Language Nests

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Fri Jun 17 17:16:40 UTC 2005

Program is 'nest' for Native languages


Learning Tlingit has changed the lives of the 10 or so young adults in  
Juneau who have dedicated themselves to the language, one student says.  
"We had fairly life-changing experiences when we took it to heart to  
keep the language going, because of the Tlingit concept of respect,"  
Vivian Mork said.

Mork said Tlingit wasn't spoken fluently in Wrangell when she grew up  

She began to study Tlingit after moving to Juneau in 2002 to enroll in  
a summer language program, Kusteey, sponsored by Sealaska Heritage  
Institute. She also enrolled at the University of Alaska Southeast,  
which has a Tlingit program.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit that administers  
cultural and educational programs for Sealaska Corp., the for-profit  
Native corporation in Southeast Alaska.

  Classes in the Kusteey Program, now in its seventh year, begin this  
year as early as June 20 in Ketchikan and Aug. 1 in Juneau.

"Kusteey" refers to way of life, or culture.

The Kusteey Program helped instill the importance of learning Tlingit,  
Mork said. She called the program a "nest" for languages.

"When you lose the language, you lose an entire way of looking at the  
world," she said.

Now some of the Tlingit-language students are beginning to teach it.  
That was one of the program's goals.

This past school year, Mork and Jessica Chester taught Tlingit as an  
elective to about 90 students at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

The middle school students, about half of whom were Native, were  
required to study their family history and learn to introduce  
themselves in Tlingit by referring to their ancestors.

"The really neat thing is when Native students start to learn the  
language and start to learn about themselves," Mork said.

In about 10 years, the elderly fluent speakers of Tlingit will be gone,  
Mork said. To save the language, it has to become the language of  
children, she said.

"For a language to survive, it must have a mother-tongue acquisition,"  
she said. "It must be spoken in the home and learned at a young age,  
and used every day."

Sealaska Heritage will offer language classes in Tlingit, Haida and  
Tsimshian this summer. Students can receive college credit for  
completing the classes, which are co-sponsored by UAS.

All three languages will be taught in Ketchikan. The Juneau program  
offers courses in Tlingit, second-language teaching methods and  
developing Tlingit-language materials.

Tlingit-language immersion retreats are scheduled for Angoon and  
Haines, as well.

The summer program attracts students who are committed to learning a  
Native language through a variety of ways, such as university courses  
in the regular school year and community discussion groups, said Yarrow  
Vaara, a language specialist at Sealaska Heritage.

"This is just another opportunity for them to explore that," she said,  
but in a concentrated way.

The summer courses use a teaching method called total physical  
response. The idea is that the students, who are mostly adults, will  
learn a second language the way a baby learns its first language: by  
being spoken to in the language and responding with actions that show  

Students become comfortable with the language before they speak it,  
Vaara said.

This is the third and final year for the immersion retreats, which have  
been funded through a federal grant, Sealaska Heritage officials said.

Students speak only in Tlingit during the retreats, which are scheduled  
for July 5-14 in Angoon and Aug. 15-24 in Haines. The retreats are  
best-suited to intermediate students, Vaara said.

"The first couple of days it's just like trying to learn how to talk  
all over again," she said. "It's reprogramming your brain."

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André Cramblit: andre.p.cramblit.86 at is the  
Operations Director Northern California Indian Development Council  
NCIDC ( is a non-profit that meets the development  
needs of American Indians

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