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Like many other indigenous languages, Tlingit is in survival mode. Revitalizing the language was the focus of this year’s Tlingit Tribes and Clans Conference held in Juneau last week.
A Juneau resident has one solution for how to keep the language alive. During a conference session, realtor and assemblyman Carlton Smith gave participants a lesson in how to teach Tlingit to children with puppets. And he does it with the help of a special guest.
Charlie introduces himself in Tlingit to the room. As is traditional, he recognizes his mother’s relatives, his fathers’ relatives, then his grandparents, and finally, he recognizes everyone else.
Charlie’s Tlingit name is Shanak’w Uwaa. He identifies his moiety (Eagle), his clan (Keet Gooshi Hit’), and where he’s from (Klukwan, or Jil’ kat kwaan).
Charlie is wearing grey Carhartt overalls, long underwear, a green and white flannel shirt, and tan work boots. He has a full head of grey hair, dark bushy eyebrows and mustache, and black-rimmed glasses.
He’s roughly three and a half feet tall and can only talk when he’s sitting on Carlton Smith’s lap.
Smith got into ventriloquism fifty years ago as a ten-year-old boy living in Haines. When Smith was bedridden with hepatitis for four months, his father bought him his first puppet from a Sears-Roebuck catalog – a red-headed figure wearing a green suit named Jerry.
“There were children walking below my bedroom window and Jerry and I were talking to them as they would walk home from school,” Smith tells the audience. “The first day or two, there were five or six children, the second day there were eight or nine. By the end of the week, there were 20 children that came to see this little green man that wanted to talk to them from a second story window.”
Like many childhood toys, Jerry was eventually forgotten, until three years ago when Smith rediscovered Jerry in a trunk.
Then, another discovery on a flight to Anchorage.
“I was looking out the window and I realized I could count to ten without moving my lips in Tlingit. And then I was going right down the list of clans and place names and I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of cool.’”
That’s how Smith got the idea of doing Tlingit ventriloquism, but he wasn’t sure how the community would receive it. So he went to the late Tlingit elder and religious leader Dr. Walter Soboleff for advice. Soboleff liked the idea but said it couldn’t be done with Jerry. He advised Smith to create a new figure – a Native one.
“My namesake, Shanak’w Uwaa, means ‘in the image of the ancient people.’ Walter said, ‘He was one of my best friends from Kilisnoo. He said, ‘What you do is you create a brand new figure in the image of the person you’re named after.’”
As Smith looks at Charlie, he says, “That’s who this is – Shanak’w Uwaa.”
Shanak’w Uwaa is the Tlingit name of Charlie James of Klukwan, who would be 108 years old if he were alive today. Smith never met his namesake.
Using photos of Charlie James, Smith worked with a figure maker in Michigan on details like skin tone and hair color.
Charlie, says Smith, was created for one main purpose, “This is really about children.”
For a year and a half, Smith and Charlie went to Tlingit and Haida Headstart every Friday. “These little kids would just want to grab him, claw him,” Smith recalls.
Charlie would sing songs in Tlingit and count to ten.
Smith says children are captivated by the animation which makes learning Tlingit easier.
Later on in the conference session, participants are asked to pair up and make basic Tlingit dialogue with sock puppets, an activity that can be done with children. Two Tlingit teachers – Roby Littlefield and Bessie Jim – pair up.
“She asked me what my name was and I pretended not to hear her,” Littlefield says, interpreting. “So she asked me louder. One of us asked where do you live?”
Neither has spoken the language with puppets before, but both like the idea. Jim plans to bring the technique back to her students in Carcross, Yukon.
“I think they’ll get a lot more out of it and it’s more fun. And my brother used to say, ‘The language is fun.’ He said, ‘They’re always laughing,’” Jim says, laughing herself.
Littlefield says teaching with puppets can help her middle school students in Sitka with something they’re working on right now, “We’re learning the animal names and we have little stuffed animals and little hard animals. So they’re going to learn the name of the animals and then talk to each other in whatever puppet voice they choose.”
