Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tlingit Saanyá Khwáan elders Bessie and Henry Denny speak on Tlingit history, 1966.

Sealaska Heritage Institute has just posted a recording of Tlingit elder Bessie Denny (1870–1973) telling stories in the Tlingit language with her son Henry Denny Jr. (1902-1979, Tlingit names Asdax̱aay, Gitx̱wán, and G̱ashéiḵsh IV) translating into English, recorded at Saxman, Alaska, February, 1966. (click here to hear the recording) This was a recording prepared for public use by and at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp Convention in 1966. Bessie tells the history of the Saanyá Kwáan, the people of Cape Fox, which comprises the Neix.ádi, Kiks.ádi and the Teikweidí clans. She tells of the migration routes, place names and acquisition of crests. The stories are significant for the storytelling and capable translation of two master storytellers of the Cape Fox area in Bessie and Henry Denny; for an example the deep history of traditional Tlingit people’s connection to a place, where there is history and life in everything; and for an early recording of a master storyteller and historian in Bessie Denny.

The most well-documented Tlingit speakers were born from the 1890s and after. The texts transcribed and translated by the ethnographer John Swanton in Tlingit Myths and Texts (1909) represent part of the small handful of documentation from Tlingit speakers born earlier than the 1890s, and the oldest speaker from the modern era includes texts from Sally Hopkins (Sx̱aastí) documented in Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America (2008, Dauenhauer), who was born in 1878. 

The recording presented here represents an earlier dialect than much of the extant documentation of Tlingit Elders. It is a rare recording from the older generation of Tlingit speakers, told in masterful detail and with brilliant visual acuity by Bessie Denny, and expertly translated by her son Henry. This recording was also selected especially for use by Tlingit language learners and teachers.

This recording was donated to SHI by Bessie Denny’s great grandson, Bruce Kelley.

This recording was made available online from a grant project supported by the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS).

Photo credit: Images of Henry and Bessie Denny. Courtesy donor Bruce Kelley, now in SHI’s archival photograph collection.

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