Roberts works with young students at Richard Johnson Elementary
School in Metlakatla, Alaska. (Photo by Kandi McGilton)
Seattle teacher Donna Roberts is excited to see the rebirth
of the Tsimshian culture in her hometown of the Metlakatla Indian
Community in Alaska.
Activities such as native dances, galas, and raising new totem
poles have resurged in the Tsimshian community a stark contrast
from the cultural amnesia of the previous generations.
A sense of pride and a hunger for culture was revitalized, according
to Roberts. But within this resurgence in Metlakatla, there was
still a significant missing element.
"They realized they didn't know their language," said Roberts,
72 and one of the last fluent speakers of the tribe's language,
Sm'algyax, which is also spelled Shm'algyack by the tribe's elders.
"They thought that just singing the words to the song as they
danced was knowing the language. But just lately they realized,
no, they don't know their language," Roberts said. "That generation
is beginning to realize that they are missing that."
Roberts, who has lived mostly in Washington and Oregon for the
past 30 years, returned to Metlaktla in March to teach the language
to the tribe's elementary school students, in an effort to preserve
Roberts' hometown of Metlakatla is an island community with
a population of approximately 1,500 people and virtually nothing
else. Roberts' three-year project in the Annette Island School District
is funded through a new $1 million grant from the Alaska Native
small town of Metlakatla is part of the greater Annette Island
in the southeastern panhandle of Alaska. (Photo by Donna Roberts)
With the help of the grant, the school district requires all
of their students, ages three through fourth grade to learn Sm'algyax.
Roberts says their main goal of preserving the virtually extinct
Sm'algyax is to give the Tsimshian children an identity of who they
"If you know some of the words that were spoken in the language
that gives you a clue to how they used to think. And if you can
get a grasp on how they used to think, you get a better grasp on
what their values were," Roberts says.
The struggle to keep languages alive is global, but the Pacific
Northwest, including Alaska, Washington and Oregon, is a major hotspot
for disappearing languages. Recently, the last native speaker of
Eyak, an Alaskan Native American language, died in 2008.
By the year 2020, 88 percent of Native American languages will
be extinct, says Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning, Arapaho linguist
and professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at the
University of Montana.
But while efforts in reviving culture and history have progressed
in the past few years, language is the real core of who a person
is, he says.
"The problem is that you will have people who will descend from
an ancestry, but without the language, you will get a surface level
of the culture," Greymorning says.
Sm'algyax has fewer than several hundred native speakers among
the Tsimshian people of Alaska and British Columbia, according to
There was a tremendous loss of culture and language in previous
generations, when Natives were made to feel ashamed of their Indian
"That shame and self-hatred has stifled any desire to pass the
language down to the next generation," Gavin Hudson said in a speech
on the state of the Tsimshian language given this past January.
Hudson is the chair of the Haayk Foundation, a nonprofit in
Metlakatla that aims at revitalizing the Tsimshian identity. He
also acts as the coordinator of the language grant that is employing
Addressing cultural amnesia
For more than two decades, Roberts has been working with tribal
elders trying to prevent that loss.
When Roberts' first granddaughter was born 24 years ago, she
realized that it wasn't going to be basket weaving or tribal dancing
that showed her granddaughter where her heritage came from. It was
going to be their language, she says.
In response, Roberts and her husband developed an online curriculum
called "Shim-al-gyack made easy." It featured a talking dictionary,
which was created in part with the elders of the Tsimshian tribe.
elder of the Tsimshian tribe speaks into a microphone while
Donna Roberts records his voice for her online tool to help
people better learn Sm'algyax. (Photo by Tony Roberts)
Roberts' project in Metlaktla specifically addresses younger
children in the public schools, because the younger the child is,
the easier it is to learn a language.
Roberts teaches Sm'algyax to three to five year olds for 30
minutes for five days a week. She also teaches the language to first
through fourth graders once a week.
Roberts applies the methods of Total Physical Response, which
relies on using the body and acting words out. She is also using
Greymorning's methods of storytelling and pictures as inspiration.
The teaching methods are geared towards how a young child would
learn they don't speak, yet they understand, she said.
Roberts instructs a group of young students at the Metlakatla
elementary school in April 2015. She plans to continue as
Sm'algyax instructor for the next three years. (Photo by Kandi
In addition, these young members of the Tsimshian tribe don't
carry that same sense of shame the generations before them did.
"We have a responsibility to break that chain of trauma and
shame," says David R. Boxley, co-chair of the Haayk Foundation.
"The kids will have an opportunity to view the world in a different
Project supporters say it's important for the Tsimshian identity
to have a living, vibrant language for the culture to keep growing.
"If the language dies, then we will just be a community of people
who aren't white," Boxley says. "We will just be a community of
Indians but without the things that make us that."
Ashley McCuen is a student at the University of Washington studying
Journalism and English. Between cups of coffee, she enjoys telling
people's stories and planning trips abroad.