Tlingit woman gets award for language expertise

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Bessie Cooley used to be punished for speaking Tlingit. Now, she's getting an award from the queen of England for using her Native language.

Cooley will accept a Golden Jubilee Medal Saturday in Whitehorse, Yukon. It's being presented by the Yukon Territory's premier, Dennis Fentie, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen serves as Canada's head of state under its constitutional monarchy.

The award is granted to Canadians who have made significant contributions to the nation in the past 50 years. It's part of the celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the queen's reign.

Cooley, 58, is a fluent speaker of Tlingit who worked for five years as an interpreter for the Yukon territorial government. She is from Teslin, a Yukon town east of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway.

Cooley moved to Juneau in December to work as a Tlingit language specialist with Sealaska Heritage Institute. Longtime friend Jim Smarch of Teslin nominated her for the award.

''For a lot of us that went to mission schools, we've lost our tongue due to the beatings we used to get when we communicated in our own language,'' Smarch said. ''However, Bessie hung onto hers.''

Cooley attended a residential school in Carcross, Yukon, where she and other Native youths were forbidden to speak their language.

''But when we'd go home, we'd get right back into our Native culture,'' Cooley said. ''My mom didn't speak or understand much English, so my dad encouraged us to keep up the language. My dad was a very farsighted man.''

At age 52, Cooley left Teslin to attend college and to master Tlingit writing. She earned an associate's degree in Native language education from Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1998 and a bachelor's degree from UAF in Alaska Native studies with a Tlingit language minor in 2000.

Native culture and language are so intertwined that it's impossible to separate them, she said. ''We've always been taught that it's part of our identity, part of who we are. Why would anyone want to give up part of their identity?''

Sealaska Heritage Institute hired Cooley to help develop a Tlingit immersion curriculum.

''Bessie is a key member of our Tlingit curriculum development team,'' said Rosita Worl, the institute's president. ''She is one of the very few people who is a fluent speaker of Tlingit and has earned college degrees and certificates in the areas of Tlingit language and Alaska Native studies.''

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