Tlingit elder and clan leader King̱eestí David Katzeek has died

Shangukeidí (Thunderbird) Clan Leader David Katzeek wearing a clan hat at Celebration 2010. (Photo by Brian Wallace/Courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)
Shangukeidí (Thunderbird) clan leader David Katzeek wearing a clan hat at Celebration 2010. Katzeek died Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Brian Wallace/Courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

King̱eestí David Katzeek died last night according to an announcement from the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Katzeek was the clan leader of the Shangukeidi, the first president of Sealaska Heritage Foundation and an educator who championed Tlingit culture and language.

He was born in Klukwan in 1942 but spent most of his life in Juneau.

Katzeek helped establish the first Celebration in 1982. The biennial event in Juneau now draws thousands of Native people from Southeast Alaska and beyond for a multi-day cultural exchange.

Katzeek started working with the Juneau School District in the 1990s. He provided the vision and support for Tlingit culture language literacy programs, and helped develop K-12 curriculum in a variety of subjects.

In a Facebook post from Sealaska Heritage, Katzeek’s clan nephew Ricardo Worl wrote that Katzeek’s passing leaves an “unimaginable void for our culture and traditional leadership.” Worl said that while the pandemic impedes customs for grieving and memorial services, they will find a way to honor Katzeek in a safe manner.

Worl said he takes comfort in knowing his uncle also leaves behind a generation of young people who are fluent or proficient in the language and already teaching it to the next generation.

“That was David’s purpose in life — was to create this legacy of language learners, instructors and teaching our children to be proud of and appreciate the complexity of our culture,” Worl said.

This is a developing story and will be updated when new information is available.


Remembering King̱eestí David Katzeek

Over the years, KTOO had the opportunity to cross paths with King̱eestí David Katzeek. We are collecting photos and videos and will be sharing some of those moments here. Check back for updates.

David Katzeek explains the significance of one of the faces on the totem pole at Saturday's ceremony.
David Katzeek explains the significance of one of the faces on a totem pole. The totem pole was raised in May 2017 by the T’aaku Kwáan of Douglas Island in front of an elementary school to mark the site of a disturbed graveyard. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

What’s in a name?

In January of 2019, the Juneau School District Board of Education voted unanimously to accept the gift of a Tlingit name — Yadaa.at Kalé — for Juneau-Douglas High School. Katzeek graduated from the high school in 1962. He explained the significance of the name and how it can be interpreted to mean “coming home.”

Living the language

Katzeek often spoke of the idea of “living the language” and incorporating Tlingit language into all facets of life. Back in 2013, Katzeek was a guest on Forum@360 and discussed the importance of revitalizing the language.

‘We are receiving a gift we didn’t earn. It was given to us, like our language’

Katzeek worked on establishing Tlingit programs with the Juneau School District. At a gathering in 2019, he gave an empowered speech to thank school administrators for their support of Indigenous education.

“Thanking another person is accepting the gift that was given. That means we become responsible, that’s the word for ‘gunalcheesh.’ We are receiving a gift that we didn’t earn. It was given to us, like our language,” he said.

Katzeek noted the addition of Tlingit culture and language literacy to the K-12 curriculum helped fulfill a mission Tlingit leaders embarked on a generation before.

“What they did and what they’re doing is answering the call of our ancestors regarding our language,” Katzeek said. “And look at them. I heard a few words in Tlingit but there aren’t very many words that they can speak. Yet, they answered the call in an institution that is not Tlingit but an institution that is working to teach our children. And they’re acknowledging and recognizing us as a people.”