“When I was born 150 people in our town spoke our native language fluently”, said Tsimshian Artist and Carver, David Robert Boxley. “Now there are only 3.”
David is a language warrior. He would say he is a reluctant language warrior. His first love, like that of his famous father David Boxley, is his art. David never set out to be a language teacher but there was a need and he had the skills… almost.
David like so many of the Tsimshian people his age only partially grew up around elders speaking their native language, Sm’algya̱x. This generation’s parents did not speak much of the language as missionaries and the US Government through boarding schools forced Native people not to speak their language. David’s grandparent’s generation spoke fluently but mostly in private until more recent times. This left a huge gap in the passing down of the language and the natural creation of fluent speakers.
When David returned from Seattle to his home community in Metlakatla, Alaska he was dismayed to find only 6 fluent speakers left. Those 6 became 3 in the handful of years he has been home.
“The young people can’t learn without teachers”, says David. “But teachers need to be fluent. I am close but I’m not quite there yet. And I’m not a trained teacher. I’d rather just go to the shed and carve but we need to teach the next generation.”
With some support from Sealaska Heritage Institute, David has been immersing himself in the language for about 15 hours a week, even visiting his teacher (one of the 3 remaining fluent speakers) in the hospital. David is desperate to learn and he is getting closer but with each day that passes he knows the opportunity to learn from a fluent speaker is coming closer to the end.
“We need help!”, David says with frustration. “We need poeple with real resources to realize that this may be our last chance and put those result creating new speakers. Now is the time! We must make dedicated time with our elders to learn so that we can be equipped to carry our language forward for the next generation. Our language is our culture… without it… we are not Tsimshian. The wisdom of our ancestors is in the language. We cannot lose it like so many other Native Languages have been lost. “
We have watched David carve. He is a master. He makes some incredibly beautiful work. Work that is sought after by art collectors in Seattle and around the world. We’ve also watch David teach. He is a very good teacher. Children love to sit with him and learn. They can be shaped into fluent speakers if he and his fellow language warriors are given all the support they need. And if they’re successful, this language, on the brink of extinction, could be passed on to the generations to come.
To learn more visit David’s non-profit: https://www.haaykfoundation.org/
Also, stay tuned for a short movie about David and other language warriors produced by Soulcraft Allstars in partnership with Why For Good on behalf of Sealaska!
Photos by Brandon Sawaya | Soulcraft Allstars
Written by Aaron Straight | Soulcraft Allstars.
Soulcraft Allstars is a Bellingham / Seattle based filmmaking and storytelling agency. If you are interested in learning more. Say hello: [email protected]