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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
forgot her language when she left Atka to attend boarding school
at age 6. Now, at 63, she wants to recapture it.
was such a part of me when I was younger," she said.
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.
women pored over words like baliikax (smoked fish), gis-xix (rookery)
and ganax (the glow in the sky when the sun is setting).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 ..."
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.
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.
was so un-Tlingit," he said.
not a bad thing, he added. But it is different from how he was raised.
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.
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.
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.
a culture has been offended so many times, Marks said, it shuts
down. And that, he pointed out, is the death of communication.
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.