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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Kingeisti David G. Katzeek, Tlingit, died suddenly last week, leaving a gaping hole in the ceremonial, educational and community life of his people. He was 77.

He was passionate about increasing his understanding of the Tlingit language and culture and teaching it to others, building on what he’d learned as a child from his parents and grandparents in the village of Klukwan, in Southeast Alaska.

Katzeek said Tlingit oratory is as subtle, profound and meaningful as the greatest English language literature, and brought ancient stories to life with his voice and body language.

Ishmael Anguluuk Hope, Tlingit and Inupiaq, is a poet, author and scholar of Tlingit language and culture. He has recorded, transcribed and translated stories by Katzeek.

“That gave me a really good insight into the quality of his storytelling,” Hope said. “He had renewed his contact with the language by listening to thousands of hours in the archives and writing pages of descriptions, then writing about it for [grants]. That, combined with his extremely extensive training in traditional culture, helped him become one of the master storytellers of our times.”

One of Katzeek’s closest friends was Khinkaduneek Paul Marks, Tlingit. For almost 40 years, they taught classes, gave presentations and attended countless koo’.eex’ (potlatches), totem pole raisings, naming and clan adoption ceremonies, and memorials. He said they often discussed what needed to be said at such gatherings.

“He was more or less like my mentor,” Marks added. “I respected him as a man. I respected him as a clan leader and I respected him as a fellow human being. I respected him as an elder.”

Tlingit elder David Katzeek, shown here, in a Chilkat robe speaking at 2016 Celebration, was passionate about preserving the Tlingit language and traditions. Originally from Klukwan, he was recognized as a master storyteller and tradition bearer. He died Oct. 28, 2020 at the age of 77. (Photo by Mark Kelly, courtesy of Sealaska)

Sometimes, one would speak and the other would translate. Marks said Katzeek was an exceptional translator because of his command of Tlingit and English.

Marks said in the past, Tlingit speakers might not have the “high words” in English to properly translate Tlingit and people who learned Tlingit as adults sometimes “verbatimized” it. Translating word by word often missed the full meaning.

Katzeek’s clan nephew, Ricardo Worl, Tlingit and Athabascan, is marketing and development director for Sealaska Heritage Institute (formerly Foundation). He said Katzeek taught him about his culture at an early age. “He wanted me to be engaged. He made me feel special. He gave me a special responsibility for the clan,” Worl said.

He said Katzeek was “absolutely committed to our children and our grandchildren, and, holding them up, making them feel special, saying in public, you know, 'I love you,' 'you're precious,’ helping them feel pride in who they are, instilling in them the importance of learning their language and learning their culture.”

Worl said when Katzeek served as the founding president of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s, “he had this vision of what needed to be accomplished for the renaissance of Tlingit culture.”

“In the seventies and the eighties, Tlingit people, Native people … weren’t recognized. We didn't always feel welcomed. The exposure and the curriculum in the schools was very basic. It was kind of limited to art, but look at where we are now,” Worl said.

The foundation’s board in the early years said traditions being carried on by individual families in their separate communities needed to be shared more widely, in public gatherings.

In 1982 Katzeek and others held the first Celebration, a gathering of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimpshian people. They make regalia and practice songs and dance in their home communities then come together every two years at Celebration.

Tlingit elder David Katzeek, dancing at Celebration, 2016, was passionate about preserving the Tlingit language and traditions. He died Oct. 28, 2020 at the age of 77. (Photo by Mark Kelly, courtesy of Sealaska)
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It started small. Now, about 2,000 people participate, many of them having traveled from across the United States and Canada. Celebration includes a parade through downtown Juneau, four days of dance performances, ceremonies, and workshops on language, arts, and crafts.

The Tlingit language is taught in colleges and elementary schools. Sealaska Heritage Institute, housed in a multi million dollar building in Juneau, is expanding to become a cultural center.

“The resources that the schools and the children have and how many kids are speaking our language.... Our heritage right downtown, our artwork in public places,” Worl said. “All of these things that we enjoy and these resources and the pride that we have as Native people, that wasn't there when David started his mission with the Sealaska Heritage Foundation back in the eighties.”

Ch’aa Yaa Eesh Richard Peterson, Tlingit, is president of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council. He said Katzeek was philosophical, worldly, and had a poet’s heart.

“David was an amazing person. He embodied our cultural values...he was very thoughtful, very introspective, always holding, lifting others up,” Peterson said.

He said, “I think we collectively pretty much feel profound loss.”

Sealaska Heritage Foundation issued an obituary that said Kingeisti was born on Nov. 12, 1942, and was Tlingit, Eagle, from the Shangukeidí clan, Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun), and the Shis’g̱i Hít (Tree Bark House) in Chilkat Ḵwáan Klukwan, after his mother, the late Anna Klanott Katzeek. He was a child of the G̱aanax̱teidí after his father, George J. Katzeek, who was a Raven of the Raven-Otter-Whale-Frog House in Klukwan.

Because of his already extensive knowledge, Katzeek was named Shangukeidí clan leader as a young man. He worked as a fisherman and in Native ministries. He studied business administration and finance at Griswald Business College and worked in the field from 1969-1982. He served on the Sealaska board of directors from 1979-1981, and in 1982, became founding president of the nonprofit foundation (now Institute).

Katzeek taught through an early literacy program, at the Juneau School District and at the University of Alaska Southeast. He was recognized by the school district and the Alaska Legislature in 2019 for his work with the school district’s Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy program. For the past decade, he served on the institute’s council of traditional scholars. He worked as a consultant to many Native organizations.

He also played a key role in repatriating at.óowu (sacred objects) from museums. Through translations, contributions to books, written notes and recordings, his work remains accessible for future generations.

He is survived by his brothers, Dennis Katzeek (Janice Katzeek), Daniel Katzeek; his children,

Sheryl Contreras, John Sr., Brian, David Jr. (Henryietta Soboleff), Shaan, Aaron (Jennifer),

Margaret (Cer Scott), Israel Katzeek and Luke Greenough-Katzeek; and many grandchildren, great grand-children, and nieces and nephews.

Kingeisti, David G. Katzeek Walked into the Forest in Juneau on October 28, 2020.

A virtual memorial service will be streamed live Thursday at 3 p.m. AST. Click here for details.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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