How learning an Indigenous language leads to healing

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KTOO reporter Lyndsey Brollini reported this story as part of NextGenRadio: Indigenous, a week-long workshop by the Native American Journalists Association and NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project.


With a Christmas tree lighting up her dark apartment, Nancy Barnes logs in to join her advanced Tsimshian language course. She’s the first there, even before instructor Donna May Roberts.

With college classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, Tsimshian lullabies on Sundays, and Tsimshian games on Fridays, Barnes is learning the Tsimshian language, sm’algya̱x, almost every day of the week.

Learning Sm’algya̱x helped Barnes get through the pandemic. It keeps her busy so she doesn’t dwell on Alaska’s COVID-19 infection rate, one of the highest in the United States

Nancy Barnes logs on to her advanced Sm’algya̱x class taught by Donna May Roberts at the University of Southeast Alaska on November 1, 2021. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini)

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“It saved me in a way that just filled my heart,” she said. “And that makes me feel grounded, that’s the best way to explain it. I have heard other language learners say the same.

Barnes was lucky. She grew up hearing her grandmother, Clara Ridley, speak sm’algya̱x. Ridley taught her a few sentences, but Barnes didn’t start learning the Tsimshian language herself until 2003. That year, Sm’algya̱x teacher Donna May Roberts came to Juneau, Alaska. , to run an intensive language program.

This prompted Barnes to start learning her language, but she was not practicing regularly. Back then, a small group of people would meet in Barnes’ apartment every two weeks or once a month.

Nancy Barnes at her workplace, the Sealaska Heritage Institute. She stands beside a house facade sculpted and painted by David A. Boxley and David R. Boxley. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini)

In 2015, another Sm’algya̱x teacher, David A. Boxley, visited Juneau and asked Barnes if she thought anyone in the area would be interested in an intensive language program.

“I was thinking… maybe we’ll have six people that I could get into my house,” Barnes said. “We ended up having… I’ll say 30 people. There were too many people for my small apartment.

A few months after the program, Boxley returned to Juneau and wanted to organize another language session. Sm’algya̱x learners realized that in a few months they had forgotten so much. So they formed a group to use the language every Saturday. They hardly ever cancel a class, even though the pandemic has moved everyone online.

In fact, Juneau Sm’algya̱x’s learner group has grown twice as large and stretched beyond Juneau’s borders to British Columbia, Anchorage, Ketchikan, Metlakatla and Washington State.

“The group got bigger, and I would say stronger, because all of a sudden we had all that time,” Barnes said.

Juneau, Alaska, October 4, 2021 (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini)

Even with years of lessons behind her, Barnes still considers herself a toddler in the language. Over the years, however, she has learned enough to develop a new worldview.

“You see it a little differently. You know, the words are so descriptive, ”Barnes said. “And it seems like every week when we do our Saturday class, I have a lot of these ‘aha’ moments.”

The Tsimshian language is critically endangered, like many native languages ​​in the United States. There are only a handful of speakers in Alaska, but there are more in Canada.

“Another reason I think we’re so passionate about this, doing language, is because we know we’re in a crisis situation,” Barnes said.

In recent years fluent speakers have died. Barnes equates the loss of a fluent sm’algya̱x speaker with the loss of a library of knowledge about his language and culture.

In 2003, when Donna May Roberts came to Juneau for an intensive language program, she gave a speech to learners about the state of Sm’algya̱x. She said there were only about 30 speakers left in Alaska.

“And I remember feeling that feeling of ‘Oh my God, we have to keep it going,'” said Barnes. “I wish I had 30 speakers in Alaska right now. “

For those who died during the pandemic, Barnes said she also hasn’t been able to properly mourn those losses. The first thing she wants to do when a member of her community dies is to reunite with him. But she can’t.

“I was unable to say the last farewells and comfort my family and good friends. So it’s really tough, ”Barnes said. “I went to a few Zoom memorials. And it’s good that we did. But it’s just not the same as being there in person. But what are we going to do? We have to keep everyone safe. “

Normally when someone dies, the family of the deceased throws a party and invites other clans as guests – lots of people, food and dancing. It is also when the clans give Tsimshian names to people. The same is true with the other tribes of Southeast Alaska, the Haida and the Lingit as well.

Nancy Barnes sings the song Tsimshian Happy on the boardwalk in downtown Juneau, Alaska on November 3, 2021. Barnes composed the song herself and she sings it often in her dance group Yées Ḵu.oo. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini)

There have been a few ceremonies, small or on Zoom during the pandemic, but for Barnes, they are not a substitute for in-person gatherings.

“I think when this [the pandemic] is over, I think you’re just going to see parties galore, ”Barnes said. “Parties, memorials and traditional gatherings and I think we’re going to go crazy dancing. “

Despite all the losses suffered during the pandemic, Barnes still has hope. Even though there are no gatherings, Aboriginal people have found ways to continue practicing their culture and language. For Barnes, it shows just how adaptive and resilient his ancestors were.

“And that’s what I keep saying,” Barnes said. “Okay, we can’t do exactly what we did, but how do we get around it?” And so I think it made us stronger.


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