Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott 
Red huckleberries and blueberries in Wrangell at Mickey’s Fishcamp.

Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott Red huckleberries and blueberries in Wrangell at Mickey’s Fishcamp.

Planet Alaska: The language of berries

Like the berries, the language lives on the land.

It’s berry season in Tlingit Aaní, our favorite time of year. Sagóot kuwaháa — It’s a joyful time. We’d like to introduce you, Dear Reader, to 10 Lingít words for some of our favorite Southeast Alaskan berries. We invite you to learn the names, so when you’re out in the bushes picking berries, you can practice saying the words.

Even though the Lingít language is one of the most complex languages in the world, as you fill your buckets with berries this summer, fill your mind and body with the language of the land. Like the berries, the language lives on the land. Lingít X’éináx Sá—Say it in Lingít. Let’s begin:

Wasʼxʼaan tléig̱u—Salmonberry: Sounds almost like wus-caan-clay-goo. (The letter sounds are more complex than this.)

Boots and buckets and salmonberries in Wrangell. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott)

Boots and buckets and salmonberries in Wrangell. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott)

Berries are an important part of our Tlingit diet. They are our fruit, sweeteners, our trading currency, our ceremonial foods, our delicacies, and our everyday food. Salmonberries are like our culture—determined and resilient. They send out their roots from the stems, like tradition bearers do, making the soil rich for new seedlings to sprout.

One of the best ways to pick salmonberries in Southeast Alaska is to put on full raingear and get inside the berry bush. A person just disappears two steps into a salmonberry bush. Most of the berries are underneath the leaves. The rain gear helps to protect you from the wet bushes and the sticks, pokies, and bugs.

Practice this phrase: Goosú wé was’x’aan tléigu? Where are the salmonberries?

Kanat’á—Blueberry: Sounds like kun-ut-uh.

In Southeast Alaska we use the general term “blueberry” but we’re talking about several varieties growing in our forests. There’s the oval-leaf blueberry, Alaskan blueberry, dwarf blueberry, black huckleberry, and the lowbush blueberry. Alaskan blueberries are a “superfood,” meaning they’re nutritionally dense like our salmon and seaweeds.

One of the most nutritious beverages we have in Tlingit Aaní is berry juice or “soup”. It might appear unappetizing, but berry soup is fantastic.

Berry soup. (Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

Berry soup. (Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

To make it, mix any number of berries (any variety such as mixing salmonberries and blueberries) with any amount of water and add a bit of sweetener if you’d like. Mix gently with a spoon. Our favorite is blueberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, blackberry soup. We like to eat it hot first and then eat some cold later.

Practice this phrase: Kanat’á xaxá. I am eating blueberries.

Shákw—Strawberry: Sounds like sh-uh-kw.

Both wild and cultivated strawberries are grown in Southeast Alaska. They like sandy soil by glaciers or grasslands. In Wrangell there’s a Sitkine River variety and in the Glacier Bay region there’s another. Often you can find them growing on the side of roads, but before harvesting you must make sure they’re in an area that’s not polluted.

Practice this phrase: Shákw gaatoo.ín Let’s gather strawberries.

Chʼeix̱ʼ—Thimbleberry: Sounds like ch-ay-x. Also pronounced/called ch’eex’.

Thimblerries in Yeilk’ Vivian Mork’s hand.(Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

Thimblerries in Yeilk’ Vivian Mork’s hand.(Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

As traditional harvesters we speak to the berries, the land, our ancestors, while we’re out harvesting. Having a simple ceremony before harvesting acknowledges respect for this berry land. Use the Lingít words you’re learning: Gunalchéesh ch’eix’. This word is fun to learn to pronounce because the apostrophes mean the letters are pinched, meaning the sound is cut off sooner and sharper.

Though thimbleberries can be found in the Pacific Northwest, California, and even the Great Lakes region, the favorite picking sites are often well-kept secrets. Thimbleberries are good for your immune system, and they’re shared by humans and critters alike. You can make jam from thimbleberries, and sauces for fish and meats, and use them for baking too. Currently our most favorite jam in the world is thimbleberry/blueberry. We call it blue-thimble jam.

Practice this phrase: Gunalchéesh, ch’eix’. Thank you, thimbleberry.

Tleikatánk—Red huckleberry: Sounds like tl-ache-uh-tunk.

Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott 
Red huckleberries and blueberries in Wrangell at Mickey’s Fishcamp.

Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott Red huckleberries and blueberries in Wrangell at Mickey’s Fishcamp.

Tleikatánk is one of our favorite words to practice because when you say it, the syllables remind us of red huckleberries plunking into the bucket. Sitka has a lot of red huckleberries, but they are rarer in Wrangell and patches are often closely guarded secrets. Red huckleberries are high in vitamin C and fiber. We have lots of uses for these sought-after berries. They freeze well in freezer bags for a year or two. In addition to pie, jelly, and jam, you can toss frozen berries in your oatmeal or eat them in muffins and pancakes.

Practice this phrase: Tleikatánk áwé kanat’áx xoo yéi nateech: Red huckleberries are always among blueberries.

***

In this list, we’re offering you basic pronunciations, but this method falls short. You should hear the correct pronunciations so you can practice. The best resources are found at tlingitlanguage.com, at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s YouTube page, and at Goldbelt Heritage’s website.

Depending on which linguist you ask, there are anywhere between 44 to 48 consonants

and 8 vowels. Plus, there are unique sounds that are not heard in English or in any language in the world. The individual letters are also distinguished by tone marks, underlines, apostrophes and even the “period” is a letter.