The most important thing, says Smith, is having fun. His goal at the conference was to share a different way of teaching Tlingit to children, a way that might breathe new life into a challenging task. And he hopes Charlie will help accomplish that.
On November 10, Jim Merriner of the State Board of Education awarded the honor of 2014 Teacher of the Year to Dillingham K-5 reading teacher Denise Lisac. Lisac is the fifth Dillingam teacher to earn the title since 1963.
On an ordinary afternoon, Denise Lisac can be found in the fourth and fifth grade classrooms, assisting students with reading assignments. Today, she’s teaching a group of enthralled fourth graders the illustrious history of dude ranching.
Lisac was recently named Alaska’s Teacher of the Year for 2014, and is the fifth Teacher of the Year to come from Dillingham City Schools.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” said Lisac in a recent interview. “It’s a great honor for the community, and I’m proud to represent our school and our state.”
Her colleagues say she is among the best of the best, but in her more than 3 decades of quiet, committed service as an educator, Lisac says worrying about recognition has never been part of the job.
“I teach because I really enjoy it. I like coming to school every day and being with the kids,” she said. “I really wish this award could go to more people. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, this award can only go to one person, and I should be the one,’ because there are just a lot of really good teachers.”
State teacher of the year nominees have the often difficult task of selling their attributes to the state’s committee of educators. Lisac told them she has a simple philosophy that works: a strong sense of community is necessary for children’s success in the classroom.
“I always started off my classes with that in mind. Students should work cooperatively with each other, so that they’re really familiar with one another, and work better together.” Lisac said.
As a reading teacher, Lisac has what she calls the rare privilege of taking her personality classroom to classroom, sharing a love of reading with students, like those fourth graders.
“Well, what do you think they’re going to do with those cattle?” Lisac asked one student.
“They could either ride ‘em or milk ‘em,” said the student. After another moment of thought, the student added, “Or cook ‘em!”
As teacher of the year, Lisac will bring some yet to be named technology back to the school district, gets to offer a scholarship to one student, will speak at conferences and workshops as Alaska’s top educator and will to travel to Washington DC, meet the president, and could be named the nation’s teacher of the year.
“This is pretty amazing, I can’t imagine that!” Lisac said, laughing.
For Lisac, the award is certainly an honor, but she says that like most teachers, the real reward is watching as students grow up and progress. In first grade, Ms. Lisac was my teacher.
“For me, it is so wonderful to watch my students from first grade grow up and graduate and do such wonderful things,” Lisac said. “It makes me proud that you’re interviewing me for KDLG, and you’re one of my past students.”
This week we head to Kiana, a village of about 350 people on the Kobuk River about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Bertha Barr works for the village’s food distribution program.
“Bertha Barr, I live in Kiana, I work for the Food Distribution Reservation and Indian Reserve, FDPIR. It’s just where I’ve lived my whole life and what I’m used to and all the friendly people and my family and all the subsistence lifestyle and all that.
We have mountains all around and there’s three rivers that’s what the native village of Katyaak means, “where three rivers meet.” It’s the Kobuk River, and it’s the Squirrel River and it’s the small channel.
There’s mountains, the mountains out here. In summertime there’s sandbars all over. There’s a sandbar right in front. There are sandbars on the side. Summertime we go out boating, fishing for salmon and sea fish. Wintertime we go out hunting for caribou and uh, birds.
The rivers are starting to freeze over, they’re actually ice-fishing right now and they’re actually catching what we call tiktaalik.
There’s no restaurants, but there’s places to rent if you’re staying for a short period of time. In the summer time we have this company, it’s called Kiana Lodge so they get actually people, tourists, and they come and go stay at the lodge and go fishing or hunting.
It’s just a real beautiful town and friendly people and come and go visit.”
This week From the Vault presents two interviews from 1996 and 1997 with longtime Sitkan Warren Christianson who built a 46 foot schooner in Ohio and sailed it from there to Sitka. Really. The first interview is about his early life and military service and the second focuses on his sailboat odyssey that began on Big Walnut Creek, Ohio and ended in Sitka. You can hear the programs below, or listen Sunday Morning at 11am.