Reconnecting with roots at Alaska Native languages summit

Jim Thomas (Khatsati, Shaayegun) in his Tlingit regalia at the Voices of Our Ancestors language summit in November 2018. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Thursday marks the end of a three-day language summit in Juneau that brought together nearly 80 speakers of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages: Lingít, X̱aad Kíl and Sm’algyax.

For some, the Voices of Our Ancestors summit was one of their first opportunities to talk with other fluent speakers. That was the case for Jim Thomas, whose Tlingit names are Khatsati and Shaayegun.

“I’m a Lingít speaker, but I’ve lived away from Yakutat for over 40 years,” Thomas said.

Thomas spoke during an open discussion about the suppression of Native languages.  He was the first public relations director for the Alaska Federation of Natives, then moved to Washington state. Despite living far from home, he had help keeping up his Lingít over the years.

“This crazy minister from Juneau called me up. He said to me, ‘It’s time you started speaking Lingít.’”

That was his friend, the late Walter Soboleff.

Thomas said he’s a pretty good speaker.

“There are just words, phrases that I forget. They tumble around in your brain, and then they tumble around in your mouth, because Lingít is very complex.”

Thomas said he used to be ashamed to forget words, but now when he needs help he just asks a friend or relative and keeps talking. Often that help comes from his young in-law, Tlingit teacher and culture bearer Paul Marks II.

During the session on language suppression, Thomas sat beside Marks — and Marks’ baby.

Thomas used his turn on the mic to introduce the baby girl and told the crowd that holding onto language and cultural traditions can be especially important for young children.

“We put our hand, the palm of our hand, under the chin of a child and we say (in Lingít) they are the most precious child on the face of the earth. And then if we’re sitting across from them in the biggest hall, you hold your hand out,” he said as dozens in the room mirrored his gesture, “and that child knows that they are the most precious being on the face of the earth.”

The crowd repeated Thomas’ words as Marks bounced the baby. Thomas hopes she will grow up speaking Lingít.

Voices of Our Ancestors Language Summit was organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute in partnership with the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. Around 300 people attended over three days.

Editor’s Note: 360 North is under contract with Sealaska Heritage Institute to produce video coverage of the language summit.