Classes help Tlingit students relate to their past

By Amy Fletcher
Juneau, Alaska (AP) June 2010

Photo: The Juneau Empire,
Michael Penn / AP
Students in Florence Marks Sheakley’s two Tlingit classes, held at both local high schools, began their studies this semester by filling out a form that asked a basic question: Who am I?

The form wasn’t meant to provoke philosophical contemplation or discussions about career choices, but rather pointed the students toward specific, factual information about their family histories and clan affiliation. The students’ completed forms incorporate the students’ personal stories into a cultural heritage extending back thousands of years.

Sheakley said finding out about students’ Tlingit culture is very important for young people, and that to her students seem happier after having learned their clan affiliation.

“I think there’s a difference in our children that know who they are, compared to the ones that don’t know who they are,” she said.

In addition to finding out about their personal histories, the eight students in Sheakley’s classes, four at JDHS (and one late addition) and four at TMHS, are learning about Tlingit clan structure in general.

“There’s not too many people in our culture that knows our clan system,” she said. “When our language was being suppressed, some parents chose not to teach their children about this. And we have some people that are even older than I am, and I’m 70, that don’t know whether they are Raven or Eagle, they don’t know what house they belong to, and that’s kind of hard for them to not be able to know where they come from.”

Sheakley herself is one of 16 children, and is a member of the Raven moiety, the Lukaax.·di clan.

Sheakley said she focused in class mainly on the clans and their corresponding moieties, Raven and Eagle, and on the emblems or crests clans use to indicate their affiliation. She hopes to help her students retain the information they are learning about clan structure so that they can share it with others in the future.

The “who am I” sheet the students filled out was pulled from a textbook Sheakley uses in class, “Beginning Tlingit,” which was written by her sister, Nora Marks Dauenhauer. Sheakley added to the form with help from her mother, and uses it for her work as a Tlingit language teacher at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Most of the students said they didn’t know much about Tlingit clan structure before they took the class.

“Basically before this we all knew just only our own clans and no one else’s,” said Derrick Lewis, a TMHS junior, who is in his third year of learning Tlingit.

Though most had a general sense of their history, some ran into difficulties while tracing their family trees. The Tlingit clan system is matriarchal, with clan affiliation passing through the mothers family to the children.

“It’s a little bit different for me because my mother was adopted into the (Wolf) clan,” JDHS sophomore Leandrea Makaily said. “So, it’s been harder to find information on my great grandparents.”

Dwayne Andree, a JDHS junior, said it has been challenging for him as well because his mother is Tsimshian.

Others said they got help from their grandparents or great-grandparents, or Sheakley herself; if she didn’t know, she consulted Harold Jacobs, from Central Council Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska.

As they learned more about their clans, some of the students realized their extended families were much bigger than they thought.

“I learned that I was related to a lot of people that I didn’t think I was,” said Darcy DeRego, a junior at JDHS. “Some of my friends and I were like ‘Hey, we’re related.”’

Tyler Johnson, a JDHS sophomore originally from Ketchikan, said he is especially looking forward to Celebration this year. One of the dance troupes performing, Saanya Kw·an, are his relatives. Johnson’s clan is Teikweidi, or Brown Bear.

“There’s around 150 people in our dance group and they’re all family,” he said.

Students in Sheakley’s classes also found out more about their Tlingit names, which are usually bestowed at birth or during childhood, Sheakley said.


“A long time ago it was the grandmother that gave them,” she said. “But now more and more they’re being given at memorial parties because with the resurgence of Tlingit coming back, some of the children want Tlingit names when they find out they don’t have one.”

Lewis said he was given his name at the beginning of the school year by David Katzeek, after Katzeek learned Lewis was the only one of the four in class who didn’t have one. Lewis’ name, Yaajinastan, means wake from a killer whale, and was inspired by the Yaajinastan Dancers.

Another student in the Thunder Mountain class, Ray Skan, a junior, was named after someone Sheakley remembers hearing stories about.

“When I was a little girl, I heard stories about the man he was named after. His name is Jeet’k. As a little girl, my father would tell us the stories - old, old stories from the Chookaneidi people.”

DeRego, whose Tlingit name is K’iyaaltin, found out she was named after Annie Ebona, matriarch of the Dei Shu Hi.

Saa Nee, a TMHS sophomore, said her name was given to her at birth by her uncle, and her parents liked it so much they made it the name on her birth certificate.

Not all Tlingit names have traceable histories or translatable meanings, Sheakley said, in part because some of the language was lost when it was suppressed decades ago.

Language is something the students work on daily in class in addition to their other projects, Sheakley said, adding that its an integral part of learning about Tlingit culture.

“No matter how much you try to separate the language from the culture, there’s no way it can be done,” Sheakley said. “It goes hand in hand.”

JDHS student Andree said for him learning the language has been the most interesting part.

“This is my first Tlingit class I’ve taken,” Andree said. “And it’s been quite exhilarating.”

Recently, students in both classes have also completed an extensive art project. They created Tlingit clan emblems, such as Wolf, Frog and Killer Whale, based on original artwork made by Sheakley’s brother, Jimmy Marks, who designed them for the Indian Studies program while working with Len Sevyds. Two of Sheakley’s other brothers, Alex and Johnny, also worked in the program.

The clan emblems are often used in totemic designs, regalia and other artwork. In some cases they are shared with other clans. For example, Sheakley’s family is allowed to wear the Frog because her grandfather built a house for the clan in Yakutat.

“For that reason, my mom said we could wear the Frog,” she said. “We also wear the White Raven, which is our clan emblem ... our mother made for us. It’s really important to know what emblem you can wear.”

Completing the emblem artwork took months, the students said. The original images were enlarged on an overhead projector, and then carefully traced. They were then colored in with markers according to the color placement Marks’ original designs indicated.

A couple of the students are natural artists, Sheakley said. One of them, William Lott, a JDHS sophomore, isn’t enrolled in the class but comes in to help.

“He’s real artistic,” she said. “I really like the way he draws. Both he and Tyler (Johnson) are natural artists.”

The designs are now posted in the windows of both high schools. Sheakley said she was happy to get them done in time for Celebration, which starts June 3.

Though she feels the tide is turning in keeping the culture alive, Sheakley said she makes a point of reminding her college students that teachers are essential.

“Each time I start teaching my college class, I talk to them in Tlingit and after I do that I let them know that we need teachers for our language to go on,” she said.

Dawn Shane, a TMHS sophomore, said she’s been hearing her grandfather’s Tlingit stories her whole life and is excited to be playing a part in ensuring the culture continues on.

“That’s the reason why I wanted to join Tlingit class, so I could pass it on to my children,” Shane said. “I don’t want this culture to die out. It’s pretty important to me.”