Camp Near Wrangell Teaches Tlingit Culture, Language

The town of Wrangell, once called the “sleeping giant,” has seen an awakening of its native culture and history.

It began with the Shakes tribal house rededication in May. Last month, it hosted both a national traditional foods conference and a Tlingit basketball camp for kids.

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In early August, a group of people headed to the original Tlingit settlement 25 miles from present-day Wrangell—for a language and culture camp. It was the first time Tlingit was spoken in Old Town in 65 years.

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Williams-Churchill is leading me into the middle of the forest.

“You show no fear. Don’t be afraid to walk into the berry patch and get it,” Sarah said. “Because that’s where all the good ones are—deep in the middle—you have to fight for them.”

We’re surrounded by tall spruce trees, and we’re doing what she does best – hunting for salmonberries.

“But it’s the little things in life and for me, it’s berries,” Sarah said.

She’s one of about 15 people at a culture camp on Southern Wrangell Island.

The purpose is to perpetuate elders’ traditional knowledge of Wrangell.

Virginia Oliver is the camp coordinator.

Along with teaching about traditional foods and crafts, Oliver wants the camp to focus on language.

“It’s my dream to speak the language—to not let it die,” Virginia said. “I believe that the language is the foundation of our culture; it’s who we are.”

Oliver invited two elders, Florence Marks Sheakley and Ruth Demmert, to come and teach. Both are fluent speakers of Tlingit.

The first evening, the campers sit around in a circle and introduce themselves. Sheakley says this is important, both linguistically and culturally.

“They have to find out for themselves what clan they are, what child they are, and who their grandparents are. This is education for them. After they learn all this then they realize they do have a place in the community. They do belong somewhere. And this gives them pride,” Florence said.

Sarah Williams-Churchill thinks her Tlingit name is Kwakseek, but she’s not sure what it means, or if she’s even pronouncing it right.

She got her name from her grandmother, the last Tlingit speaker in her family.

“Yea, I got my first and my middle name from her. I got her Tlingit name. She meant a lot to me. And I wish I had more years to spend with her but everyone has their time to go. I guess it’s like she passed away before we could figure it out,” Sarah said.

So for the last 10 years, she’s been searching for the meaning of her name.

“My mom tried but she herself didn’t know a lot of it because her mom grew up in the lost generation and she partially did too,” Sarah said.

The number of Tlingit language speakers plummeted in the 20th century.

A 2000 UNESCO study estimated fewer than 300 fluent speakers left.

And that was 13 years ago. Ruth Demmert has seen the change.

“I’m not too sure. I think you call it progress. In order to progress in the society nowadays, English was enforced. And along the way, people got lost and started just to speak English. It’s important that it’s being reintroduced because we do not, do not want to lose our language,” Ruth said.

And Sarah wants to find her name. She asks the elders for help.

“When we first met her, the way she was saying it just didn’t sound right,” Sarah said. “So Ruth and I had her saying the name over and over.”

Sheakley says that sometimes when a name is spelled, important sounds are left out.

“And they were taught to say it like this and maybe they couldn’t pronounce the sounds that they heard either and that changes the name completely. But we finally came across what we thought they meant,” Florence said.

Like her grandmother before her, her name is Berry Basket Daughter.

“Now that I know what our name meant, it changed my life,” Sarah said. “It almost broke my heart.”

And she says, knowing her name is only the beginning of learning her identity.

“Ten years of pronouncing it wrong. I was at the point of thinking this is something that might never be found. And then to go to culture camp and find it. All that searching’s done, what do I do now? I figure out the rest of myself. I figure out my lineage. I find out how to speak it and how to be it,” Sarah said. “I heard that we’ll never not be anything than who we are. Tlingit people. It will never go away.”

Virginia Oliver says experiences like this culture camp strengthen a community as a whole.

Through the camp, she and the elders have created a Tlingit Phrase of the Week to air on the radio in Wrangell.

Demmert says she thinks the future now holds promise.

“Our culture will survive if the language is included,” she said. “We feel that this is really important.”

And she hopes, it will only get stronger with each generation to come.

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