Mique’l Dangeli had two choices: Should she continue with the hard-won, tenure-track university professorship she had only just begun, or pick up stakes and relocate to a small rural school in the name of preserving her people’s language? Each option was strong. No matter which one she chose, she knew she’d pine at least a little for the other.
Dangeli could remain in a tenure-track position with the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau, adding to her accomplishment as the first Alaska Native earning a doctorate in Northwest Coast art studies. Or she could accept a position at ’Na Aksa Gyilaky’oo School in rural British Columbia, Canada, where she would be teaching 90 students—kindergarten through grade 12—the Tsimshian language of Sm’algya̱x.
Fresh off her first year at UAS, where she had inspired students, peers and community members with discussions on art, performance and the urgency to learn indigenous languages facing extinction, the educator at first struggled with the decision. Then the 37-year-old Dangeli opted for the low-profile post in Kitsumkalum, located about 850 miles northwest of Vancouver, the city where she still had a home with her husband and fellow artist, Mike.
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The choice came down to numbers. With just six fluent Sm’algya̱x speakers remaining in Alaska and about 50 in British Columbia, Dangeli said her work is better served in the Canadian province. Grassroots work already being done by an ad-hoc group in Juneau plus the nonprofit Haayk Foundation in Metlakatla gave her confidence that efforts to boost the language would continue in Alaska’s Southeast region without her. So she gave up her plum professorship in the name of preserving her language.
“Major sacrifices have to be made for us to bring our languages back to life in a sustainable manner,” said Dangeli, who grew up in Metlakatla. “The biggest sacrifice I have yet to make was resigning my position. It was definitely the hardest decision I’ve made. But what I’ve given up in relation to what would be lost if our language would no longer be spoken is nothing; it’s really nothing. At my age, I feel that this opportunity to work with fluent speakers, it’s not going to be around for as long as tenure-track positions are available.”
As much as she’s an educator, Dangeli is a performer, choreographer and dance group leader. Since 2003 she and her husband Mike Dangeli, an artist and performer of Nisga’a/Tsimshian/Tlingit descent, have led Git Hayetsk (People of the Copper Shield), an internationally renowned Northwest Coast mask-dancing group. They recently performed in Juneau and last year at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., facing a larger audience—most of whom have never heard Sm’algya̱x.
Dangeli used part of the performance to engage the audience in her language, encouraging them to repeat Sm’algya̱x phrases and words after her.
“One word in Sm’algya̱x—just one word—makes our language stronger,” she told the audience, using the exchange to underscore the urgency of speaking the language.
Dangeli academic pursuits began when she was just 16 and met University of Washington professor Dr. Robin K. Wright, who visited her school in Metlakatla. Wright is now curator emeritus at the university’s Burke Museum.
“She gave me her card; I had never seen ‘doctor’ in front of a woman’s name,” Dangeli said. “I had never seen a nonmedical doctor. When I was looking at her card I asked her what that meant, to be a doctor. She said, ‘I’m a doctor of Haida art.’ I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my life. All of my high school notebooks, from the time I was 16, I practiced my signature as ‘doctor.’ ”
Dangeli’s drive to not only achieve but also to advance the Tsimshian culture became apparent while she was still in high school. As a teenager, she also spent time with Aldona Jonaitis, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, which had a summertime academic program for high-achieving rural students. Nearly 20 years later, Jonaitis still vividly recalls her first meeting with Dangeli, then known by her maiden name Askren.
“She came into my office and said, ‘I would like to become a museum director for my community, and I would like to know what I would need to do,’ ” Jonaitis said. “Just like that. I was completely impressed with this young, poised, extremely beautiful young Tsimshian woman who knew exactly what she wanted. Whatever she set out to do, she did. She’s still doing it.”
Dangeli’s Tsimshian name is Sm Łoodm ’Nüüsm. She’ll be using it regularly at Kitsumkalum this fall, when she starts working for Colleen Austin to establish a Sm’algya̱x-based curriculum. In May, Austin visited UAS in Juneau, where she joined others in a weeklong language-immersion course for those who see themselves as proficient in Sm’algya̱x but don’t yet consider themselves fluent. Austin praised Dangeli for her focus on Sm’algya̱x.
“She and her husband, Mike, present the language in a way that makes it understood by others in a real sense,” Austin said at that May class, a month before Dangeli announced her change. “They do it through dance, their masks, their regalia, their entire presentations. That is not typically seen where we are.”
Moreover, they were generous with their expertise, she added.
“They have been instrumental in helping me to include indigenous methodologies into our curriculum that they know from their grandparents and from their experiences as well,” said Austin. “It’s becoming a very rich curriculum.”
Dangeli said her return to the public school classroom takes her back almost 15 years, when she briefly taught at her alma mater, Metlakatla High School. She taught Tsimshian culture there for a year before returning to her own studies in Vancouver, first earning a master’s degree in 2006, and ultimately a doctorate in art history, which she’s scheduled to complete in 2026 at the University of British Columbia. Even though she spent just a year at Metlakatla High, those memories are becoming stronger as her upcoming change grows closer.
“I’m going back to where the heart of our education really is—the young people, the children—where we set them up to be successful at the university level,” Dangeli said. “I want to help them know who they are and where they come from, give them that sense of identity.”
Dangeli’s view stretches from her ancestors to the generations to come.
“When it comes to Sm’algx, I do it for all of our Tsimshian people who weren’t allowed to speak our language as they were going through school,” Dangeli said. “For those teachers who didn’t have support when they knew the language to teach it. I think about the generations behind me and the generations ahead of me. Our language encompasses such a deep ancestral connect to our worldview—our relationship to our waterways, our relationship to our land, our relationship to our ancestors, to our spiritual beliefs. It continues into the present.”