Her grandmother was forbidden to speak Lingít at school. Now the school is helping her get it back.

Eechdaa Dave Ketah, originally from Ketchikan, is a teacher and artist in Portland, Oregon. He is taking Lingít classes at the University of Alaska Southeast. “Having the opportunity to learn the language has been so powerful in my journey,” he says. (Photo courtesy of Eechdaa Dave Ketah)

The class assignment was to write a letter to whoever they wanted. In Lingit. Eechdaa Dave Ketah chose his late grandmother, the person who spoke Lingít to him when he was growing up in Ketchikan.

“And I was telling him it’s hard to learn the language at this point in my life, and one thing that makes it even harder is I have to pay for it,” Ketah said, describing what he said. ‘he wrote. “White people took our tongue away from us and now they’re making us pay to get it back.”

Or: “Sgóon ḵaa sháade náḵx’i dleitx kaa sitee. Tlél a ushk’é ka Lingít yoo x̱ʼatángi a aawatáw. Yeedát Lingít x̱ʼatángi natoo.eich,” he wrote in the letter.

Ketah is a high school teacher in Portland, Oregon. He has been taking online Lingít language classes at the University of Alaska Southeast since 2020. He started as a beginner and is now in advanced Lingít learning the language his family had spoken for thousands of years, but that he didn’t grow up talking.

Ketah initially wanted to learn the language as a way to connect with her culture; he had felt detached from it for so long outside of southeast Alaska. But it became so much more. Learning to speak Lingít is a way to connect with her ancestors, including her late grandmother, who was taught to hide her culture and language.

“Having the opportunity to learn the language has been so powerful in my journey,” Ketah said.

The school, which forbade her grandmother to speak Lingít, is now a place that makes this type of personal journey even more accessible. A few months after that letter-writing assignment, UAS announced over the summer that it would be offering tuition-free Alaska Native language classes. This is an effort that had been in the works for a few years. Funding from the Sealaska Heritage Institute makes this possible.

Students currently taking non-credit courses in Lingít, Xaat Kíl, or Smʼalgya̱x – traditional languages ​​of Southeast Alaska – are no longer required to pay tuition or fees.

“The University of Alaska Southeast is committed to acknowledging and acknowledging the historic wrongs suffered by Alaskan Native communities. We are ensuring that Native people do not have to pay to learn their own language This is so important in the work of language revitalization and overall healing,” said UAS Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Carin Silkaitis, in the announcement.

X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native languages ​​at UAS, has been part of the multi-year effort to make language classes free. Finding a way to do this, he said the conversations would “return to the historic responsibility of governments and education as a system to play a part in trying to eliminate Indigenous languages.”

When it comes to endangered languages, Twitchell said, it’s not fair to take money away from the population of people who have been oppressed.

“There is so much trauma associated with language learning and recovery as Indigenous people that it just didn’t make sense to look at it from that kind of financial perspective,” he said. .

Removing the cost barrier works. UAS language teachers say enrollment has increased for both non-credit and credit courses. UAS always charges tuition and fees for credit courses. When Twitchell first joined UAS in 2011, signups were in their 30s or 40s. They were happy when it hit 70. “And I remember when we got to 100,” he said. declared.

Éedaa Heather Burge teaches a Beginner Lingít course at the University of Alaska Southeast on September 20, 2022
Éedaa Heather Burge teaches a Beginner Lingit class at the University of Alaska Southeast on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Today, enrollment is approaching 300. Over 130 language students take credit courses and about 150 choose the non-credit option.

Éedaa Heather Burge, assistant professor of Alaska Native languages ​​at UAS, said classes were typically limited to 30 students in previous semesters. This semester, one of his first Lingít classes has 70 students. Higher demand and larger classes come with their own challenges, but it’s a fantastic problem to have, she said.

“To have your classes in such high demand that we struggle to keep up is an exciting issue,” she said. “I think in the long term we need to hire more people to be able to teach these courses if the demand continues to be so high.”

Ketah, witnessing this growth and revitalization from outside Alaska, is amazed.

“It might be a little hyperbolic, but it’s like everyone wants to learn, whereas in my youth it just wasn’t something people were excited about,” Ketah said.

