10 Tlingit Words We Should All Be Using in Southeast Alaska

Everyone loves talking about “ikigai” now—or just sharing this picture.

Anywhere you go in the world, you’ll find concepts that don’t quite translate into English. German, famously, has many useful words that we can’t seem to express succinctly in English, like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude. Terms like hygge from Danish and ikigai from Japanese seem to be growing in the Anglophone consciousness too, just because they so simply and beautifully encapsulate important concepts in a single word.

For other words and phrases from foreign languages, it may be easier to find English equivalents, but there’s an emotional and cultural value that is lost in translation. You can feel the difference between a restaurant that offers hors d’œuvres or antipasti and one that offers “starters.” Imagine visiting Hawai’i and never hearing aloha or mahalo, or never being offered a lei—instead just hearing “hi,” “bye,” “thanks,” and getting a “flower necklace.” We can all sense that using words from other languages broadens our minds and enhances our experiences.

In my home of Southeast Alaska, there are three amazing indigenous languages—Lingít (Tlingit), X̱aad Kíl (Haida), and Shm’algyack (Tsimshian). Each of these languages offers a wealth of uniquely beautiful and useful words we could employ in our daily lives. Unfortunately, though, English utterly dominates our conversations, among locals and visitors alike. While there are many indigenous place names in the region that survive in anglicized forms—from Yakutat to Ketchikan—there are very few indigenous words for other things that exist in common parlance. The only things that come to my mind are the kushtaka (kooshdaaḵáa) and nagoonberry (neigóon).

It’s high time for that to change.

Using a few more indigenous words in our daily conversations is easy to do, and it should be fun and educational for everyone—not just for Native people, but everyone who lives in and visits Southeast Alaska.

In that spirit, I’d like to propose ten Tlingit words that we should all be using in Southeast Alaska: gunalchéesh, kootéeyaa, ḵu.éexʼ, sʼáxtʼ, daaḵ, éeḵ, yéil, ch’áak’, s’eek, and xóots.

Here’s what they all mean:

1. Gunalchéesh! (Thank you!): Just like mahalo in Hawai’i, it may not be “necessary” to tell people thank you in a different language, but it sure communicates in a hurry that you’re surrounded by a unique cultural heritage. If there’s one Tlingit word that every visitor to Southeast Alaska should start hearing right away, it’s gunalchéesh. I’d love to see it on signs around my city, and hear it used every day.

2. Kootéeyaa (totem pole): Some of the most impressive sights along the entire Northwest Coast of North America are the monumental carvings known as “totem poles” in English. The problem is, “totem pole” is a pretty misleading name, since “totem” carries all sorts of connotations other than the heraldic crest figures portrayed in Northwest Coast carvings. It makes the most sense to refer to these monuments using the languages of the people who create them. Among the Tlingit, that word is kootéeyaa, meaning “cylindrical chiseled one.”

Fog Woman kootéeyaa at Totem Bight State Historical Park in Kichx̱áan (Ketchikan)

3. Ḵu.éexʼ (potlatch): Another often-discussed but often-misunderstood concept unique to the Northwest Coast is the “potlatch,” a word used for a number of ceremonies and celebrations hosted by a clan where other clans are invited. Over the years, the term “potlatch” has skewed common understandings of traditional practices, so much so that I know people who refuse to say the word, and insist on using words like “celebration” in English instead. Again, the most accurate course of action when discussing and learning about these traditions would be to use indigenous languages. The Tlingit word ḵu.éexʼ literally means “inviting people,” so it clearly communicates the central focus of these events.

a big, beautiful stand of sʼáxtʼ

4. Sʼáxtʼ (devil’s club): Sʼáxtʼ is a spiny plant found everywhere in the Southeast Alaska rainforest, related to American ginseng. The plant has many sacred and medicinal uses among indigenous people, so it’s particularly unfortunate that it would be called “devil’s club” in English. It may be prickly on the branches and under the leaves, but you can pat sʼáxtʼ on top of its leaves all you want, and I’ve been pricked just as badly by salmonberry bushes. No one thought to call salmonberries devilberries, even though they hurt sometimes! Using the Tlingit word sʼáxtʼ would mean we could talk about this unique plant much more respectfully.

5 and 6. Daaḵ (inland, into the forest, up toward the mountains) and Éeḵ (shoreward, down toward the ocean): If you’ve ever been to Southeast Alaska, you’ll know that everything about our geography is defined by the ocean and the mountains that meet it. In English, we depend on either egocentric directions relative to ourselves, (right or left, in front of or behind ), or we use cardinal directions. In many circumstances, though, it would make it a lot easier on us island folk to use geographical directions—such as the Tlingit words daaḵ (inland toward the mountains) and éeḵ (down toward the ocean).

diagram of Tlingit prepositions created by X̱’unéi (Professor Lance Twitchell), including daaḵ and éeḵ

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawai’ian language) features the exact same concepts—mauka (daaḵ) and makai (éeḵ). If you spend enough time in Hawai’i you’ll find locals using these words with ease, greatly simplifying navigation around an island. There’s no reason those of us in the Alexander Archipelago can’t do the same!

7 and 8. Yéil (raven) and Ch’áak’ (eagle): Perhaps the two most iconic animal symbols of Southeast Alaska are the raven (Corvus corax) and the eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Not only are these intelligent and majestic birds year-round residents across the region, but they are also the two most common symbols of the moieties—or hereditary halves—of Tlingit and Haida society. It’s easy—and, genuinely, respectful—to greet these birds with the names they’ve had in this place for 10,000 years.

Yéil talking at Eagle Beach (named after ch’áak’) in Dzantik’i Héeni (Juneau)

9 and 10. S’eek (black bear) and Xóots (brown bear): If you’ve spent any time learning about bears, you’ll have realized very quickly how dissimilar Ursus americanus (the American black bear) and Ursus arctos (the brown or grizzly bear) are from each other. Perhaps most strikingly, the vast majority of people killed in bear attacks are killed by brown bears, even though North America’s black bear population is many times larger and much more widespread. It’s no wonder, then, that each of these extremely distinct species would have its own completely unique name in Tlingit—s’eek for black bears and xóots for brown bears. Using these names in Southeast Alaska would help to emphasize those important differences.

Now it’s time to start practicing!

At this point, you may be wondering whether you can actually pronounce any of these words. At first they can look pretty intimidating, and the Tlingit language does admittedly contain a large number of sounds not found in English. However, the great thing about Tlingit is that the writing system is phonetic, so you always know what sound each letter is going to make.

This web app has been invaluable for me to visualize and practice the alphabet. You can click on each letter to hear its sound and then click on the example words to hear the sounds in context. (It doesn’t work in the Chrome browser for me anymore, though, so you may need to use Firefox.)

I also created an audio recording with my best dleit ḵáa (white man) pronunciation for all ten of these words. Give it a listen, and if I can say all these Tlingit words, you can too. Let’s use them together!

Teacher who writes about history, language, travel, politics, and education. Kichx̱áanx’ yéi x̱at yatee. (I live in Ketchikan, Alaska.) Twitter: @peterstanton