Tlingit Woman, Linguist Husband : Pair Work to Preserve Language

Associated Press

Nora Marks Dauenhauer remembers when speaking her native Tlingit tongue brought punishment at school and shame on the streets.

Today, she wins recognition as one of the last speakers of the language, known by thousands of people just two generations ago.

Professors in Germany and booksellers in Japan seek the legends she and her linguist husband, Richard, are trying to record before all who remember them are gone.

It is too late for Tlingit to survive as an everyday language, the Dauenhauers say, but they have taken a major step toward seeing it preserved as literature.

Their collection of Tlingit stories, "Haa Shuka'," which means "Our Ancestors," is part of a series that, when completed, will be the largest collection of stories published in both Tlingit and English, and the first edited by a Tlingit. The book was released in July by the University of Washington Press and the Sealaska Heritage Foundation of Juneau.

Race Against Time

For the Dauenhauers, the work is a race against time. Since Nora Dauenhauer began collecting the stories in the 1960s, almost all the storytellers have died. Of the 12 elders whose tales are printed in the book, only three are living.

She says perhaps 1,000 or more Tlingits still speak their native language but they have not passed it on.

"We only know of two young men who can speak Tlingit, two under the age of 40. All of us who can speak it are now grandmothers," she says.

The Dauenhauers take great pride in responses they get from young Tlingits, even a note to say they got a given story all wrong. A dispute over varied versions at least rekindles interest in the legends and might prompt youngsters to ask how their grandparents told the stories, Nora Dauenhauer says.

The Dauenhauers hope that such interest will enable their preservation work to continue, with the creation of new stories.

The potential for many new stories and versions is one major difference between oral and written traditions, they say. Oral traditions generally have more versions and the stories are tailored to the knowledge of the audience.

Spoken tales also are created and forgotten more frequently, the Dauenhauers say.

Stories Considered Classics

The tales in "Haa Shuka' " are considered Tlingit classics, which are not usually lost. But writing them, rather than recording them on videotape or audiotape, gives the stories a life outside the Tlingit culture, Richard Dauenhauer says.

To non-speakers, "If it's written, it's OK, it's true," Nora Dauenhauer says.

Around the turn of the century, when many white people moved into southeastern Alaska's Tlingit country, Indians lost land because their ownership was recorded by oral tradition, she says.

Names and boundaries were remembered and passed down by clan tradition-keepers. But that was not recognized by the whites, who said no one owned the land unless they had a piece of paper proving it.

The Marks family, which owned a mountainside near Juneau, lost all but 2.6 acres along the shore where the Dauenhauers live and work.

The emphasis on writing, plus school rules against speaking Tlingit, led to its rapid loss, Nora Dauenhauer says. Indians could have continued speaking the language out of school, but felt pressured not to. "There was a shame factor to speaking Tlingit," she says.

Roman Alphabet Translation

A written form of Tlingit in the Cyrillic alphabet was first developed by Russian priests in the 1800s. A Roman alphabet version was developed later, and a modified version of it is used in "Haa Shuka'."

Richard Dauenhauer, who is not Tlingit, became interested in the language before he came to Alaska in 1969, intending to apply techniques learned studying Russian and German to native languages. While teaching at Alaska Methodist University, now Alaska Pacific, he met Nora Marks and read some speeches she had collected.

"I was absolutely moved by the beauty of the oratory. I thought this was as great as anything in English poetry," he recalls.

Richard Dauenhauer says in addition to the scholarly research allowed by a written language, it has a hidden advantage: It may help Tlingit stories get past what he views as discrimination in literary circles against oral traditions.

"There's a tendency for people to treat American native literature as though it was children's literature. But it's not," he says.

The themes of classic Tlingit tales are universal, Richard Dauenhauer says: alienation, identity, conflict of loyalty, pride and arrogance, separation and loss, revenge.

Hope for Study as Literature

He would like to see the stories taught in comparative literature classes. "Our feeling is that this should be taught along with Moby Dick," he says.

The Dauenhauers also envision Tlingit being taught in language classes, as a study of grammar and form.

"People wouldn't come out speaking Tlingit. That's not going to happen anyway. But they'd learn how to learn languages," Dauenhauer says.

Aside from the death of Tlingit speakers, there is another reason the language is not likely to be revived: It's too complicated.

Tlingit has 24 sounds not found in English, and a single word may have 20 components. Aspects and classifiers alter Tlingit words, and like words in Chinese, a word's meaning changes with the tone in which it is said.

The complications have a hint of comedy. Dauenhauer recalls the night his mother-in-law, Emma Marks, ate a withered apple.

Verb Changes With Shape

There's a Tlingit verb for just that action, which Nora Dauenhauer says most simply translates as eating "the round object that has dried out." Eat an old banana--different shape--and it's a different verb.

Eat dried out blueberries and it gets really complicated. They translate as "dryness is distributed through a handful of small round objects."

Richard Dauenhauer says there will always be a few scholars willing to try to learn Tlingit, but he is living testimony of the difficulty: "I've been at it 20 years," he says, "and I'm far from fluent."

Here is a passage from "Mosquito," a story told by Robert Zuboff of Angoon. Zuboff died in 1974. The story was included in "Haa Shuka'," a collection of Tlingit tales edited by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer.

He broke those ties,

small strings of spruce roots tying the pack.

When he came out

he got the cannibal's club.

He waited where it was going to come out.

As it stuck its head out, he struck it.

He struck it again.

He struck it again.

He struck it again.

He said,

"I know I killed this cannibal.

But it did a painful thing to me.

It killed two of my older brothers.

What more can I do to make it feel more pain?

Maybe it will be better

if I build a fire under him, and burn him up."

So just like that

when he built a fire,

he pulled him into it,

he pulled the cannibal

into the fire.

When only the ashes were left,

when he couldn't make up his mind, he thought,

what more can I do to the cannibal's ashes?

And while he couldn't make up his mind, he blew on it,

he blew on the cannibal's ashes.

They went into the air,

they became mosquitoes.

That's why mosquitoes

when they bite someone,

hurt you bad, they're still the cannibal; even today.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World