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Scrambling to save a dying language in Metlakatla

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  • Updated: February 7
  • Published February 5

METLAKATLA — Standing in a crowd outside David A. Boxley's childhood home, young Audrey Hudson didn't know what to expect on this 1982 summer day. All the 9-year-old girl knew was a totem pole carved by Boxley would soon stand upright in the southernmost town of Alaska's Panhandle.

To young children, a 26-foot monument seemed tall enough to pierce the sky. It would be the first pole raised in Metlakatla since the Tsimshians arrived from nearby British Columbia in 1887.

"What this did was create a norm for us," said Hudson, now in her second term as Metlakatla's first female mayor at the state's lone federal reservation, which sits on Annette Island, immediately south of Ketchikan.

"It was a very big deal for us to witness," she added, "but I don't think many of us realized the depth and the importance of being there until much later."

Today, poles are not only in front of Boxley's childhood home. Works by other artists stand before schools, the senior center, docks where seaplanes and boats arrive and in front of the local Head Start building.

Though not exactly on the beaten track — it's accessible mostly by boat or seaplane — a visit to this fishing community of 1,400 hardly feels like isolation.

Mornings often begin at the Mini Mart, either for a quick coffee and muffin or a standing meal with friends favoring updates from neighbors rather than cable news.F

Hardly an evening goes by when an organized basketball game isn't played either on sheltered courts that keep spring and summer rainfall at bay or indoors on open-gym night or at sold-out high school games.

Could identity disappear?

Metlakatla's fishing community has a fleet of about 85 boats whose captains ply waters within about a half mile of the shoreline that under federal law is managed by the village's tribal government, Metlakatla Indian Community.

The island's blossoming industry features its own hatchery and a re-energized seafood processing plant, due to a recently signed agreement with Silver Bay Seafoods processors.

Many who live here are direct descendants of the first arrivals in 1887 from British Columbia and feel an increasing cultural connection to their ancestors — with one glaring omission. The Tsimshian language, Sm'algyax, is down to a handful of fluent speakers.

"There is something happening here, it's a reclamation of our identity," said Gavin Hudson, the mayor's cousin, who recently relocated to his childhood home after 15 years in the Seattle area.

"It's constantly defining who we are as modern Tsimshian people," he said. "It provokes creativity, pride and love. But we have got to save our language. If we don't, our identity disappears."

Pamela Dunlap-Shohl / Alaska Dispatch News

Dating back to 1887

Metlakatla's Alaska roots date to Aug. 7, 1887, when lay Anglican missionary William Duncan led 826 Tsimshian on a 70-mile journey from British Columbia to an abandoned Tlingit village on Annette Island.

At growing odds with the Church of England and having already been expelled from the Church Missionary Society, Duncan reached out to President Grover Cleveland, seeking permission to move the Tsimshians from Metlakatla, British Columbia.

Having received Cleveland's blessing to select an unoccupied Southeast island, a scout team traveled to Alaska and found a site with a healthy water supply, access to fishing grounds.

In 1891, Metlakatla became Alaska's first and only federal reservation, remaining so even after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Believing it would retain more sovereignty over how it uses land and surrounding waters, the community preferred to remain a reservation. Why chart a different course than most Native corporations? "To maintain sovereignty over our land, water and people," said Gavin Hudson. "We determine our future. No amount of money can compensate use for those things, which are priceless."

After arriving from British Columbia, some Tsimshian eventually became upset with the way Duncan suppressed people who sought better schools by denying access to education.

For instance, B.A. Haldane was 13 when he joined the hundreds leaving British Columbia. Two years later, Duncan expelled Haldane from school, saying there was nothing more for him to learn.

Haldane went on to become a successful entrepreneur whose work included photography.

About a century later, in 2003, Metlakatla resident Dennis Dunne discovered 163 glass-plate negatives taken by Haldane, providing a new look into the Tsimshian history.

Distortion?

Mique'l Dangeli, who grew up in Metlakatla and began her first year as an associate professor for the University of Alaska Southeast last August, studied the plates extensively.

In an article that became material for her master's thesis, "Bringing Our History into Focus: Re-Developing the work of B.A. Haldane, 19th Century Photographer," Dangeli wrote:

"What has developed is the realization that just as the heat and flames has distorted these images of our ancestors, the literature on our community's history, written without our own images and perspective, continues to distort Metlakatla's representation in the Northwest Coast."

