• SFU News
  • News
  • Lifelong Indigenous language advocate dedicates degree to Tlingit heritage


Lifelong Indigenous language advocate dedicates degree to Tlingit heritage

October 06, 2023
(left to right): Marianne Ignace, Dzéiwsh James Crippen, Kèyishí Bessie Cooley, and Heather Bliss celebrating Cooley's successful MA project presentation.

As 79-year-old Kèyishí Bessie Cooley presented her master's degree thesis project at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse—interweaving English and Tlingit as she spoke—it marked another milestone in what is already an extraordinarily accomplished life.

Kèyishí Bessie Cooley holding her degree at SFU's fall convocation ceremony

For Cooley, completing this project was more than just about obtaining her master's (MA) degree in Indigenous Languages and Linguistics from Simon Fraser University, it is also a tribute to her family and a testament to her life story around the language which she has fought hard to preserve. The project titled "Life in a Tlingit Society" describes Cooley's family background, her upbringing, the language, and way of life in the Inland Tlingit community of Teslin, Yukon.

A member of the Kùkhhittan clan and Raven moiety of the Inland Tlingit Nation, Cooley is the living embodiment of the tenacity and resiliency of her people. As one of the few fluent first language Tlingit speakers in the world, she has been a driving force for language revitalization in her community for the last four decades.

Born in 1944 to a family of nine siblings, Cooley grew up with Tlingit as her first language. For as long as she could remember, her family and the people in the village spoke only in Tlingit. At age seven, she was forced into the residential school system and despite efforts to cut her from her Indigenous roots, she held on strongly to her mother tongue. 

The experience had a huge impact on Cooley and in turn informed her decision to dedicate her life to documenting and teaching Tlingit. Cooley often speaks of the cultural importance of language, and she hopes to help others regain that core part of their Tlingit identity. 

"It was only Tlingit that I heard when I was small and from all my family and it was then that in Teslin, our home, that it was only Tlingit that was heard there too but now it is not like that," Cooley writes in her project. "Hopefully it’s like that again some time when we are gone from here."

Described as a powerhouse and a revered figure in her community, Cooley has been incredibly resilient in her mission to revitalize the Tlingit language and culture. Since the 1970s, she gathered information from Tlingit elders in communities throughout the southern Yukon, and together with her husband, she created a genealogy chart for the Inland Tlingit that spanned as far back as 100 years ago.

In addition to teaching the language nest immersion program for young children, Cooley also worked with linguists to document and develop Tlingit curriculum so that future generations could learn the language. Over the years, she has taken many young Tlingits under her wing, inspiring them to pursue deeper learning of their language and become language teachers themselves. 

"Knowing the language is knowing that it is the very foundation of hâ khustîyi, our heritage. The language and culture are linked together very strongly and are dependent on each other," Cooley explains. "Language is communicating and it embodies our culture and the world we live in. The understanding of this means that we are aware of our identity, where we come from and where we are going."

So far, Cooley's efforts are paying off and she is witnessing a resurgence in the Tlingit language. Now taught in school classrooms for short periods daily, Tlingit is also used in community gatherings, church service, and general council meetings. Thanks to Cooley's translation work, Christmas carols, church prayers, and even crossword puzzles in Teslin are available in Tlingit. 

In 2020, Cooley was inducted into the Order of Yukon in honour of her life work in preserving, revitalizing, and teaching Tlingit culture and ways of knowing. 

“It has been a beautiful honour to support Kèyishí throughout her Master’s journey," says the Department of Linguistics graduate studies chair Heather Bliss. "She is an inspiring language champion whose commitment to Tlingit language documentation and revitalization has created a lasting legacy for future generations."

In the last chapter of her thesis project, Cooley closes off with a hopeful message to young Tlingit speakers, "The ones that are coming. I say to them, I offer them my encouragement and support to work on our language with all of their strength, that way our language will still be there among you and the ones coming behind them will have it too."