Lingít scholars document traditional hand gestures that could be used in language learning

Victoria Johnson teaches children at Sayéik Gastineau Community School about the history of Orange Shirt Day incorporating Lingít language on Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Lingít scholar Jeff Leer noticed gestures an elder would make when telling stories when he was young.

“When she was talking along and talking about a person sitting, she would, you know — you’d take your right index finger and put it erect, and then you crook it about halfway,” Leer said. “So it looks like it’s bent at about a 90-degree angle.”

Using old recordings, Lingít language experts like Leer are documenting and compiling hand gestures used by birth speakers that have meaning in the context of the language. 

Leer leads the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Tlingit Gesture System program. He’s been studying Lingít for nearly 60 years.

He took American Sign Language classes in Chicago, and when he came back to record stories with other elders, like Elizabeth Nyman, in the 1980s and ’90s he began to see it as an integral part of the Lingít language. 

“I started really paying attention to the gestures that she was making, and recording them and describing them,” he said. 

Roby Littlefield has been documenting the gestures as well. An elder named Franklin James told her these gestures were often used when people were hunting and didn’t want to make much noise, or when they were across the bay from each other, in sight, but not in shouting distance.

“He showed me how he raised one arm up in the air and the other hand, he made a movement toward the fingertips of the arm that was up to say that the tide is rising,” she said.

Littlefield is an educator in Juneau, teaching Lingít to students from middle school to the college level, and she said these gestures could open more pathways for students to absorb the language.

Educators at Sítʼ Eetí Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley Elementary School on Dec. 9, 2022. Far left: Lorrie Heagy; far right: George Holly; second from right: Roby Littlefield. (Photo by Andrés Javier Camacho/KTOO)

“There’s many learning styles that people naturally do well with when they’re learning a language. And one of them is a movement – a physical movement can lock the word into your brain,” Littlefield said. “So when you learn a new word, or a whole sentence, you do that physical motion, or movement, or expression on your face, and it locks the word into your long term memory.”

Leer said that since he started recording gestures, he has documented about 100 of them, but he doesn’t think the number stops there. 

“I’m sure there are many, many other gestures out there,” he said. “And what we would like to do is to find the people that still know and use those gestures and add to our corpus of the Lingít gesture system.”

Leer said this gesture system could allow learners to use less English to fill in blanks in the classroom setting. 

“The idea is to develop the Lingít gesture system into a true sign language so that it can be used to teach Lingít in the schools, without recourse to English,” he said.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is sponsoring the program, using reparations funding from the Presbyterian Church’s recent apology to the Lingít community for the 1962 closure of Juneau’s Memorial Presbyterian Church.

SHI said in a press release that they plan to investigate whether there are similar gestures and associations in the Haida and Tsimshian languages, X̱aat Kíl and Sm’álgyax.

KTOO is our partner public media station in Juneau. Alaska Public Media collaborates with partners statewide to cover Alaska news.

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