It may seem daunting, but it’s possible to learn these new sounds. Once you hear a few of the words and sounds, then go practice. What better place to practice than in the berry bushes? Plus, practicing in the berry bushes lets the critters and other humans know your presence.

The good news is, this fall, the University of Alaska will be offering free Alaska Native language classes. This language journey is made possible by many people and organizations including Sealaska Heritage Foundation and a grant from Language Pathways.

In Tlingit Aaní, tléiḵw is the general term for berries. Tléikw sounds like tlay-kw. It’s a delicious sounding word just like the first salmonberry of the season on your tongue.

Practice saying: Tléikw. Tléikw. Daat tléikw sáwé? What kind of berry is it?

***

Tleikw kahínti—Watermelon berry: Sounds like tlake-ku-hint-ee.

Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork 
Yeilk’ Vivian Mork holds a handful of watermelon berries.

Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork Yeilk’ Vivian Mork holds a handful of watermelon berries.

Watermelon berry is also called wild cucumber and twisted stalk. The plants can grow several feet high and grow bright cylinder-shaped red berries. When the plant is young, you must go with an experienced harvester to learn to tell the difference between the poisonous hellebore and the edible watermelon berry shoots. You can find watermelon berries in the shade near streams and in most areas and on mountain slopes.

Harvesting tleikw kahínti provides the perfect opportunity to learn traditional knowledge. Nothing can replace harvesting our traditional foods and medicines hands on in the season on our traditional lands. No amount of power point presentations, Zoom classes, Patreon accounts, or YouTube channels can replace hands on learning with your family and community. Traditional harvesting opportunities needs to be a yearly thing in every single community in Tlingit Aaní.

Practice this phrase: Goosú wé tleikw kahínti? Where are the watermelon berries?

Nagoon berry: Sounds like nuh-gon or nay-goon. Also called neigóon.

Nagoon berries are highly prized in the Tlingit culture. We love these berries but they’re not as abundant as salmonberries. They grow along streams, muskeg, lakes and in the alpine. You can find them growing near the mossy muskeg and among bunchberries. They are commonly used for jam and jelly. Nagoon berries look like a cross between a raspberry and a salmonberry, but a bit like a bunchberry too.

Practice this phrase: Daa sá ee.een? What are you picking? Neigóon x̱a.een. I am picking nagoon berries.

Shaax̱—Gray currant: Sounds sort of like shock or shawk.

Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork 
Gray currants

Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork Gray currants

Tlingit Aaní’s gray currants provide us vitamins and minerals, richness from the land They give balance to our subsistence diet. We prefer to eat them cooked with other berries and we make syrups, jellies, and sodas. Gray currants are easy to pick, though they often grow on hillsides or in muddy streambanks. They are the treat of our fall season.

Practice this phrase: Yaadú wé shaax̱. Here are the gray currants.

Kaxwéix̱—High bush cranberry: Sounds like kuhk-wayx.

In Tlingit Aaní, months are named by what traditional food harvesting is predominantly happening in that area at that time of year. Although the Lingít names for the months/moons vary depending on the location of the community, the most common name for the month of August is Sha-ha-yi, “Berries ripe on mountain” month. Highbush cranberries are an important part of later summer/early fall harvesting.

Practice this phrase: Tléikw áyá kaxlas’eex tákw. I’m cleaning berries.

Kʼeikaxétlʼk—bunchberry: Sounds like cake-uh-xetlk.

Harvesting kʼeikaxétlʼk is a beautiful way to bid goodbye to the berry season. In English, we call them bunchberries or dogwood berries. You commonly find bunchberries along roadsides, muskegs, and forest floor. They ripen in early fall through October. Bunchberries are food for migrating birds, for deer and other small forest critters.

Practice this phrase: Kʼeikaxétlʼk xa.een. I am picking bunchberries.

***

The language of berries

Ax kágu shaxwaják. My basket is full. Now that your bucket is full of new words, don’t forget to share. Share your berries and share your new Lingít language vocabulary. When you harvest the berries, first say thank you using the Lingít name. Picking berries together can be a part of the Lingít language revitalization. To save our language, we can come together and speak it with one other. You also perpetuate your language by coming together and speaking it with children in a natural environment. It’s still important for our languages to be in schools, but the most important places it needs to be is in our homes and community, even in the berry bushes.

If you think about the sounds unique to the Lingít language— not found in any other language in the world—you realize how amazing our Tlingit Aaní is because our language is linked to the land. When you’re picking berries, while listening for bushes snapping and paying attention to the blue jay’s rackety squawk, or hearing the small creek flowing over stones, you know this is true. Yee gu.aa yáx̲ xʼwán. Have strength and courage. Begin with the berries. Out in the berry bushes, you can relax your throat like you’re allowing cool water to flow from the creek, and practice cawing back to the ravens. Loosen up those muscles you’ll be using, then practice. Practice the sounds you’re learning in the Lingít language and the new words you’ll learn to say will be as sweet as berries.

Note: We are on a language learning journey. Ch’á aadéi yei haa na.oo. Please forgive us if we’ve made any errors in Lingít spelling and pronunciations. The “sounds like” section are only approximate sounds.

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.

Picking thimblerries in Wrangell Alaska. Jackson Pearson (grandson/nephew) and Vivian Faith Prescott. Vivian Mork Yeilk’ photographer. (Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

Picking thimblerries in Wrangell Alaska. Jackson Pearson (grandson/nephew) and Vivian Faith Prescott. Vivian Mork Yeilk’ photographer. (Courtesy Photo / Yeilk’ Vivian Mork)

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