Keeping the Tlingit language alive

When you're teaching the second-most difficult language in the world, you need patience, says Emma Sam. And she should know.

When you’re teaching the second-most difficult language in the world, you need patience, says Emma Sam.

And she should know.

For more than 30 years, Sam has been teaching the Tlingit tongue, which, with only a few hundred speakers left in the world, is teetering dangerously close to extinction.

And most linguists believe only the tongue-clicking Xhosa language of South Africa’s Eastern Cape is harder to learn.

“It’s a very, very difficult language to speak,” said Sam. “It depends on your own determination and love of language to learn it.”

In September, Sam will receive a prestigious literacy award from the Council of the Federation for her dedication to keeping the Tlingit language alive.

“Years ago, everybody was talking about native languages becoming extinct,” said Sam.

“Because I was fluent, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to just talk about it, I want to do something about it.’”

With the interest she has received from students in her class she says she is no longer as afraid of losing her language as she was when she began teaching.

Young people have taken a surprising interest in learning Tlingit, she said.

And it’s not just First Nations people who come to her language classes, it’s non-aboriginals as well.

Similar to people who pour over crossword puzzles for hours, the students who attend Sam’s class do so because it’s a challenge for them to learn, she said.

Sam was born in Teslin where she grew up listening to both English and Tlingit.

Effortlessly learning both languages as a child meant that she never separated the two; “they were one and the same,” she said.

When she was nine years old, she was sent to a mission school.

It was there she made a promise she would not forget her language as she learned to read and write in English.

Residential schools is something she’d rather not dwell on; she makes a point of celebrating her culture instead.

Sitting in an armchair in her McIntyre home, Sam is surrounded by walls crammed with the photographs of four generations of her family.

Bright green frogs leap off almost every surface in her living room; there are frog figurines on the coffee table, blankets with frog patterns draped over the couch and stuffed green frogs perched on the tops of armchairs.

The frog is a symbol of Sam’s Tlingit clan, Ishkhitaan, but it is a tale that she is hesitant to reveal too much about.

“That stays within the clan; I can’t give that information to just anyone,” she said.

Looking at a photo of her children she says her biggest regret is that she never taught her 10 children Tlingit when they were young.

Only one of her children eventually picked up the language; Sam now works with her daughter transcribing oral history from audio tapes to written Tlingit and English.

In the fall Sam will continue teaching classes through the Council of Yukon First Nations.

She hasn’t slowed down.

She began teaching the language during women’s sewing classes at Kishwoot Hall 30 years ago.

She lived in the Old Village and taught classes there. She is glad her community has moved.

“I wouldn’t even raise my dog now in the Old Village,” she said.

Through her dedicated work, Sam became one of the first early language teachers in Whitehorse schools. Later, she worked for 13 years with the Aboriginal Language Services of the government of Yukon as a translator and interpreter.

She has also produced three books.

One of them, the Interior Tlingit Noun Dictionary, took 10 years of work to compile.

It was an exhausting anthology to complete and still has words missing in it, said Sam.

“Whereas English is very general and vague, our language is very, very specific,” she said.

It is a reason that the Tlingit language puts such a heavy focus on being precise and watching your tongue, which can be “used like a club or like a feather,” she warned.

Even after so many years of teaching, Sam is still patient and kind, said president of the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle, Adeline Webber, who nominated Sam for the literacy award.

“One reason we thought of Emma (for the award) is because she’s been working quietly for 30 years and we thought she needed to be recognized.”

As for Sam, she’s happy she’ll be receiving the award and that her work is being recognized.

“What keeps me going is that one of the elders came to me one day and said, ‘I’m so proud of you because you can still speak your language,’” she said.

“When you do this kind of work, you don’t realize that people watch you and it makes you feel good when people say they’re proud of you.”

Emma Sam will receive her award from Premier Dennis Fentie on September 8, International Literacy Day.

Yukoners who have previously won this award, which is handed out to 13 other people across Canada each year, include George Green, Rock Brisson, Patty Wiseman and Gordon Hardie.

Contact Vivian Belik at

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