JUNEAU (AP) — Every other summer when she was a child, Jerry Ann Gray would visit her maternal grandparents in Metlakatla and listen to them sing Sm’algyax, the language of the Tsimshian people.
“It sounds different now than it did then,” she said. “Back then, they sound like when they talk, they sing.... I loved listening to my grandparents, because it always sounded like they were singing. I miss that.”
Gray was one of more than 30 students who during the last week of August attended a Sm’algyax class taught by master carver and culture bearer David Boxley. The class was organized by Nancy Barnes and cosponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Haayk Foundation.
“Our language is slipping away,” Boxley said. “There’s so few fluent speakers left. I’m not fluent. I’m a functional speaker. But I’m always working at it, and I’m scared that our language is going to die, and I don’t want to be a part of its death. I want to be a part of its life. There’s still time.”
Tsimshian youth give him hope, Boxley said. He’s seen his son and others excited about the possibility of learning the language.
“This generation is hungry to be a part of this,” he said.
He knows it’s hard — the best way to gain fluency is to immerse oneself in the language. With the number of fluent speakers dwindling, those opportunities are harder to come by.
“I was lucky,” Boxley said. “I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather... my grandmother spoke our language to me all the time... when I was a little kid, that’s all I spoke.”
He learned English when he went to school, and that’s what he spoke growing up in Metlakatla. (If you have ever called Metlakatla “Met,” Boxley asks that you don’t. He considers it “nails on a chalkboard and a slap in the face.” ‘’Metlakatla,” which means “salt water passage,” is the only Sm’algyax word many people know. Why not use it?)
Though his grandfather was a fluent Sm’algyax speaker, he frequently used English to speak to Boxley.
“All that time I lived with these two people who are wonderful, fluent speakers — why didn’t I just say ‘Don’t speak English?’” Boxley said.
After Boxley left his 13-year teaching career to carve full time in 1986, he began focusing more on his culture.
“The art just kind of dovetails with the culture for me, and I got involved with being the leader of the dance groups,” he said. “And putting on, reviving potlatches. All that stuff, it all kind of comes together.”
Boxley’s dance group is Git Hoan Native Dance Group (Git Hoan means “People of the Salmon”). They’re the lead dance group for Celebration 2016.
More than 30 people attended the first of the four classes Barnes organized in Juneau.
“I’m so happy to see your smiling faces,” Boxley told them. “It means the world to me.... There are not this many people in Metlakatla who can speak our language.”
Throughout the class, Boxley — using as little English as possible — had attendees sitting and standing, pointing at windows, the floor, the ceiling, their heads, hands and feet, and conducting short conversations with basic information — name, clan, where they’re from, where they live.
“Don’t be scared,” he told a student. “If we’re scared, it will die. If we’re embarrassed, it will die. We have to be proud of who we are... be proud.”
Jerry Ann Gray’s father’s side is Tlingit, so Gray also grew up hearing the Tlingit language.
“Some of the sounds are the same, but it’s different,” she said. “This is my first time trying to learn (Sm’algyax)... I’m loving it. I’m happy it’s David here.”
Student David Russell-Jensen, 20, is in Tlingit language classes at the University of Alaska Southeast. He’s a member of the Tsimshian Killer Whale clan, and he’s also Inupiaq.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity,” he said. “David Boxley isn’t here very often... he’s an amazing resource. I’m just glad to be here.”
Barnes, a Sealaska trustee, is Tsimshian and Alutiiq, she said. “I am not fluent, but love learning however I can,” she wrote in an email before the class. “This is a passion of mine.”
She learned to spell Sm’algyax “Shimalgyak,” she said, with “shim” meaning “true” and “algyack” meaning “to speak” so that Sm’algyax means “the true language.”
It’s a language isolate, she said, meaning it’s not connected to any other language.
After the first of Boxley’s classes, she said she’d really enjoyed it.
“I realized how more than rusty I am,” she said.
The classes were recorded, and she plans to make those DVDs available not only to any Tsimshian person, but anyone who wants them.
Toward the end of the first class, as the students learned about colors — yellow translates to “the butter inside the clam” and purple means “sea lion poop,” Boxley said — they practiced asking “What color is this?”
“You have said a complete Sm’algyax sentence, and your tongue is speaking the language of our ancestors,” Boxley said. “What a wonderful thing that is.”