Skip to content

We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care

The proverbial sadness of the Tropics has been depicted in detail by much better people than me: yet I must echo the lament.

In fact, I’ve got a bizarre fondness, recently, for the Tlingit, a population of natives of southern Alaska. They’re not Eskimo and they’re not classical American Indians either: something in between and neither.

Tlingit area

Here is a few quick random trivia of interest, mostly courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • They live on the coast at the extreme south of Alaska, crossing sometimes the border with Canada.
  • They have a matrilinear society, where the fathers do not really raise children -they have a loving but sort of detached relationship- but the maternal uncle does educate them, somewhat rigidly.
  • They have a dual concept of “soul”: one that is mortal, and that corresponds somehow to mind, thought, feelings; and an immortal one that is sort of a “fingerprint”, a pattern remembered.
  • They mostly eat salmon, shellfish and berries (something awesome in itself if Swedish cuisine teaches us something – even if the idea of gutting salmons in the cold doesn’t perhaps align with my expectations in life).
  • Their clans belong to two “sides”, the Raven and the non-Raven, which is usually identified with Eagle or Wolf. Traditionally, regardless of clan, one should marry with someone of the other “side”.
  • They practice potlatch, like many other neighbouring populations.
  • They have a kind of concept of “super-copyright”, in which not only an artistic design, but the very idea behind a design, is property of the author or the clan; stories and songs also belong to authors and, at author’s death, to clans. To dance another clan’s song, you have to ask permission.
  • They were involved in slavery. Like, they owned slaves -there goes the “noble savage” myth. So much that in fact, when slavery in USA was abolished, they were quite much annoyed, to the point of carving a “totem of shame” to Abraham Lincoln.
Tlingit carving

But what I really appreciated first was their language, songs, and dances. The Tlingit language is quite unique (even if not an isolate: it belongs in fact to a large family of northamerican languages, the Na-Dené ), it has a bewildering number of consonant sounds and an intricate, complex grammar (see the article that just describes the behaviour of the noun in Tlingit). But this means nothing until you hear Tlingit, and Tlingit sounds damn alien, almost non-human, kind of a vaguely gentler Klingon: hear the Tlingit numbers and see what I mean.

And yet, such a harsh language can became hypnotic, of a musicality obscure and remote yet that taps deep inside, when sung: Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan, which repeats the poetic sentence “We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care.” , or the oniric lullaby Ch’ al Uxaa Shaatk’i , for example, are eminently musical and elegant.

Tlingit awesome black-and-red dress.

What really hooked me however are Tlingit dances. Incredibly elegant red-and-black capes, stylized, strong, dynamic movements, all under obsessive and dark beats: they look like between Indian dances, Maori dances and the Residents. : see here for a pretty impressive example.

A real problem is that Tlingit language is dying. It has about 200 native speakers, there are efforts to put it back on track but it is obvious that it is a very much uphill battle. The language of the neigbouring tribe, Eyak, died in 2008 with its last native speaker.

I was reading, few weeks ago, this book on the death of languages, where probably I first heard of Tlingit. The subject is as heartbreaking as it may be: to put it simply and coldly, there are roughly 6000 distinct languages in the world, and 90% of those languages are going to be extinct in the next 100 years.

There is, even among learned people, quite a misunderstanding, that indicates less languages as a blessing. After all, why using so many codes to communicate? Aren’t too many languages just barriers. But death of a language is not only the death of a code. Death of a language is just like the death of a culture, is the death of what is a collective monument of a people’s thoughts. Language is the honey produced by the human’s hivemind.

Imagine if tomorrow, for example, a new language (say, Chinese) is going to take the place of English (or Italian, or whatever you speak), until making it extinct completely. Don’t imagine just the sudden disappearance, imagine the process. Imagine you, being raised as usual in your English-speaking family, and then seeing the world changing around you, year after year. Your children speaking less and less English, and more and more in the new language -after all, that’s the new language that gets to be spoken outside. The TV will not speak your language. Books being published almost all in the new language. Shop signs, slowly become alien. You lived in a vibrant English-speaking city; now you’re one of a smaller and smaller of a lost language, which survives in the odd geographical name. You get older, you have grandchildren, and guess what: they almost don’t speak your old language -your sons and daughters just passed a few sentences, a few words but: what was the point of raising them in that old language? They grow up and you get older, and all songs, puns, the very sounds of your language, its unique subtleties, its flavour: all of these just fade as material for linguists and historicians. One day you wake up and you discover you are alone. There is nobody else who fluently speaks your language anymore -nobody else who thinks in it. You die, and millennia die with you.

Borges said, in “The Witness”, a novel contained in The Aleph:

“In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.”

It doesn’t happen only to small populations of remote tribes. Substitute English with Norn, and you get the picture of what happened not too much time ago in the Orkney and Shetland, where Norn was spoken until the 18th century, to be substituted by Scottish dialects. Manx language has gone through the same, with the last native speaker dying in 1974: it’s only saved by a small but vibrant community of second-language speakers. The last Dalmatian speaker, a language that linked Italian to Romanian, died in 1898. The last speaker of Shuadit, a peculiar variety of langue d’oc spoken by southern France Jewish communities, documented since 11th century, died in 1977. One day our language will die as well, the form of our minds being finally immobile, like the shell no more inhabited by an extinct creature.


  1. Ólavur Mortensen Ólavur Mortensen

    I’m a member of a community who’s language is slowly but surely fading. In the bigger picture, I don’t see this as a bad thing, because the diversity of culture is what’s causing a lot of the troubles we face. Although, personally I find it a bit tragic to consider that in 200 or even 100 years all our culture might be gone.

    I found this article very interesting. I set myself a goal for the summer to learn of lesser-known cultures, and this brought me closer. =)

    If you’re interested, I’m faroese. =)

  2. The diversity of culture creates problems, but it is what makes humankind interesting as a whole. A world of clones is peaceful, but boring. Please, please, please understand it is a bad thing that your language is dying, and do whatever you can to let it survive.

  3. Thanks for this great post. I appreciate anyone taking an interest in Tlingit culture and history, as I do, and I especially appreciate the audio files you provided.

    If you ever get the chance to visit Southeast Alaska, come to Ketchikan and Saxman to see the totem poles, and try to see as much of the region as you can. There are great things going on right now as part of the revival of Tlingit culture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *