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12/6/2017
UAS to graduate language student: Alaska student first in the United States to receive language credentials in Shm'algyack
Victoria Mckoy presents her capstone project in a Tsimshian storytelling event at the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Library on Thursday. Other storytellers included John Reese (Madeeg), center, and Terri Burr (Ahl'lidaaw) seated at right. Photos by Hall Anderson


By ALAINA BARTEL
Daily News Staff Writer

Victoria Mckoy will soon graduate from the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan with a bachelor of liberal arts in Alaska Native Languages in the Shm'algyack language — becoming the first person in Alaska and the United States to do so.

Mckoy, who will gradute in a week, gave her capstone project presentation on Thursday in the UAS Ketchikan Campus Library, accompanied by Terri Burr (Ahl'lidaaw) and John Reese (Madeeg) for a Tsimshian storytelling event. Burr teaches Tsimshian language for the university, and was Mckoy's mentor.

Reese is last fluent speaker of the Tsimshian language Shm'algyack in Ketchikan. Burr asked the 95-year-old to teach her the language, and now, she and Reese are making strides towards ensuring its future through mentoring language apprentices such as Mckoy.

“In Alaska, there are less than six Shm'algyack speakers,” said Mckoy, who has been working on learning the language for five years. “The Tsimshian language is in a peril state, there are only a handful of fluent speaking elders in Alaska.”

For her capstone project, Mckoy chose to tell a story given to her by Reese about the first time the Tsimshians met white people. She said she just had heart surgery last month — receiving a new heart valve and a pacemaker and was happy to be there to share the story.

Mckoy, who is Haida and Tsimshian, presented a slideshow of the story, using previously recorded audio files of her speaking Shm'algyack and then translating it to English, as well as speaking the language for the crowd intermittently when there was no audio file.

It was a sunny day in the Tsimshian village, the story began, and a good day for halibut fishing with their group of five canoes. The men were surrounded by a thick fog, and saw something that they thought might have been a spirit.

“The fisherman were sitting in the fog,” she said, first in Shm'algyack. “They heard a strange sound. … They thought the strange sound was coming from the spirit.”

They were not able to identify what it was they were hearing, and then the wind began to blow. The fisherman stayed to find out what was coming, and from every direction, the fog was surrounding them.

“The wind was blowing everywhere, all directions,” she continued. “Two of (the canoes) ran away. They all decided to leave to escape from the sea monster. After a while, there was a schooner ship. A part of the sail from the schooner ship came out of the fog.”

The sail from the schooner came out of the fog, and then “they” came out of the fog. That was the first time the Tsimshian halibut fishermen saw white men.

After Mckoy's presentation, Burr and Reese both told stories in Shm'algyack. Mckoy said she's been fortunate to have both of them by her side, and reminisced on a childhood memory with Burr. Mckoy has six brothers and sisters, and said her mother always brought them to Burr's class at Ketchikan Indian Community when they were young.

“It was my mother's dream,” said Mckoy, “that we all speak Shm'algyack to each other.”