Terri Burr hopped in her car, turning on the wipers to sweep the rain from her windshield. She began to drive and talk, barely looking down at the road she takes each morning to meet with her language mentor, John Reese, the 95-year-old, last fluent speaker of the native Alaskan language Shm’algyack in Ketchikan.
Burr stepped out of her car and into a creaking elevator in a fading teal apartment building. She pressed the button for the 11th floor where Reese lives alone in what he and his brother nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest, a nod to their family’s clan. The two have an agreement that before Burr enters the apartment, she calls out to Reese to let him know she has arrived.
“Nda wila waan,” said Burr. (How are you doing?)
“Aam. ‘Kam shta malshgn,” said Reese. (Good, come in and tell a joke.)
Burr, a heritage-language facilitator for the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC), has spent her mornings with Reese for the past eight years. She no longer hyperventilates on her way to these meetings–Reese has always been a strict teacher, and she long struggled with his high expectations–but she remembers her struggle during the first few years.
“The fear made me learn,” she said. “I had to prove myself every single day.”
Burr was determined to learn the native language, not only because of the burden she felt, but because of the panic she noticed in the elders.
“I could see the fierceness in his eyes,” Burr said of Reese. “He didn’t worry about how much time he had until he started working on the language. Then he developed a fear of how much time he had left.”
In September of 2008, when most of the fluent elders were in their 80s and 90s, KIC made it a top priority to save the community’s three languages: Shm’algyack, Xaad Kil, and ‘Lingit. They created a mentor-apprentice program, partnering fluent speakers with language learners. As of today, Ketchikan has one fluent speaker of Shm’algyack, Reese, two speakers of Xaad Kil, and one fluent speaker of ‘Lingit.
“If we don’t keep our language alive, then our culture dies,” said Joe Thomas, a fluent ‘Lingit speaker who lives in Saxman, a town next to Ketchikan. “Our culture, our language, the things that we do, the things that keep us going, die. We will be known statistically as a race that died, a culture that died. We’re already known as a culture that is dying.”
Read more: Pulitzer Center