The task of the class was to write a letter to whoever they wanted. In Lingit. Eechdaa Dave Ketah chose his late grandmother, the person who spoke to him in lingit when he was growing up in Ketchikan.
“And I was telling him that it’s hard to learn the language at this point in my life, and one thing that makes it even harder is that I have to pay for it,” Ketah said, describing what he wrote. “The whites took our language and now they charge us to get it back.”
Or: “Sgóon ḵaa sháade náḵx’i dleitx kaa sitee. Tlél has ushk’é ka Lingít yoo x̱ʼatángi has aawatáw. Yeedát Lingít x̱ʼatángi natoo.eich,” he wrote in the letter.
Ketah is a high school teacher in Portland. She has been taking online Lingít language classes at the University of Alaska Southeast since 2020. She started as a beginner and is now in advanced Lingít learning the language that her family spoke for thousands of years, but which she did not grow up speaking.
Ketah initially wanted to learn the language as a way to connect with her culture; he had felt detached from living outside of Southeast Alaska for so long. But he has become so much more. Learning to speak lingit is a way to connect with his ancestors, including his late grandmother, who had been taught to hide her culture and language from him.
“Having the opportunity to learn the language has been very powerful in my journey,” Ketah said.
The school, which forbade her grandmother to speak lingit, is now a place that makes this kind of personal journey even more accessible. A few months after the letter-writing assignment, UAS announced over the summer that it would offer tuition-free Alaska Native language classes. It’s an effort that had been in the works for a few years. Funding from the Sealaska Heritage Institute is making it possible.
Students currently taking non-credit classes in Lingít, Xaat Kíl, or Smʼalgya̱x, traditional languages of Southeast Alaska, are no longer required to pay any tuition or fees.
“The University of Alaska Southeast is committed to acknowledging and acknowledging the historical wrongs suffered by Alaska Native communities. We are making sure that indigenous peoples do not have to pay to learn their own language. It is very important in working towards language revitalization and healing in general,” said Carin Silkaitis, dean of the UAS College of Arts and Sciences, in the announcement.
X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native languages at UAS, has been part of the multi-year effort to make language classes free. By finding a way to make it happen, he said the talks would “return to historical responsibility on the part of governments and education as a system that plays a role in trying to eliminate indigenous languages.”
When it comes to endangered languages, Twitchell said, it’s not fair to take money from the population of people who have been oppressed.
“There is so much trauma involved with language learning and recovery as indigenous peoples that it just didn’t make sense to look at things from this kind of financial perspective,” he said.
Breaking down the cost barrier is working. UAS language teachers say enrollment has increased for both non-credit and credit-bearing classes. UAS still charges tuition and fees for credit classes. When Twitchell first joined UAS in 2011, enrollment was in the 30s or 40s. They were happy when it hit 70. “And I remember when we hit 100,” she said.
Éedaa Heather Burge teaches a beginning Lingít class at the University of Alaska Southeast on Sept. 20, 2022. (Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon) Enrollment now nears 300. More than 130 language students are taking classes for credit and about 150 are taking the option without credit.
Éedaa Heather Burge, an assistant professor of Alaskan native languages at UAS, said classes were typically capped at 30 students in previous semesters. This semester, one of her starting Lingit classes has 70 students. Increased demand and larger classes come with their own challenges, but it’s a fantastic problem, she said.
“For your classes to be in such high demand that it’s hard for us to keep up, that’s a passionate problem,” he said. “I think long term, we need to hire more people to be able to run these classes if the demand continues to be this high.”
Ketah, who is seeing this growth and revitalization from outside of Alaska, is in awe.
“It can be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s like everyone wants to learn, whereas in my youth, it wasn’t something that people were excited about,” Ketah said.
‘Trained to do that’
As a child in Ketchikan, Ketah used to visit his grandmother, Eva Ketah, a couple of 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,” she said.
When the two were together, “we would pick berries, she would feed me traditional food and she would talk to me in lingit,” he described. “It would be all that from her youth, where she came from.”
But Ketah remembers a peculiar thing her grandmother would do.
“Things would change abruptly. She kept her food, she spoke English again, and then there was a knock on the door. It didn’t matter who she was. She could be someone else Lingít. It could be a family friend, an acquaintance, whoever she was, but as soon as someone else came, she would hide,” she said.
Ketah’s grandmother lived on a hillside accessed by a long staircase, allowing her to see someone coming from afar.
The peculiar thing happened a few more times before Ketah asked her grandmother about it.
“I asked her, ‘Grandma, when other people come, why do you stop doing something that is Lingít?’” Ketah said, looking back 40 years.
“She said, ‘Because we were trained to do that.'”
Ketah, who was 10 years old at the time, was taken aback by her answer but didn’t know how to ask what she meant. Decades later, however, he was able to piece together that memory with other memories and stories his grandmother told him.
“‘Trained to do that’ was a euphemism for: they beat it out of her.” Ketah said.
his grandmother’s house
Ketah said her grandmother’s family originally came from Sʼeek Heení, Warm Chuck Inlet on Heceta Island on the northwest side of Prince of Wales Island, before moving to Klawock.
“The reason she left Warm Chuck Inlet to go to Klawock was because the government agents came and told her mother and all the other mothers with children, ‘You have to take your children to school,’” she recounted. “They were saying, ‘If you don’t take your kids to school, we’ll put you in jail. And then after you’re in jail, we’ll send your kids to school anyway.’ And so, there was no choice in the matter.”
The school in Klawock, Ketah said, had a mix of kids who stayed there full-time and kids who had family in the community and went home on the weekends, like their grandmother.
“The teachers would say, ‘Now when the kids go home, if someone is breaking the rules, and those are the school rules, if they’re speaking the Lingít language, or wearing Lingít clothes, or engaging in any of these things cultural, then you tell us when you come back to school,’” she said.
Children were taught to inform each other. Even a child who hadn’t broken the rules but hadn’t turned in a child who had would be punished.
“And the penalties were physical beatings. So that happened to my grandmother and all her contemporaries, ”she said.
Ketah said those wounds resonated with her father’s childhood and her own.
In addition to learning the language as an adult, Ketah has also established himself as an Alaska Native lingit carver and artist. Last summer, he did a residency at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka and his work was recently part of an exhibit at the Washington State Museum of History.
In the last two years, when Ketah embarked on this expanded learning of her culture, she asked her father, “Why didn’t you ever teach me about this?”
His dad said, “Because my parents never taught us. We asked them, but they didn’t.’”
Ketah now knows that by not teaching them about their language or culture, their grandparents were trying to protect their children.
“They were convinced that the way forward was to fully embrace the white path.”
‘I can speak my language in my school’
When Ketah learned enough Lingít, he went to the high school in Portland where he teaches and began his class by saying yakʼéi tsʼootaat, or good morning.
“I was able to speak the Lingít language in what my grandmother would call a white men’s school and they don’t punish me. 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 can get past all that dark history and I can speak my language at my school,” Ketah said.
Every time she speaks lingit in a school setting, she feels like she is redeeming what her grandmother and other relatives endured. Despite everything they went through, Ketah said, the language lives on and he becomes a part of it.
“I don’t just consider it a privilege, I consider it a responsibility because I have that freedom,” he said. “My ancestors didn’t do it because they couldn’t. And that’s why I have to. Because I can.”
When Ketah was a child and his grandmother spoke to him in lingit, he could only understand a few words, which “breaks his heart”. He was never able to speak to her in her language.
But there are a couple of video recordings from the 1990s that his uncle made of his grandmother and grandfather. “A lot of lingit is spoken,” Ketah said, “which I fully understand now.”
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