Learn Lingit at lunch – KSTK

Students in WCA’s Lingít class eat burgers during class, Nov. 8, 2022.
(Wise Smiley / 2022)

Some people use their lunch hour to eat. Others squeeze in a workout or a quick nap. And some Wrangell residents use their lunch hours to learn the critically endangered Lingít language—the Wrangell Tribe sponsors a year of Lingít classes for adults.

Listen to the radio version of this story here.
Xwaanlein Virginia Oliver teaches a lunchtime Lingit class at the WCA Cultural Center, November 8, 2022.
(Wise Smiley / KSTK)

A good Lingít speaker will spray saliva, says Xwaanlein Virginia Oliver.

“X̲at áyá,” she said, “That’s me, x̱at áyá and then my Lingít name x̱’éináx̱, in the Lingít language.”

Oliver stands in front of a large whiteboard placed between the windows of the Wrangell’s Front Street Tribal Cultural Center. She turns to the board, writing as she speaks.

“What I tell you is ‘x̱at áyá’ and you see the high tones, x̱at áyá (your name) is me, Xwaanlein is my name,” she explains.

Adults of all ages are scattered across two long rows of folding tables facing the stage. At the back of the hall, behind the students, a weathered totem spans the length of the building, awaiting restoration.

“X̲at áyá Xwaanlein, then I would say ‘yoo x̱at duwasáakw,” Oliver continues. She looks at the students. “I see that all of your guys are Lingít brains, your wheels are squealing,” she jokes.

This lunchtime course (held November 8) is the first of a 37-week course run by the Wrangell Tribal Government. The $82,000 federal grant from the Wrangell Cooperative Association (WCA) will pay for nearly a year of Lingít teaching and study materials, lunch for students, and trips for seniors like Ḵaakal.áat Florence Marks Sheakley , based in Juneau, to come visit and share the language, lead sewing classes, and play Lingít bingo. Sheakley also served as a teacher at Wrangell’s recent summer cultural camps for children.

The objective of the first lesson is the introduction.

“Culturally, we don’t show up, just get rid of it,” says Oliver. “Culturally, it’s appropriate for someone else to introduce you because you’re not supposed to stand with a medal on your chest. Old people don’t like it. If you get onstage too often, they’ll say, ‘You’re too up there now!’ »

Returning to proper phrasing of an introduction, Oliver continues: “So you got the first part: ‘yoo x̱at duwasáakw.’ And then you’re either ‘gooch’ which is a wolf or you’re ‘yeil’ which is what? ‘Caw, caw’: a crow.

“And so naax̱ is half, the -x̱ makes it yours,” Oliver says, writing more on the board. “Naax̱, then x̱at, is ‘me’, sitee, and it means ‘it is like that’. Lingít haa sateeyí, it means ‘We are all Lingít’, say it. Lingít haa sateeyí.”

Overall, the basic introduction goes like this: “X̲at áyá Lingít x̱’éináx̱ (Lingít name) yoo x̱at duwasáakw. (Gooch / Yeíl) naax̱ x̱at sitee.

After the introductions, Oliver moves on to vowels, holding up laminated signs with vowel sounds and sample words. For ‘é’, the example is té: rock.

Over the next few weeks, she says, students will learn the entire Lingít alphabet.

“The most important thing about Lingít is learning the alphabet,” says Oliver. “Your teacher will tell you, ‘Tell them the vowels, tell them the alphabet.'”

Oliver says it’s been almost a decade since the community held a Lingít class for adults. The last time was as part of a cultural history revitalization project when language students recorded Lingít ‘Phrase of the week’ clips aired on local radio station KSTK throughout the year.

Students at Wrangell Public School have the opportunity to study lingít, but Aaltsean Tribal Administrator Esther Reese says there were no public classes in town for adults until now. Reese says that before the pandemic, Oliver was teaching classes for the tribe.

“People would come and say, ‘Well, can we join, can we participate?’ And so we set up this grant to allow adults in our community to come together, to learn the Lingít language, to learn a bit more about the culture,” says Reese. “We are so lucky to have Virginia who is fluent in Lingít here. I always like to say we’re trying to raise more Virginia in town, so everyone here, please be our next Virginia,” Reese says with a laugh.

Oliver says she does what she can to preserve and develop “haa léelkʼu has yoo x̱ʼatángi, the language of our grandparents”.

She says she found herself after a while, the tongue flows easily: “Lingít is memorable. People remember, you remember. That’s the best thing you’ll do here is your memory. After a while you will start assembling it. My kids in middle school learn to swear about things just by listening to this and that and I’m like, “You said what?”

She says the roots of words are important. Wrangell, Ḵaachx̱ana.áakʼw, is at the mouth of the Stikine River, which is the Anglicized version of Shtaxʼhéen – shtax’ meaning bitter and héen meaning river.

“Never say you don’t know a Lingít word!” Oliver exclaims. “Héen. Héen at daná – drink it, Lingít,” she rhymes. “I tell you guys in the third person. Héen at daná, you drink. , you say ‘at x̱adaná’, personalize it: ‘I drink, at x̱adaná.’ But if it’s hot, you sip it: ‘at x̱alóok’. You can’t just drink it, you have to sip it, x̱alóok .

And words aren’t just words, Oliver explains; Lingít is a very relational language. “Salt” in Lingít is also the word for “ocean”, and so on. Language carries culture and history.

“Without language, culture dies,” she says, pointing to an illustrated poster on the totem pole at the back of the room; she explains: “Some of the clans have disappeared. No memory, I always put them on [on the posters]. I’ve had people say, “They’re not even there anymore.” Why would you put them there? Because for me, they were there.

Oliver says she is concerned about the death of Alaska Native languages.

“I was there the day they announced that the last speaker of the Eyak language had passed away,” she says. “In the last years of her life, they weren’t teaching anymore. They just recorded her. They recorded everything she said or did. That’s all they did. because she was gone. There are no more speakers of the language, and Lingít comes from Eyak.

There is also another personal motivation: “I don’t want to be the only one who can speak Lingít [in Wrangell],” she says. So she teaches.

Oliver is not alone in this goal. Lingít language revitalization and recognition projects are underway throughout Wrangell Island.

In addition to funding adult Lingít classes, students at Wrangell Public School have the opportunity to learn the language – and a A Wrangell high school student produced a podcast on Lingít language and culture. The Wrangell Tribe also received money to replace city street signs with bilingual markers. One of the local grocery stores also recently launched Lingít shelf panels throughout the store.

And because of the noon language course, there should be a growing group of Wrangell residents who can read, understand and translate the phrases scattered throughout the city – the language persists.

Contact KSTK at [email protected] or (907) 874-2345.

James C. Tibbs