JUNEAU, Alaska - A Juneau woman's efforts to perpetuate the Tlingit language have caught the eye of a queen.
Bessie Cooley traveled to the Yukon Territory on Jan. 25 to accept the Golden Jubilee Medal, an award being given to people who have made significant contributions to Canada over the past 50 years. Cooley is originally from Teslin, Yukon Territory, but moved to Juneau in December to accept a job at the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
The awards are part of the Golden Jubilee, a celebration of the 50-year anniversary of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's accession. Although many Americans associate the Queen with England, the queen also serves as Canada's Head of State under that country's system of constitutional monarchy.
Cooley was nominated for the award by Canadian Jim Smarch, a long time friend who was inspired by Cooley's efforts to revitalize the Tlingit language. Cooley is a fluent speaker of Tlingit and worked for five years as an interpreter for the Yukon territorial government. But Cooley wanted to do more. She wanted to help pass on the endangered language to others.
"I feel I have to help," said Cooley, who at age 52, left home to attend college and master the craft of writing Tlingit. Cooley earned an associate's degree in Native Language Education from Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1998 and a B.A. in Alaska Native Studies, Tlingit language minor, from UAF in 2000.
"What really intrigued me was her courage," Smarch said. "After raising her family, she went back to school. It had to be scary and very frightening to be gone away from home."
Sealaska Heritage Institute hired Cooley in December 2002 to help develop Tlingit immersion curriculum.
"Bessie is a key member of our Tlingit curriculum development team," said SHI President Rosita Worl. "She is one of the very few people who is a fluent speaker of Tlingit and has earned college degrees and certificates in the areas of Tlingit language and Alaska Native Studies."