“Trained to do this”

As a child in Ketchikan, Ketah visited his grandmother, Eva Ketah, a few times a week.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. I loved going to her house. Every time I visited her, I felt like she was trying to immerse me in the culture,” he said.

When the two of them were together, “we picked berries, she gave me traditional foods and spoke lingít to me,” he described. “It would be all about her youth, where she came from.”

But Ketah remembers a strange thing her grandmother used to do.

“Things were about to change suddenly. The food would be put away, she would start speaking English again, and then there would be a knock on the door. It didn’t matter who it was. It could be another Lingít person. It could be a family friend, an acquaintance, anyone, but as soon as someone else came, it was hidden,” he said.

Ketah’s grandmother lived on a hill accessible by a long staircase, which allowed her to see someone coming from afar.

The weird thing happened a few more times before Ketah asked her grandmother about it.

“I asked her, ‘Grandma, when other people pass by, why do you stop doing anything Lingít?’ said Ketah, thinking back 40 years.

“She said, ‘Because we were trained to do this.'”

Ketah, 10 at the time, was taken aback by her answer, but he didn’t know how to ask her what she meant. Decades later, however, he was able to piece that memory back together with other memories and stories his grandmother told him.

“‘Trained to do this’ was an understatement for: he was beaten out of it.” Keta said.

Her grandmother’s house

Ketah said her grandmother’s family originated from Sʼeek Heení, Warm Chuck Inlet on Heceta Island, northwest Prince of Wales Island, before moving to Klawock.

“The reason she left Warm Chuck Inlet to go to Klawock was because government agents came and said to her mother and all the other mothers with children, ‘You have to put your children in school’ “, he recounted. “They said, ‘If you don’t put your kids in school, we’ll put you in jail. And then after you’re in jail, we’ll put your kids in school anyway. And so, there was no choice in the matter.

Klawock’s school, Ketah said, had a mix of kids who stayed there all the time and kids who had family in the community and went home on weekends, like her grandmother.

“Teachers would say, ‘Now when your children come home, if someone breaks the rules – and these are the school rules – if they speak the Lingít language, or wear Lingít clothes, or participate one of those cultural things and then you tell us when you come back to school,” he said.

The children learned to learn about each other. Even a child who did not break the rules but did not report another child who did would be punished.

“And the penalties were physical beatings. So it happened to my grandmother and all her contemporaries,” he said.

Ketah said those wounds reverberated through his father’s childhood and his own.

In addition to learning the language as an adult, Ketah also established himself as a Lingít carver and Alaska Native artist. Last summer he was in residence at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka and his work was recently featured in an exhibit at the Washington State History Museum.

Over the past two years, as Ketah embarked on this expanded learning of his culture, he asked his father, “Why didn’t you ever teach me anything?” »

His father said, “’Because my parents never taught us. We asked, but they didn’t.

Ketah now knows that by not teaching their language or culture, her grandparents were trying to protect their children.

“They were convinced that the way forward was to embrace the white path completely.”

“I can speak my language in my school”

When Ketah learned enough Lingít, he went to Portland High School where he teaches and started his class by saying yakʼéi tsʼootaat, or hello.

“I was able to speak the Lingít language in, as my grandmother would call it, a school for white men and I am not being punished. In fact, they can’t touch me for anything I do that is related to my culture. And it’s amazing to me that we’re able to overcome all this dark history and that I can speak my language in my school,” Ketah said.

Whenever he speaks Lingít in a school setting, he feels like he is redeeming what his grandmother and other relatives have endured. Despite everything they’ve been through, Ketah said, the language lives on and he’s a part of it.

“I don’t see it just as a privilege, I see it as a responsibility because I have this freedom,” he said. “My ancestors didn’t do it because they couldn’t. And that’s why I should do it. Because I can.”

When Ketah was a child and his grandmother spoke Lingít to him, he could only understand a few words, which is “heartbreaking” to him. He was never able to speak to her in their language.

But there are some video recordings from the 1990s that his uncle made of his grandmother and grandfather. “There’s an awful lot of lingít being spoken,” Ketah said, “which I fully understand now.”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Andrew Kitchenman with any questions: [email protected] Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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