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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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Native Language Classes Teach Manners in Addition to Words

by Sandi Gerjevic Anchorage Daily News
credits: Sally Swetzof challenged her students with flash cards during her Unangax, or Aleut, language class Saturday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Sally Swetzof challenged her students with flash cards during her Unangax, or Aleut, language class Saturday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)It is a sunny spring morning, but Moon Woman, Bear Woman, Little Bird and Baby Baby -- their translated Aleut names -- are huddled inside an annex of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, trying to master the sound of a rough "G."

In the western dialect of the Aleut, or Unangax, language, the sound of a regular "G" comes from one part of the mouth and the sound of a rough "G" comes from another -- subtle but critical to meaning.

"Forget it. You're going to get yourself upset," Sally Swetzof (Moon Woman) tells her aunt, Angelina Guenther (Baby Baby). Guenther is trying hard to get her tongue around a certain word but gives the whole thing up with an "Ay-yi-yi."

Swetzof, the instructor, was a little tougher on her aunt than the other two students, calling on her often, coaching her through words and correcting her with a firm "No, aunt."

Unangax is one of four Alaska Native language classes taught at the Heritage Center weekly in March. The program draws Natives and non-Natives of all ages, said the center's Kay Ashton. Some attend to bone up for Bush travel. Some want enough of their own cultural language to introduce themselves publicly. Others have personal reasons.

Guenther forgot her language when she left Atka to attend boarding school at age 6. Now, at 63, she wants to recapture it.

"It was such a part of me when I was younger," she said.

Sitting next to her, Tatiana Petticrew (Little Bird) was a striking contrast. A crown of black hair fell across her shoulders. She wore a sprinkle of garnets in her earlobes, and her nails were painted coal black. Petticrew, 11, has studied Unangax in Atka since preschool. When she and her mother, Jolene Petticrew (Bear Woman), moved to Anchorage, Tatiana wanted to continue lessons with Swetzof, who also teaches in the Aleutian Region School District.

The women pored over words like baliikax (smoked fish), gis-xix (rookery) and ganax (the glow in the sky when the sun is setting).

Along with mastering ways to introduce themselves and other conversation starters, students pick up a few protocol pointers for traveling in the Alaska Bush -- things like learning to wait a few beats after asking a question. It's one of the things that irks Swetzof: when a non-Native asks a question and then, not getting an instant response, jumps in with another or, worse yet, asks the question in another way, as if the Native person hadn't understood.

Phrasing is important in speaking to an elder, said Marie Meade, who teaches a class in Yup'ik. In that case, you might say: "Would you like some coffee?" Not "Do you want coffee?" There is a distinction that shows a measure of respect, she said.

Here is another tip: If someone offers you food you don't want, it's OK to say "No, thanks" if you say it in a nice way. Sometimes, it's easiest to tell the truth. For example, if you're hopping a prop plane in a few hours, you might explain that you have to be careful what you eat. An even simpler tack is to ask the host to wrap a portion to go.

"Whatever you do with it after that, it's between you and the all-seeing eye," said Paul Marks, who teaches a Tlingit class at the center later on Saturdays.

Marks revealed common cultural gaffes. In Tlingit, it's considered inappropriate to ask a lot of questions, he said. There's a time for that, but to lead off a conversation with questions might be considered forward or rude. Traditionally, you would avoid asking anyone for anything in a direct manner.

An example would be a woman who wants her husband to clean out the garage. Not only would she not ask directly, she would not even ask indirectly. She would wait until the husband was within earshot and then mention to someone else how badly the garage needs to be cleaned.

Also, in a formal setting, women allow men to take the lead when speaking, Marks said. He acknowledged these are cultural practices that may be out of fashion or in direct opposition to a Western style (and maddening to women, in fact). Nevertheless, he said, "When in Rome ..."

Marks, 54, grew up in Juneau, speaking Tlingit in his family, which he characterized as a long-standing and traditional clan. He has traveled and earned an education at a number of schools. He once dated a non-Native woman. In most contexts, she suited him well. But in the company of other Natives, she stood out.

"When she was in my circle, her cultural etiquette ... was very obvious to me," he said. Marks had trouble defining that exactly, except to say the girlfriend was too exuberant, too boisterous, too willing to lead the conversation.

"It was so un-Tlingit," he said.

That's not a bad thing, he added. But it is different from how he was raised.

Once, Marks said, he was sitting at a table with his sister, who is in her mid-70s. She turned to him and asked whether he'd ever heard the Lord's Prayer sung in Tlingit, as the Russian Orthodox sing it. No, he said. So she sang it to him.

Marks thought about that exchange for some time. He understood there was a difference between his sister telling him he needed to know the song and her offering the song to him, almost as a gift.

In general, the rules of etiquette that apply in town are the same in the Bush and incorporate common sense, the language teachers said. Take your shoes off (it's an Alaska thing). Be quiet and listen. Ask before blundering in. Thank people. Be sincere. In other words, a respectful manner and a smile go a long way in any language.

When a culture has been offended so many times, Marks said, it shuts down. And that, he pointed out, is the death of communication.


will continue at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In April, the center will offer Upper Tanana Athabascan, Inupiaq and Haida. Other languages will be offered in coming months. Cost is admission to the center: $9 for adults, $6 for youths and free to ANCSA shareholders and descendents. For more information, call 330-8000.

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