List of native-language graduates grows longer

LEADING THE WAY... Mrs. Bessie Cooley of Teslin is the first person to complete a bachelor’s degree in a program jointly offered by Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

When Bessie Cooley went to Fairbanks to attend university in the fall of 1997, the Teslin Tlingit First Nation member found herself on her own for the first time in her life.

“My daughter drove me up there, and when she left it was the first time, after 53 years, that I’d been completely on my own,” says Cooley.

“That felt scary at first, and then it became a challenge — that’s the way I looked at it.”

Last December Cooley met that challenge by becoming the first person in the Yukon to complete a bachelor’s degree in native studies under a joint program of Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

She graduated with a major in Alaska native studies and a minor in Tlingit.

And she added those credentials to an earlier Associate of Applied Science degree in native language education that she’d completed in May 1998.

Cooley is one of five Yukoners to have completed the AAS degree in methods and techniques for teaching native languages.

The others are Margaret Workman, Southern Tutchone specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre, and native language instructors Lorraine Allen of Whitehorse, Ann Mercier of Watson Lake, and Jane Montgomery of Old Crow.

All are fluent speakers of one of the Yukon’s seven Athabaskan languages.

“The program requires major commitments of time by our mature students,” says John Ritter, director of the Yukon Native Language Centre which helped put together the formal requirements of the degree program with UAF and Yukon College.

“They spend five years completing their diplomas here, and it usually takes four summers to complete the UAF requirements for the AAS degree.”

Cooley is one of the few students who has attended on a full-time basis, although she’s quick to point out that she was given tremendous support in doing so by her family and especially her husband, Bonar Cooley.

While she lived in Fairbanks during the school year he remained in Teslin, where “he would just look after everything, including paying the bills so that when I went off to school I didn’t have to worry about it,” she says.

In fact it was her husband who kept her going when she enrolled at Yukon College for the first year of the AAS degree in 1996, after 34 years of marriage.

“My favourite story about starting is that at the end of my first week my husband called me and asked me how it went, and I said, ‘Terrible,’ “ she says.

“He said, ‘Why, what happened?’, and I said, ‘Most of my schoolmates haven’t been alive as long as I’ve been married.’

“And he said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it, you’re there because you want to be.’

“To me that made a lot of difference, made a lot of sense. So I carried on and did not too badly.”

In fact, she was an excellent student and graduated from the bachelor’s program cum laude, says Larry Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF and one of Cooley’s program advisors.

“She was interested and hardworking, and when she didn’t understand something she’d be in my office seeking to understand it,” he says.

“She is the kind of student I wish we had more of.”

She was also a valuable resource for other students because of her knowledge of her language and her maturity, adds Kaplan, who invited her to his linguistics classes to talk about Tlingit language and culture.

“She was a wonderful warm presence, and the students really came to appreciate having her as a friend.”

Cooley’s main focus during her time in Fairbanks was her work with Tlingit specialist Dr. Jeff Leer, which included assisting with the compilation of an Interior Tlingit noun dictionary.

“That was one of my assignments when I went back in the fall of 1999 to begin work on the bachelor’s degree,” explains Cooley.

“Dr. Leer would ask me to take each word he’d gathered and use it in a sentence so that he could double-check the information.

“It was very interesting work, I really enjoyed it.”

The dictionary was published this fall by the Yukon Native Language Centre after many years of dedicated work by both Leer and a number of Tlingit elders and speakers.

A fluent speaker of Tlingit herself, Cooley attended residential school but managed to keep her language thanks to the advice of her father, Bobby Thomas Jackson.

“When you get away from the people that can hear you and punish you, you can speak amongst yourselves,” Cooley says he told her and her sisters and brothers.

He also told her that even if she couldn’t speak the language, she could think in it.

And he pointed out that she wouldn’t be able to communicate with her mother if she lost her language, because her mother didn’t speak English.

“So he really gave me a lot to think about and the key to retaining my language,” says Cooley.

Now that she’s completed her degree, her goal is to teach Tlingit in the public school system, she explains.

“I always wanted to teach my language but I didn’t just want to teach the oral part of it; I wanted to learn to write it properly too.”

She’s currently working as the Tlingit language instructor for the Teslin Tlingit Council, although she hasn’t discarded the idea of doing a master’s degree in native language teaching.

“But that would have meant two more years of school and after four and a half years I was ready for a break,” she says.

The academic achievements of Cooley, as well as other graduates from the AAS degree program, demonstrate the importance of such university-level offerings, says John Ritter.

“We established this program because individuals like Bessie told us that they want to make native languages a focus of their lives and work,” he says.

Their achievements also point to the success of the cross-border approach to training teachers and specialists taken by the Yukon Native Language Centre and its counterpart in Alaska.

“This is an extension of what we’ve been doing from the beginning, having a steady progression of students from Alaska and B.C. and the N.W.T. coming to YNLC as well as students from the Yukon studying in Alaska,” says Ritter.

That kind of cooperation between the two language centres makes sense, says Larry Kaplan.

“From the point of view of native language and history, the border is an artificial construct that cuts right through the middle of some native groups,” he points out.

“These joint programs allow people on both sides of the border to work together, and that’s especially important because there aren’t a lot of speakers of those languages.

“Rather than dividing up languages, we feel we’re bringing them back together.”

As for Cooley, she says that the whole experience “turned out really well for me,” as well as fulfilling an ideal of her father’s.

“He told us he did not send us to school to forget our ways but to learn what those people had to teach us,” she explains.

“He said, “What you can do is take the best of both worlds and make it work for you.’ And I did.”