JUNEAU (AP) -- Their knowledge is priceless. Their minds contain a wealth of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian songs, stories, memories and protocol. And now 12 elders from around Southeast officially can call themselves ''treasures.''
The Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska honored its first-ever ''Living Cultural Treasure'' designees in Juneau last week, an event that grew from one woman's determination, many communities' appreciation and the lifetime achievements of those receiving the awards.
''This gives us an honor; we are recognized, finally,'' said Clara Peratrovich of Klawock, one of the elders to receive the designation. ''It shows that the young generation values their culture.''
Volunteer project organizer Norma Jean Dunne started the push to honor the elders as a college project.
''A lot of times people are recognized after they're gone. To me it is more important to say 'thank you' for all that you've done''' while people are living, said Dunne, who saw other groups give similar honors and wanted to bring the idea to Southeast Alaska.
''There are very few fluent speakers in our villages,'' she said. ''Our culture is endangered. ... There are very few people who are experts, who know the protocol for the right way to plan for events.
''Each (designee) has a personal history that's very significant to their community. We want to say, 'We appreciate you and we love you, and we want the world to know.'''
Dunne secured the support of the Central Council Executive Council, and solicited nominations from Southeast communities with the help of Central Council Elderly Services Coordinator Gloria Chase-Millett.
Chase-Millett said Dunne was determined to see the project to completion.
''She really believed in this,'' Chase-Millett said. ''She had this vision and she followed it through.''
They left the exact interpretation of ''cultural treasure'' up to the local communities, hoping for - and eventually receiving - a wide variety of nominees.
The local communities and tribal organizations who nominated elders paid for them to travel to Juneau last week. Ten of the 12 honorees made the trip and attended a council welcoming dinner.
Elders expressed concern for the cultural losses they have witnessed and the knowledge that may disappear when they are gone. But many also were optimistic about the youth of today.
''A lot of them can talk Tlingit somewhat,'' Charles Jimmie Sr. of Haines said. ''They're trying. It's wonderful to hear them make mistakes, because they're trying.''
''It's always encouraging to me, as an elder, to see a young one who is pushing to preserve our culture and language,'' said Arnold Booth of Metlakatla.
The biographies of the 12 elders and photos of them taken on Wednesday will be compiled and hopefully, Dunne said, turned into a book for posterity.
Dunne said she will lead the effort for one more year, and she said some communities that did not nominate someone this year have told her they will participate next year. After that, Dunne said, ''hopefully this will take off on its own.''
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