literacy workshop draws on elder’s knowledge

TEACHERS... Jeff Leer and Ada Haskins at a recent Tlingit literacy session held at the Yukon Native Language Centre

Ada Haskins vowed never to forget her native Tlingit language because it was the only way she could talk to her grandmother, says the newest guest at the recent Tlingit literacy workshop at the Yukon Native Language Centre. Eleven participants attended the three-day workshop last month, led by University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist Dr. Jeff Leer, for intensive practice in both speaking and writing the language.

Like many other native students of her generation, Haskins attended residential school and was forbidden to speak her language, but "I refused to give it up," she says.

Because she was fortunate enough to live in Carcross, she was allowed to go home on weekends, which meant she could speak Tlingit with her grandmother, Maria Johns, and her aunt, Angela Sidney.

"I loved my grandma so much, and I thought, my goodness, if they knocked this language out of me, how would I communicate with my grandmother?" says Haskins.

"She understood English but she couldn't speak it. So If I lost my language there'd be no way to talk to her. I really fought to keep it."

Haskins attributes her strong will to her father, Johnny Johns, who wrote a letter of protest to the government after his daughter told him about some of the practices at the school.

"When the school got a reply they told me to pack my things and leave," she says, explaining why she only went to seventh grade.

She currently teaches adult language workshops in Skagway, where she now lives, after she was asked to teach the language to several Carcross residents last summer.

"What I'm trying to do is teach some adults, so they can go out and teach someone else," she says.

"I started right out teaching sentences because I thought it would be easier for them than learning one word here and there."

Now her 27-year-old granddaughter wants to learn as well as her 11-year-old great-granddaughter, who "phoned me one day and said, 'Grandma, will you teach me how to talk Tlingit?' " explains Haskins.

"It kind of helps me too in a way, because sometimes I forget some words, and boy, I have to dig it out of there sometimes," she says.

Now that she's attending her first literacy training session, she's learning how to write down the language as well.

"It's easier for the younger people to learn to write it, but it's hard for my cousin Ida (Calmegane) and me because we've always known it, we never had to write it," she observes.

Like the other participants at the workshop, Haskins took part in listening exercises that help to distinguish between similar sounds in the language.

The workshop focused on contrasting two different consonant sounds that are hard to distinguish in English -- for example, t and t glottal, which can make the difference in meaning between "he's sleeping" and "king salmon."

"When Jeff (Leer) wanted a word with x in it I thought, oh my god, what could I ever think of that had an x in it?" Haskins laughs.

"I thought of one today, I never dreamed I'd ever remember. Grizzly bear Ð xuts."

Jane Smarch of Teslin is another relative newcomer to the literacy workshops -- this is her second -- and she too finds the writing and spelling challenging although "it's coming," she says.

"It really amazes me to find out that you can write it, and it all depends on you and how well you grasp it," she explains.

Smarch assists teacher Margaret Bob in the native language program for kindergarten to Grade 9 at Teslin School, and loves it.

"The most rewarding thing is when the children learn how to say a word and they understand what we're saying to them," she says.

She and Bob are currently making dance headbands with the children and teaching them words related to sewing.

"We taught them how to say scissors and now they will ask for it in Tlingit," she says.

Smarch returned to speaking her language in 1976, when she was hired as a social assistance administrator with the Teslin First Nation and her boss asked her to try to speak Tlingit as part of her job.

As a child she had often stayed with her grandmother, who spoke only Tlingit, but had since lost her fluency.

"I decided there's only one way I was going to learn -- just to try and practise in my head and then speak it," she says.

"Today I talk it fluently. Nothing was holding me back but me, eh?"

She adds that she hopes the literacy training will continue, "because it's very important for our children, and it just takes practice. If you practise enough, anybody can do it."

Dr. Jeff Leer has been involved in Tlingit language work with the Yukon Native Language Centre since the late 1970s, including the compilation of a Tlingit dictionary which is nearing the final stages of preparation.

"The words come from all over the Tlingit territory, and I've checked them out with speakers of all three Interior Tlingit dialects," says Leer.

His many contributors have included Elizabeth Nyman of Atlin, who has since passed away, Lucy Wren of Carcross, and Mabel Johnston and Bessie Cooley of Teslin.

Leer is also working with Bessie Cooley on the grammar of interior Tlingit as part of her studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she is completing a BA.

"The dictionary will provide a significant resource for language teaching," explains Leer.

"From the standpoint of documenting the language, it's something like four times the size of the last Tlingit noun dictionary," which he helped to revise 25 years ago.

During his visit to Whitehorse, Leer also spent time with Carcross elder and former native language instructor Lucy Wren, who retired from teaching last year but at the age of 83 continues to be involved with the work of YNLC.

Wren recorded two new versions of the Centre's popular computer books, one in Tlingit and another in Tagish, with the assistance of Southern Tutchone language specialist Margaret Workman.

Such sessions are growing more and more urgent as the number of fluent Tlingit speakers diminishes, notes Leer.

That's why speakers like Wren are such a valuable resource, a fact acknowledged by another workshop participant, Fanny Smith, herself a fluent speaker of Tlingit who succeeded Wren as language instructor in Carcross.

"If I ever get stuck I can go to Lucy and ask her," says Smith, who teaches together with Wren's granddaughter, Marlene Smith.

"I've never got stuck yet, but I always think about it."