BY ERIN LAUGHLIN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
While at the grocery store, Alfie Price, a Tsimshian from Metlakatla, was greeted by a relative in Sm’algyax, the language of his people. He was embarrassed when he found unable to properly respond in kind.
Price says the interaction was significant because the relative who greeted him was actually Tlingit.
“I was deeply embarrassed that this Tlingit man was speaking to me in my language, better than I could, and I couldn’t answer him.”
From that interaction, Price started to learn the Tsimshian language, and advocate for Native languages.
“My goal is to normalize the usage of Sm’algyax and all Native languages,” said Price.
Friday, March 31, Price spoke at UAS’s “Art of Place: Teaching our Children,” discussing his Sm’algyax learners group and the ways they are teaching immersive strategies to children and members of the community.
Art of Place event coordinator and UAS Professor Ernestine Hayes said “Teaching Indigenous languages to children, both Native and non-Native, is important for many reasons, including the intellectual benefit that comes from bilingualism, as well as academic, emotional, cultural, and social benefits that come with knowledge of Indigenous ways of seeing the world.”
Price says he hopes to take the embarrassment or awkwardness out of learning the Native languages, by using them in everyday life.
“I hope that when people hear our language in public they will pick it up and feel comfortable.”
Social media has allowed another dimension of learning immersion for Native language students. This past Nov., the Sm’algyax learners group created an Instagram account, smalgyax_learners, where a word of the day video is posted everyday.
Followers of the account can hear pronunciation, see proper spelling, and the English definition. The account is just another way to normalize Native languages in day-to-day life, according to Price.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Price at the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska office off of Glacier Hwy.
Erin Laughlin: How are you using immersion techniques in teaching the children?
Alfie Price: Initially, I did not think I was fit to talk about it, but after some conversation with Ernestine, I realized our group was a perfect example. Our Sm’algyax learners group averages 12 to 14 people and we use a computer to connect with people who don’t live here through Google hangouts. It is an amazing opportunity. I co-lead the group, I am not fluent, but we are learning together. Also, my son attends Montessori Aurora Borealis, and for the past couple of months, we go once a week and teach Native songs and phrases to first through fifth graders. It is really exciting to go into a room full of children who can introduce themselves in Sm’algyax.
Laughlin: Why is preserving Native languages important?
Price: It is who we are. It separates us from other people. Not only is it our identity, but also it informs the worldview of our people. For example, one of my earliest teachers, Arnold Booth, in Metlakatla, would come and teach us oral history and some language. One of the things he would say to us squirrely seven year olds was “daxsm t’aan” or “sit still” in a commanding voice. When I was an adult, and ran into him, I told him that I still remembered him teaching me that phrase. He then explained to me that it did not just mean, “sit still”, but the root word “dax” means flounder. So the saying actually means be still like the flounder, be still like your life depends on it. That short command actually informs our worldview.
Laughlin: What is your favorite Sm’algyax word or phrase?
Price: I think mine is “wayi aam” and the way I use it is “Ok, great” or “Ok, cool.” The literal translation is actually “Ok, good.” That is definitely the word I use the most.
For more information about the Sm’algyax learners group, follow them on Instagram at smalgyax_learners.