Many publications called the Tsimshian people Duncan's "followers," "flock" or "the faithful," suggesting he led them to a utopia. Most of those labels come from non-Native voices, according to research from Wilfrid Laurier University professor Susan Neylan.

In a scholarly journal article, "Choose Your Flag: Perspectives on Tsimshian Migration from Metlakatla, British Columbia, to New Metlakatla, Alaska, 1887," Neylan examines the disparate perspectives and written accounts.

She writes:

"While the non-Native discussion often casts Tsimshian in a passive role as Duncan's 'followers,' certainly with regard to the issue of land and access to resources, they had their own agendas. The Tsimshian who left their ancestral homelands did so for complex and rational reasons that had little to do with the will or whims of  'whites.' "

Today, Duncan remains a pivotal figure in Metlakatla history and among those who've grown up in the community.

His 1891, cottage-style home still stands, serving as a museum depicting Metlakatla's history.

The cottage, a regular stop on guided tours through Metlakatla, has two exhibit rooms. The first features Tsimshian art reflecting its culture and the styles of Northwest coast art; the second is dedicated to Duncan teachings.

Books and articles often describe how Duncan's business acumen helped Metlakatla establish a self-sustaining community with businesses such as a sawmill, salmon cannery, soap factory and blacksmith shop.

Still, words like tyranny are sometimes used to describe Duncan's heavy-handed approach to Metlakatla industrial development.

Dangeli served as museum director while she earned her master's and doctorate at the University of British Columbia. She calls Duncan a "pivotal figure" in Metlakatla history, but adds that caution should be exercised before holding him in high esteem.

"The first two years I was director, I couldn't get our own people to walk through that (cottage) door," Dangeli said. "So, I don't give him credit — and I don't think anybody should — for our move … to Alaska. Our people made that decision. Our people created that community."

'My jaw hit the ground'

When David A. Boxley grew up in Metlakatla, few signs of his family's Tsimshian history or ancestral touch existed.

Born in 1952 in Ketchikan, Boxley was raised by grandparents who were full-blooded Tsimshians, born several years after British Columbian Tsimshians arrived.

No totem poles stood, no potlatches took place, homes lacked traditional artwork: masks, rattles, blankets. Dances replete with regalia and songs didn't exist.

No one produced traditional art, nor did anyone teach cultural history or the language.

All that changed in the late 1970s and early '80s as Boxley, among others, was producing and teaching Tsimshian art. Children began dancing and singing Tsimshian songs in school, too.

Today, many point to the 1982 potlatch as a turning point for the Tsimshians. Boxley was later bestowed the Tsimshian name Ksgooga Yaawk, by respected elder Alfred "Blit" Eaton, meaning "first to potlatch."

Boxley's influence on dancing can be seen not only in Metlakatla, which has four groups that perform at potlatches and a biennial event called Celebration, but also among groups in Anchorage and Boxley's current home of Seattle, including his own, Git-Hoan (people of salmon).

His artwork — totem poles, masks, bentwood boxes — have made him among the more accomplished artists of his generation. Boxley's works are in galleries and museums such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. His recently completed two poles, 20 and 25 feet tall, are in Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida.

"He took it upon himself to change the dynamic," Gavin Hudson said. "As long as I can remember he talked about being proud of who you are. He would tell us and keep telling us: 'You're a Tsimshian. Be proud of that. You have a beautiful language; you have a beautiful community; you have a beautiful history.' "

For all of his artwork and for all his worldwide performances — a return to Italy is scheduled this year — Boxley's priority remains the Tsimshian language. He implores all indigenous people to learn their language, though he knows the urgency for Sm'algyax, Haida and Tlingit is peaking.

He doesn't consider himself fluent, but he does know enough to write songs and teach classes when he visits Southeast communities.

Discussions on language often have Boxley reflecting on a trip to Cherokee nation in North Carolina, where his group performed 10 years ago.

"They allowed all the dance groups five minutes to offer a snippet of what everybody could expect to see," Boxley said. "I was sitting there waiting my turn and the guy speaking right before me was from Telaqua, Oklahoma, from the western Cherokees.

"At one point he said, 'I'm pretty sad about the fact that there are only 10,000 Cherokee speakers left.' You could hear my jaw hit the ground. I forgot everything I was going to say. Instead of doing my regular protocol in my language, the first thing out of my mouth was '10,000?' — and everybody laughed. I said we don't have 10. And nobody laughed."

