Native Village 
Youth and Education News

December 1, 2013

Tlingit ventriloquism, a way to keep the language alive
Condensed by Native Village


Alaska: Like many indigenous languages, Tlingit is in survival mode. Revitalizing the language was the focus of last month's Tlingit Tribes and Clans Conference held in Juneau.

One Juneau resident has a solution for keeping the language alive. During a conference session, realtor and assemblyman Carlton Smith shared a lesson how to use puppets to teach children the Tlingit Language. 

And he did it with the help of a special guest.

Charlie introduces himself in Tlingit to the room. As is traditional, he recognizes his mother’s relatives, his fathers’ relatives, then his grandparents, and finally, he recognizes everyone else.

Charlie’s Tlingit name is Shanak’w Uwaa. He identifies his moiety (Eagle), his clan (Keet Gooshi Hit’), and where he’s from (Klukwan, or Jil’ kat kwaan).

Charlie is wearing grey Carhartt overalls, long underwear, a green and white flannel shirt, and tan work boots. He has a full head of grey hair, dark bushy eyebrows and mustache, and black-rimmed glasses.

He’s roughly three and a half feet tall and can only talk when he’s sitting on Carlton Smith’s lap.

Smith got into ventriloquism fifty years ago, when he was 10-years-old and bedridden with hepatitis for four months. That's when his father bought him his first puppet from a Sears-Roebuck catalog – a red-headed figure wearing a green suit named Jerry.

“There were children walking below my bedroom window and Jerry and I were talking to them as they would walk home from school,” Smith tells the audience. “The first day or two, there were five or six children, the second day there were eight or nine. By the end of the week, there were 20 children that came to see this little green man that wanted to talk to them from a second story window.”

Like many childhood toys, Jerry was eventually forgotten until three years ago when Smith rediscovered Jerry in a trunk.

Then, another discovery on a flight to Anchorage.

“I was looking out the window and I realized I could count to ten without moving my lips in Tlingit. And then I was going right down the list of clans and place names and I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of cool.’”

Smith went to the late Tlingit elder and religious leader Dr. Walter Soboleff for advice. Soboleff liked the idea but advised Smith to create a new figure – a Native one.

Listen to the entire story


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