Language came first Friday night.
Preserving and perpetuating Alaska Native languages was at the heart of every portion of the President’s Award Banquet & Language Fundraiser, which concluded the week of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s 84th annual Tribal Assembly.
“We cannot be who we are, Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian people, without our language. They make us who we are.” said David R. Boxley (Gyibaawm Laxha), a Tsimshian artist, who was one of the night’s emcees.
In addition to helping to host the event and serving as an auctioneer, Boxley made a mask titled “Gwisgwaasgm Laxha” for the banquet’s live auction event that prompted a bidding war that resulted in $20,000 to support languages.
“I was visiting with a friend of mine in Prince Rupert…he said, ‘You know what you young people are doing with languages is like gwisgwaasgm laxha,’ and that means the first blue sky that shines through after a storm when the clouds first part,” Boxley said.
Tlingit & Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson and Sealaska Corporation President and CEO Anthony Mallott bid on the piece with Peterson kicking things off with a $5,000 bid.
As the price for the piece climbed higher and higher, the night’s other emcee Elizabeth Medicine Crow (La quen náay, Kat Saas) asked Boxley if he would be interested in making a second mask if both bidders agreed to pay $10,000. Boxley agreed.
“I guess I’ve got to go home and get to work,” Boxley deadpanned during the night.
Language was involved in less dramatic ways throughout the evening. Generally, English-language names were not used, and as Medicine Crow said, Native languages factored into the stories of everyone who received a President’s Award.
It’s a big part of the life of Marie Olson (Kaayistaan), who was awarded the Life Achievement Award.
“I didn’t speak English until the first grade,” Olson said in an interview shortly before accepting her award. “It was difficult to learn it. It wasn’t as descriptive as my first language.”
Olson has been a civic leader, educator and cultural advocate. She served as both secretary and president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 2, was a longtime presence in Juneau School District and a supporter of the University of Alaska Southeast. UAS awarded Olson an honorary doctorate last year.
After talking with UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield at the awards event, Olson said she has known him since he was pursuing his doctorate and she was studying the history of labor at University of California Berkely.
“That’s where I became a union organizer,” Olson said. “It was exciting. It was an exciting time because that’s when they were pushing the history of freedom of speech, and the students were not yet getting that much freedom of speech, so they, in the parlance, they hit the bricks. That was exciting.”
While introducing Olson, Peterson said her varied background makes her a fount of information and wisdom.
“It’s like she’s lived so many lives and done so many things,” he said.
On stage, Olson kept her remarks short.
“Thank you, it’s beautiful,” Olson said.
Other award recipients were Culture Bearer Vicki Soboleff (Hilunjaat), Emerging Leader Arias Hoyle (Yawdunéi), Hold Each Other Up Lyle James (Xeel’i Éesh Ka) and Kolene James (DaxKilatch), Inspiring Educator Jessica Chester (Seigôot, L yei sakgwaxeex), Language Warrior Gloria Wolfe (X’aal Eex’ Tláa), Tribal Ally Diane Kaplan, and Youth Menor Sonya Skan (Xaa tóoch).
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907) 523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.