Road Trippin': Postcard from Metlakatla and the story of a dying language

Published: May. 21, 2018 at 3:50 PM AKDT
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The float plane ride from Ketchikan to Metlakatla was scheduled for 7:30 but delayed until almost 11:00 because of low-hanging fog that had stubbornly settled in. Passengers waiting for the Taquana flight passed the time checking their iPhones and watching the Weather Channel. About every 30 minutes someone would declare that it was going to clear out in 20 minutes.

Weather is always a factor here in Southeast. On average, 141 inches of rain fall every year. Locals joke that if you don't like the rain, you don't like Ketchikan.

Once the fog cleared, a handful of people loaded into the float plane for the 12-minute ride to Metlakatla, passing over fishing vessels, small islands and cruise ships the size of small cities.

Metlakatla's roots in Alaska started in 1887, when lay Anglican missionary William Duncan led 826 Tsimshian on a 70-mile journey from British Columbia to an abandoned Tlingit village on Annette Island with the approval of President Cleveland.

"This is what our ancestors made for us, it's our beautiful little part of the world," Davey Boxley, an artist and historian, said, "Metlakatla has a unique and very interesting history. I'm very proud to be from here, and our community is different than just about everywhere else. We're a federal reserve, we didn't choose to be a part of the (Native) Land Claims Settlement Act and this island is as part of us, as we are with each other. It has defined us as a people."

But the number of people who speak the language here is dwindling. Boxley says the only people who are fluent are older than 70.

"Sm’algyax is a dying langue," Kandi McGilton, an artist here, says, "we only have five fluent speakers left in our village right now,"

Boxley and McGilton started a group called Haayk Foundation. As they both learn the language, they then will teach it to others. McGilton and fluent Sm'algya̱x speaker Sarah Booth created a bilingual weaving guide in English and Sm'algya̱x to accompany a set of 15 instructional DVDs.

Boxley and McGilton have an easy friendship. Both are visual people, are proud of their heritage and the small island they both love passionately. Totem poles, chiseled by Boxley, as well as his father, uncle and grandfather, dot the scenery here in Metlakatla. They are as prolific as the eagles and flowers. The newer ones still have brightly colored red and blue paint. The older totem poles show the signs of weathering in this seaside community.

"I would say it's the most beautiful place on earth," McGilton said, "you can't -- you can't go anywhere on this island and not be in awe of its beauty."