Daasdiyáa Ethel Makinen (center) with her students (l. to r.) Lakrisha Brady, Lillian Young, and Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield in Juneau in 2020, as part of Sealaska Heritage’s Haa Shuká language revitalization project. (Sealaska photo)

A prominent culture bearer in Southeast Alaska has passed. Ethel Makinen died in Sitka in February at the age of 90. She co-founded the Sitka Native Education Program and was one of only 20 remaining “master-level” speakers of the Lingít language.

Note: Read an extensive biography of Ethel Makinen from the Sealaska Heritage Institute in The Daily Sitka Sentinel. The Alaska Native Sisterhood will hold a memorial and cultural service at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at the Sheetkʼá Ḵwáan Naa Kahídi. A funeral will be held at St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral at 11 a.m. Friday, March 4, followed by a burial service at Sitka National Cemetery. A reception at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall is scheduled afterward; guests are welcome to bring a salad or dessert to share. 

It is hard to overstate the significance of the loss of Daasdiyáa Ethel Makinen. She was a lifetime Sitkan and elder of the Raven-Coho clan, and one of only 20 remaining fluent speakers of the Lingít language.

Daasdiyáa survived two husbands, and raised her six children as a single mom with exceptional grace and humor. Her commitment to culture and language preservation was extraordinary. According to an obituary prepared by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Daasdiyáa was instrumental to the development of the Sitka Native Education Program and the  Gájaa Héen Dancers, and worked with both programs so long that “she retired a few times.”

She was nothing if not realistic. Daasdiyáa understood the barriers to mastering Lingít, but she also knew that its study carried great cultural benefits.

She made the point to the Sitka Tribal Council in 2014.

“I feel that our language, our way of life – everything’s important,” she told Council members. “And we need the young people to know our culture. Maybe they’ll never catch on to be fluent speakers, but they’ll know about the culture.”

Neither was Daasdiyáa content to stand by while the language came under threat. Two years earlier, in 2012, a New Zealand scholar published what purported to be a definitive “word encyclopedia” of Lingít. The volume was inaccurate on so many levels that it bordered on nonsense. The author later traveled to Sitka, where she was politely-but-thoroughly discredited by Daasdiyáa and the other language teachers in the SNEP program.

Daasdiyáa Ethel Makinen was born in Sitka on September 20, 1931, the fifth child of culture bearers Annie and Charlie Joseph, Sr. She died on February 19, 2022, in her daughter Lillian Young’s home in Sitka. She was 90 years old.