Sealaska is now accepting applications for 2024-2025 language grants, which support efforts to preserve Sm’algyax, X̱aad Kíl and Lingít. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until all funds are allocated. Learn more and apply at https://www.sealaska.com/community/language-revitalization/.
Sealaska’s investment in languages is made possible by a $10 million endowment, established by the Board of Directors in 2019 and aimed at urgent action with emphasis on advanced speakers. Last year, Sealaska invested an additional $750,000 into language revitalization. The endowment is designed to amplify the efforts of other individuals, informal groups and formal institutions throughout our region.
There is an urgent need to revitalize Indigenous languages, and Sealaska is committed to the task. We are proud to glimpse into some the critical work and impact of our current language grant recipients and partners.
Tlingit & Haida
In the heart of Juneau, AK, Amelia Jiyal’áxch Rivera has been collaborating with Tlingit & Haida, serving in a unique role that supports language learners and educators. Jiyal’áxch reflected on the impactful strides made in the past year with the support of Sealaska’s language funds.
Jiyal’áxch’s primary goal for the year was to leverage funding for language development to hire two intermediate language learners into permanent, full-time positions. The success of this endeavor not only provided employment opportunities but also served as a catalyst for building an internal infrastructure.
“The generous donation from Sealaska gave us the jumpstart needed to build a strong foundation and secure additional grant funds for sustained immersion efforts,” Jiyal’áxch said.
Ben K’uyaang Young, one of the hires, is actively working on developing a Xaad Kíl immersion curriculum. His full-time commitment includes increasing fluency by engaging with the last remaining Birth Speaker in the state, Dr. Delores Churchill. This approach to language learning ensures both curriculum development and real-world fluency building.
Reflecting on the highlights of the language learning journey, Jiyal’áxch emphasizes the joy of witnessing educators’ smiles when realizing the potential for culturally centered schools that produce fluent speakers. The vision of an educational environment rooted in culture and values is becoming a reality.
Ketchikan Indian Community
In the vibrant community of Ketchikan, Alaska, several leaders from the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC) have been engaged in the revitalization of Sm’algyax, X̱aad Kíl and Lingít.
Ahl’lidaaw Gitnack’angeak, Kiyéis Tláa, and St’igii (Harley) shared their respective language learning journeys, the impact of Sealaska’s funding and their aspirations for celebrating cultural heritage.
Ahl’lidaaw’s primary focus is on Sm’álgyax, and as a Curriculum Developer and Language Mentor, their goal this year was to complete the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) Story translation project. The highlight of Ahl’lidaaw’s journey is the invaluable mentorship of Fluent Speaking Elder and language expert Donna May Roberts, emphasizing the transformative power of challenging expectations.
The work of Kiyéis Tláa, focusing on Lingít, has also been instrumental. Balancing projects for the community with personal language learning proved challenging, but they still managed to expand language offerings in local schools by creating materials and facilitating classes.
St’igii (Harley) dedicated the year to achieving conversational fluency, curriculum development and overall understanding in Xaad Kíl. The significantly increased proficiency showcases the success of Sealaska’s funds, vital for the growth and perpetuation of ancestral languages. Harley attributed their progress also to the support of elders and teachers.
In the quiet town of Mooresville, NC, Tom Burton, affiliated with Smalgyax-Files.org, has been quietly making waves in the realm of language revitalization. As a learner and advocate for Sm’algyax, Tom embarked on a transformative journey this past year, achieving significant milestones.
Tom’s primary goal in 2023 was to build a secure, cloud-native web application dedicated to securely storing, tagging, and sharing Sm’algyax language learning documents. This tool is now accessible at https://Smalgyax-Files.org.
“I wanted to create a space where the language could thrive, where resources could be easily accessed and shared among the community,” Tom said.
Identifying as a learner in the intermediate stage, Tom wears multiple hats within the language community. He is not only a learner but also an administrator and a passionate advocate for Sm’algyax language revitalization.
Tom’s accomplishments extend beyond the digital realm; he successfully incorporated the web application as a 501(c)3 charity. This strategic move emphasizes the commitment to long-term sustainability.
Sitʼ Eeti Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley Elementary School
Part of the Juneau School District, Sitʼ Eeti Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley Elementary School is home to an immersive Lingít program. Program leaders Yugitsiy George Holly & Lorrie Gax̱.áan.sán Heagy said the most memorable moments were characterized by growth and optimism.
Like when a second-grader made a creative Lingít language substitution in a song. It demonstrated that kids can go beyond rote memorization to use the language.
Or when families of students were asked “who hears the Lingít language spoken or sung at home regularly by your children/grandchildren?” — at least two-thirds of the hands went up.
Language funds were strategically allocated to fund Yugitsiy’s to spearhead an initiative focused on team-teaching, building bridges between school and home. This innovative approach was aimed to create a holistic language learning experience.
One of the primary goals of the program was to work weekly with culture bearers and language scholars, translating phrases commonly used in the classroom. This effort sought to capture the essence of Lingít, making it accessible and relevant in everyday conversations. “It’s about connecting the language to our daily lives, making it a living part of our interactions,” Gax̱.áan.sán said.
A pivotal shift occurred as the focus transitioned from a noun-based approach to a verb-based perspective. The emphasis turned towards processes, relationships and the fundamental building blocks of language meaning. This reflected a commitment to understanding language as a dynamic force, evolving through the intricacies of daily life.
Immersing themselves further, the team began writing music that incorporated elders’ phrases and cultural values. The melodies became a tapestry, interweaving the wisdom of the past into a contemporary musical landscape. Yugitsiy, a passionate language learner, said “music becomes a vessel to carry our culture forward.”
Stay tuned for words of wisdom from our partners and grantees, and learn more about 2024-2025 language applications below.