In the gymnasium at Sítʼ Eetí Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley Elementary School on Friday, dozens of kids sang a song in Lingít at the top of their lungs. The song is about living through all four seasons as a tree, growing and losing leaves.
The performance was part of a language and music program for kindergartners and first graders. Lorrie Heagy, who helps lead the program, said the violin lessons have been going for over a decade now, but the language part is in its second year.
“It’s not only a pedagogical tool,” Heagy said. “It’s a culturally responsive practice to be singing.”
Heagy said this program gives teachers an opportunity to make their curriculum more place-based and more reflective of Lingít culture.
The older students play real instruments, but the kindergartners play model violins made of cardboard. For them, it’s a graduation of sorts.
“That is a rite of passage to say you’re ready to hold the real one,” Heagy said. “Because they will drop it.”
Heagy is with Juneau Alaska Music Matters. She teaches the program as part of a team with musicians and language teachers. Her Lingít language teacher, Koolyéiḵ Roby Littlefield, contributes to the language plans and helps with the lessons over Zoom.
“When a teacher needs help with a phrase or something new or to correct their pronunciation, I’m right there,” Littlefield said. “And they just turn to the screen and say, “Koolyéik, a yax̱ ák.wé?’ is it like that?”
Yuxgitsiy George Holly is a teacher, musician and composer. Heagy asked him to help write the music.
“I didn’t have to think twice about that,” Holly said. “So I became part of that, started to write music to various poems and words of the various elders and (X̱ʼunei) Lance Twitchell. And it’s been a beautiful thing to see these children absorb it in such an easy and respectful and joyful way.”
Holly also conducts part of the performance. On command, the kindergartners raised their paper violins to their chins and bowed the imaginary strings with paper towel tubes. At the end of each song, the kids beamed at the applause.
Next semester, these paper violinists will be fit for real violins and start learning to play. They already have a head start on the language.