For almost 30 years, the remote village of Kake has been running its annual summer Keex’ Kwaan Culture Camp – a chance for kids and adults to practice and celebrate Tlingit traditions.
It’s the longest running camp of its kind in Alaska.
This year, two young women are taking over the reins from a cherished elder and are bringing more Tlingit language to camp and into Kake.
Nae Brown, 32, is standing with a bunch of teenagers around a plastic fold-up table in the woods. It’s coated with deer legs, meat, and blood, and they are too. This buck was donated the night before.
“You guys going to boil these bones or what?” Brown asked. “From my experience, when you cut out the bones, you cut out the best part. You gotta boil the bones and then you can eat the [slurp]. What’s it called? Tsuk-ta something. That’s what it’s called. In Tlingit. That’s the best part.”
The word for bone marrow is on the tip of her tongue.
She has to look it up on her smartphone.
Brown is the new Tlingit language teacher at the public school in Kake.
She and her assistant, Teresa Moses, are at Culture Camp all week, trying to help the kids feel more comfortable speaking their Native tongue outside the classroom setting.
Neither woman grew up speaking the language, so they’re still learning too. They know how scary, and emotional, it can be at first.
“It’s like the more you learn, the less you know,” Moses said. “There’s that initial feeling of almost regret or guilt, but it’s really good for a Tlingit person’s spirit if they can push past that hurdle.”
Those feelings she mentions have deep roots.
Kake has been continuously inhabited by Tlingit people for thousands of years.
Forced assimilation in the 20th century meant that Native language and culture was put in something of a black box, for decades.
Lots of speakers went dormant. A few generations almost lost their language altogether.
Camper Dionna Jackson has heard those stories in her own family.
“It’s kind of hard to learn for everybody because of how history was back then – they couldn’t speak Tlingit on school grounds,” Jackson said.
I asked her if it was a story she’d heard from her grandparents.
“Yep – from my grandma,” Jackson said. “They said that every time they wanted to speak Tlingit they’d jump up in the air and say a word and then jump back down.”
But, like a lot of youth in Kake, Jackson is motivated to learn.
She actually volunteered to come practice some basic phrases when everyone else was hanging out near the fire.
She hopes she can have real conversations with her grandmother one day, who she says is excited that the language is resurfacing.
“It’s pretty cool – because history changes,” Jackson said.
For Brown and Moses, learning their language as adults really changed them. Brown got serious about studying it in college — she says that’s when everything started to shift.
“It’s in you,” Brown said. “Learning Tlingit gives you Tlingit Tundatánee. And it gives you a way of looking at the world that’s so different. It’s a true way of looking at the world as a Tlingit person. Like our old timers, like the people who came before us, and we want to give that to the people who are going to come after us also.”
Ruth Demmert, 79, is one of those old timers, or elders. She grew up in Kake, and is one of only four fluent speakers left in the village of about 550 people.
Demmert taught Tlingit in the schools for more 40 years. She retired last year – that’s when Nae Brown moved here from Anchorage with her family to take her place.
But Demmert can’t seem to stay away from camp.
“OK, we’re gonna do one word at a time,” Demmert said. “So repeat it after me. (Speaking in Tlingit) k̲a Haa K̲usteeyí, Haa Yoo X̲ʼatángi -– that means our way of life and our language. That’s what that sentence means.”
She’s sitting on a bench under a large tarp, with at least a dozen kids gathered cross-legged at her feet, teaching them a song.
This one is about the strength of the Tlingit people.
“You kind of have to read in between the words as you go along singing this because the respect, the values, it contains all that in this song. It’s all embedded in that song.” Demmert said.
Which is why – while language apps and new digital technologies are helping make Tlingit and other endangered indigenous languages more accessible to folks in rural, isolated places — they can never be a substitute for humans with hearts or memories.
For the new teachers though – that sense of urgency – to try to hold on not just to Tlingit language, but also their way of life, never goes away.
For now, Brown and Moses are doing their best to create immersion moments here at Culture Camp, and beyond.
“It’s not so much of a choice, but it’s something that just keeps drawing you back because we don’t speak Tlingit, is what I tell the kids. We are Tlingit,” Moses said. “No matter how much you push away from it, it will always draw you back.”