Sealaska Heritage Institute awarded federal grant to publish Tlingit, Haida archives for language revitalization project

The late Nora and Dick Dauenhauer in Sitka in May 2014. The couple carried the knowledge of Southeast Alaska’s native languages into the 21st century. (Photo by Emily Forman/KCAW)

Late Tlingit scholars Nora Ḵeixwnéi Marks and Richard Xwaayeenák̲ Dauenhauer once dedicated the first volume of their book “Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature” to Tlingit orators. They co-edited the four-volume series and were two-time winners of the American Book Award.

The couple carried the knowledge of Southeast Alaska’s Native languages into the 21st century.

Recently, the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded Sealaska Heritage Institute a two-year grant to process and digitally publish a massive collection of Tlingit and Haida documents archived by the late scholars.

In one of the recordings, Marks Dauenhauer has a conversation with a Tlingit speaker. The recording is just one part of the Dauenhauers’ archive.

Richard died in 2014, and Nora died in 2017. But what they left behind will last for generations.

“They came up with a method that’s kind of the standard now,” said Chuck Smythe, Director of Culture and History at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. “People are taking this as a starting point and are enhancing it and further, further developing it but it all started with the Dauenhauers.”

The Dauenhauer Literary Estate is a massive inventory of fieldwork documents and audio collections of both Tlingit and Haida languages. The estate is made up of several dozen boxes of documents and audiotape of translations and transcriptions that go back decades.

“Their books and files were so heavy that their house was literally splitting apart,” Smythe said.

The Dauenhauer Literary Estate includes more than 275 linear feet of documents, three boxes of journals, 18 boxes of media and 89 boxes of books, which will be processed over two years and made available to the public. (Photo courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Will Geiger, a foremost scholar in Tlingit, is working on the project. He said much of the Tlingit oratory the Dauenhauers archived is to Southeast Alaska what Homer is to Ancient Greece.

“This new batch of materials, which is mostly papers, so there’s going to be a lot. I’m sure we’re gonna come across a lot of, say, draft documents that transcriptions of recordings that just haven’t been circulated or made public or published,” Geiger said.

Emily Pastore, archives collection manager at SHI, is also working on the project.

“Without the Dauenhauers, Tlingit language revival would not be where it is today,” Pastore said. “And so by making these new papers available, we could be fostering new developments in Tlingit and Haida language revitalization that could not be done without them and without these papers. ”

She says when it comes to their fieldwork, the Dauenhauers talked to everyday people.

Pastore also says the archives will also provide a way for future generations of Tlingit learners to connect to the language by giving them access to a wide range of Tlingit and Haida documents.

Once the project is done, the digital archive of the Dauenhauer Literary Estate will be public for everyone, not just academic researchers.

The song included in the radio version of this story is titled “Where Are You?” and is the exclusive property of the Lukaax̱.ádi clan.