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"Our tears never left this ground”: An appreciation of Tlingit ritual oratory

Thomas F. Thornton, Ishmael Hope


This paper offers an appreciative enquiry into contemporary oratory and orators among the Tlingit of Alaska through analysis of two speeches made by elder Clarence Jackson at memorial rituals. The first is a condolence speech delivered at a funerary memorial held for a prominent Tlingit leader of the (opposite) Raven moiety in May 2011. The second oration was delivered in response to condolence speeches made for the removal of grief at the memorial party (a.k.a. potlatch) for one of Clarence Jackson’s Eagle moiety uncles in September 2012. Together the speeches comprise two important genres and reciprocating functions of Tlingit oratory: khaa toowú awlit’áa yoo xh’atánk (words of comfort) to console opposite clans in mourning and words to thank opposite clans for their condolences. Despite the decline of aboriginal languages on the Northwest Coast, these oratorical traditions remain vital among the Tlingit and other groups as a source of comfort, solidarity, inspiration, and transformation in memorial rituals and other settings. When deftly executed, oratory and wise words can heal and unite people, restoring balance, strength and integrity, and ensuring that ancestral lines continue to enliven and support a rich ground of being to sustain future generations.

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Print ISSN 1177-1801 Online ISSN 1174-1740