Two Sm’algya̱x teachers from Alaska visited Kitsumkalum last week to teach and emphasize the importance of preserving the endangered language of the Tsimshian Nation.
Terri Burr (Al’lidaaw) and 96-year-old John Reese (Medeeg), both Sm’algya̱x speakers of Ketchikan and Metlakatla, Alaska, were featured at the Speaker Series Event at Kitsumkalum Hall on Mar. 2.
Sm’algya̱x is a dialect of the Tsimshian language spoken in northwest B.C. and southeastern Alaska. Alongside the Kitsumkalum, in the surrounding First Nations lands near Terrace, the Nisga’a and Gitksan have their own similar Tsimshian dialects.
“I’ve really internalized the feeling that every single word has a story and an emotion in it… [Reese] has been teaching me how to speak Sm’algya̱x for the last nine years and for many years in Ketchikan, we felt that we were the only Sm’agyax language team,” says Al’lidaaw. “In the last 230 years, our Tsimshian Nation has gone through some incredibly terrible changes and strife… and as a result, this has impacted our Sm’algya̱x.”
Together, Reese and Burr, have made an effort to save the scarce Sm’algya̱x language by teaching it online, through university classes and community-based settings. Reese is the last remaining first language fluent speaker in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Reese fell ill and was unable to make his public appearance at the speaker presentation.
But Burr says that throughout their visit, they’ve been both “heartened” to find out that Kitsumkalum people have been taking initiative to learn the Sm’algya̱x language and are prioritizing the revitalization of it.
“We’ve been very impressed… what’s happening in Kitsumkalum is something new. The way Mique’l Dangeli is using her education aids in her classroom is much more effective than I’ve seen in any other school or immersion program before. Students are exposed to the language and are voluntarily making use of Sm’algya̱x every day at school and with their families,” says Burr.
Mique’l Dangeli (Loodm ‘Nuusm) is a Sm’algya̱x language teacher and Tsimshian culture coordinator at the ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum. She has 80 students that she teaches at the school, along with evening community classes and language courses at UNBC.
“It’s said that when a language dies, it’s like the library of Congress burning down in terms of knowledge systems and documentation of all these different ways of understanding and knowing the world intimately,” says Dangeli. “The way I think about it when a language dies is that it’s catastrophic, it’s the end of an entire world… it’s more closely associated with the extermination of a people.”
For Dangeli, she’s focused on preserving the language by bringing it to life in her classrooms. Her students sing songs, play games and learn how to use Sm’algya̱x in a natural, conversational way.
“Acquiring our language is like acquiring any language. The more you put it in active context of use in everyday interactions of people, especially in needs, wants and desires — that language acquisition happens through the necessity of communication,” says Dangeli.
She adds that since their language is critically endangered, the bands of the Tsimshian Nation have to mobilize their efforts together despite the border, which she says is not theirs and was imposed on them by colonial governments.
By bringing in Reese and Burr, she says that it proves their connection to one another and increases the momentum of the Tsimshian revitalization movement. She’s also glad that her students can hear positive feedback from outside Sm’agyax speakers who encourage their educational journey.
“We know that our language is being strengthened and reborn into these different ways, we can see it manifest in the health and vitality of our young people, in their confidence and in themselves as Tsimshian people,” says Dangeli. “When we bring this back together, it [also] heals our elders who have gone to residential schools.”