"This is Who I Am"--Southeast Alaska's Tlingit embracing native language

Jul 3, 2018

Rosita Worl President of Sealaska Heritage Institute
Credit Sealaska Heritage Institute

  In July 2017, correspondent Christine Gordon traveled to Juneau, Alaska to find out what’s happened in the state since advocates and local officials succeeded in their campaign to make 20 Native Alaskan languages official state languages along with English.

By Christine Gordon-- In 2014, Tlingit was appointed one of Alaska’s 20 official Alaskan state languages along with Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Tsimshian, and English. Their success comes more than thirty years after Hawaii passed a similar law recognizing Hawaiian as their state’s official language along with English.

Hawaii and Alaska are now the only two states to officially recognize indigenous languages. And although advocates say the legislation is largely symbolic, they also believe it’s a good first step in bringing much needed attention to the protection of their cultures and traditions, which are rooted and handed down through oral communication more so than the written word.

As part of the journey to understand the course of events that lead up to this legislation and the results of its passage, I meet with Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Sealaska Heritage Institute Juneau, Alaska
Credit Sealaska Heritage Institute

The nonprofit was founded in 1980 and among other services runs a museum showcasing old and contemporary Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian art and artifacts.

Below the organization’s offices is a treasure trove of priceless art works and regalia, including sacred masks once used in Shamanic rituals, children’s handmade dolls, canoe paddles, ornate robes and halibut hooks.

Modern Haida and Tlingit art includes carvings and silver bracelets by Jim, Leo and Willie Marks and Amos and Lincoln Wallace. 

During Ms. Worl’s tenor and following the 2014 legislation there have been inroads to teaching Alaskan native languages in primary schools.

There’s even a free “Tlingit Language” app available on iTunes. The app offers entries in more than 20 different categories, along with audio and alphabet sounds. But much needs to be accomplished.

Tlingit is a language native to coastal Southeastern Alaska in areas such as Yakutat and Ketchikan.

And today, only about 500 Alaskan natives out of a population of 10,000 spread over 16 communities can speak it. As the language disappears so does the culture that depends on its oral traditions and teachings.

The day that I arrived to the Sealaska Heritage Institute was cold and rainy, although warm for July. The entrance opened up to a tremendous wood carved and painted house front created by David A. Boxley, an internationally recognized Tsimshian artist. 

Boxley has many admirers, his masks and wood carved panels are in collections of the King of Sweden and the Emperor of Japan.  The opening to the house was immense, nearly 40 feet wide by 15 feet high.

There was a description on the wall in Tsimshian, which told the story of Am’ala, whose weary shoulders are continuously massaged and relaxed with duck grease. As the story goes, when the last ducks disappear Am’ala will drop the earth and so goes humanity.

After entering through the belly of the Am’ala carving I stepped into the Shuká Hít (Ancestors’ House). Transfixed by the quiet—and a bit unhinged by the cautionary tale—I find I’m in a bit of a trance.

The Am’ala story was very much like the Greek myth that told the story of Atlas, who was condemned to hold up the skies for eternity.

While Atlas figured prominently in Greek written myth, the story of Am’ala was told through the fabric of the Tsimshian language, in wood carvings and in a culture that practiced respect for wildlife and recognized the interconnectedness of human beings and animals.  

I decided I would ask Ms. Worl more specifically about how she thought preserving her native language kept her culture alive.

I climbed the steps of the modern building in search of her office. The meeting of old world and new, Greek myth and Tsimshian belief system, as well as my own cultural identity took front and center.

As I entered her office I was struck by her commanding presence—at nearly 80 years-old, Ms. Worl towered above the modern amenities at her finger tips. She looked me directly in the eye and soon we were lost in a conversation that took us back in time 10,000 years.

Sealaska Heritage Institute logo
Credit Sealaska Heritage Institute

--Christine Gordon, Associate Producer, Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer

Audio Editor: David Cope, Jr.

Outro Music: "Cheyenne" The Greatest Ever Native American Music, Vol. 1 - Ghost Dancers (Deluxe Edition) Global Journey

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Underwriting support provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Credit Society of Saint Vincent de Paul