No one's laughing

More than 10 years later, there's still no one laughing.

The urgency facing Sm'algyax's survival took a particular hold of Gavin Hudson, Kandi McGilton and Boxley's 35-year-old son, David R. Boxley, who's also an accomplished carver, songwriter and dancer.

All three were either born in Metlakatla or spent a significant amount of their childhood there, but, until a few years ago, were living elsewhere as young adults.

Because Metlakatla continues to call them back, the three eventually relocated there — Boxley to his father's childhood home — and established the nonprofit Haayk Foundation two years ago. Haayk's mission focuses on rejuvenating the language that's slipping away.

According to alaskanativelanguages.org, just seven fluent Sm'algyax speakers remain, all of them older than 70.

The January 2008 death of Marie Smith, 89, the last fluent Eyak speaker, vividly illustrates the reality of a dying language.

Smith's death helped drive the idea of establishing a nonprofit. The December passing of Chief Orlando "Bossy" Bolton of Hartley Bay, British Columbia, adds to the urgency, they say.

"It's terrifying, and it's terrifying that not everyone is terrified," the younger Boxley said. "It's hard for us to accept.

"There are multifaceted reasons why people aren't up in arms about it, everything from historical trauma to just surviving in today's world. I'm sure a certain percentage don't give a damn. Either way, we are constantly feeling we are not doing enough."

Raising the alarm

Public acknowledgement of state languages has gained some momentum. In 2014, the Alaska Legislature passed an Alaska Native languages bill, recognizing the state's 20 indigenous languages as official along with English, though it's only a ceremonial recognition.

Also that year, a federal judge ruled state election officials failed to do enough in assisting Alaska Natives who speak limited English with ballots they can understand.

"No one was saying that it's dying," the younger Boxley said. "No one was saying that the Tsimshian language is endangered. No one was saying it's going to die in our generation. We are trying to add that kind of terminology to it — first, because it's accurate and second, to raise the alarm."

One of Haayk's primary goals is to create fluent young adults. Many have a functional grasp of the language to converse and understand Tsimshian songs while performing dances. But that's not enough.

"Sm'algyax belongs to all of us," said McGilton, who advocates for it to be taught in school districts. "Being a young adult who wants to learn the language and become fluent is going to help."

None of the three consider themselves fluent, so they have enlisted help from 70-year-old Sarah Booth.

"When I go to the store, there was one guy who never spoke English to me," Booth said. "He spoke Sm'algyax to me. He would be really happy to have someone else to talk to. He's gone. You get lonely not having someone around who can speak Sm'algyax."

There are other efforts — from grass roots to higher education — to save the language. In Juneau, members of the Yees Ku Oo dance group meet almost weekly to practice and build their vocabulary. Also, Dangeli is teaching a Tsimshian culture and history class at the University of Alaska Southeast that features a language component.

'Dancing is healing'

Rebecca Gue isn't taking Sm'algyax classes, but she's still learning the language.

As the 28-year-old dances, she immerses herself in the songs, not learning sounds but the words and meaning behind them.

Performing Sm'algyax has also helped bring together six younger brothers and sister for whom she serves as a guardian following their mother's death three years ago.

"For us, dancing is healing," Gue said. "For some people, they would stop dancing for a year when in mourning. It was healing me. I could feel it when I sing and dancing with our whole hearts. It helped me get through the loss of our mother; it helped all of us."

Gue dances for large audiences such as those in Juneau every two years during an event called Celebration. She dances for smaller audiences found at potlatches.

But even the smallest audiences enable her to share her Tsimshian culture.

Tourists arriving several days a week close out their three-hour visit with a trip to the village's cultural center, known as a longhouse, where they are treated to dance performances from one of the community's four groups.

"There are a lot of people who don't know there are Native Americans still alive, and if they do know, they have no idea who our tribe is," Gue said. "I feel like I am bringing awareness to their people when I perform for them.

"I love it when people come up to me (and say) that was really moving even though they didn't understand the words.

"There are tears in their eyes when they talk to me. It means a lot to me when we are able to move people with our words. That's how powerful our language is."

Steve Quinn is a Juneau-based freelance writer.

Correction: A caption on a photo accompanying this story originally identified Trevor Bolton as Trevor Holcomb.

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