The Alaska Native Language Center

Gwich'in Elder Lillian Garnett was a language warrior

Lillian Martha (James) Garnett, 80, went to be with the Lord on Sunday, September 26, 2021, in Fairbanks, Alaska, surrounded by family. 

Lillian Garnet

Lillian, who was Neets’aii Gwich’in, was born on January 31, 1941, in Fort Yukon to Ezias James & Martha (Tritt) James. Her real name was Martha Lillian and only her dad would call her that. As a young girl, she was the apple of his eye. He spoiled her and they used to call her cry baby. She grew up in a traditional Gwich’in way of life, with her parents and siblings moving from trap line by Sheenjik, to Fort Yukon, and to Arctic Village, living off the land. They were taught hard work, the importance of family and to always remember where they come from. 

Gwich’in was Lillian’s first language, she began learning English at the age of 8 going to BIA school in Arctic Village. She then attended Mt. Edgecumb in Sitka and graduated in 1961. She entered the BIA Relocation program and chose to go to Cleveland, Ohio. She lived there for 10 years and worked as a beautician doing hair. She was a popular hairdresser with a good following of clients. She met her husband, Jerry Garnett, while there. Lillian’s parents told their children to go learn the western ways then come back home to help our people. After her dad, Ezias, passed away in 1971, she came back to Alaska for his funeral. Shortly after, Jerry followed. They married, and together had Ezias Mike, Brandon, and Tonya. Lillian and Jerry shared 50 years together. She was the stepmother to Ronnie, Jeannie, and Bobby. She also helped raise many of her nieces and nephews. 

When Lillian returned home to Alaska, she became a Gwich’in language warrior. She helped record, transcribe, and teach the Gwich’in language. She taught Gwich’in at UAF for over 10 years; she also taught in some Fairbanks high schools, Arctic Village school and other Yukon Flats schools using long-distance video technology. She has taught hundreds of students the Gwich’in language. She took pride in the curriculum she developed and the work she did with other language warriors. 

Lillian was a strong matriarchal Gwich’in Elder, and her words were respected by many. She also loved humor and to plan parties. She showed her love to people through the food she made. During holidays, she would make cookies and other baked goods to hand out to loved ones. Her dinner parties were always large and everyone was invited. She would also invite musicians and have a dance even in the small trailer they lived in. She will be remembered by her love, strength, cultural values, beadwork, her famous dishes and fry bread, and especially being a loving mother and Grandma. 

She always called her son “my special baby” Brandon, and he was a caregiver for his parents for over seven years. Through her dementia in the final years, she kept her humor and love for her family. She was a gift to us all. 

Lillian leaves behind children Mike (Michelle), Brandon, Tonya; stepchildren Ronnie, Jeannie, and Bobby; grandchildren Raeann, Anthony (Alejandra), Ashton Philip; great-grandson Sean Wolf; many grandchildren in Ohio; sister Sarah James; brother Gideon James; and sisters-in-law Christine (Sue) Garnett and Bertha Ross. Lillian and Jerry helped raise others such as Douglas "Strong Head" Felix, Nina John, and too many others to name. Her nieces and nephews are too many to list. 

Lillian was preceded in death by her parents, Ezias and Martha James; and siblings Nena Russell, Dorothy (Abraham) John, Albert James, Marion James, Edward James and Jonathon James.

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Former faculty with UAF's Alaska Native Language Center, Lillian Garnett (Gwich'in) from Arctic Village passed away recently. Walkie Charles, director of ANLC, with the permission of Lillian's family shares her obituary for all the language families in Alaska to know.

On behalf of the faculty and staff of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), I extend my deepest condolences to you and your family.

Your mother was one of the pioneers for the rest of us in bringing our heart languages to the forefront. It was not an easy task, but your mother endured, and placed the Gwich’in language on the UAF map.

May this short note reflect the honor and respect we have for Ms. Lillian Garnett: a mother, leader, scholar, role model, and pioneer in more ways than one.

My thoughts and prayers during your most difficult time. 


ANLC supports the study and use of Alaska Native languages

Alaska Native Language MapThe Alaska Native Language Center was established by state legislation in 1972 as a center for research and documentation of the twenty Native languages of Alaska. It is internationally known and recognized as the major center in the United States for the study of Eskimo and Northern Athabascan languages. The mission of the Alaska Native Language Center and Program is to cultivate and promote Alaska’s twenty Native languages.

ANLC PublicationsANLC publishes its research in story collections, dictionaries, grammars, and research papers. In early 2019, ANLC was able to open an online store to make publications available for purchase worldwide. The center houses an archival collection of more than 10,000 items, virtually everything written in or about Alaska Native languages, including copies of most of the earliest linguistic documentation, along with significant collections about related languages outside Alaska.

Faculty & Staff members provide materials for bilingual teachers and other language workers throughout the state, assist social scientists and others who work with Native languages, and provide consulting and training services to teachers, school districts, and state agencies involved in bilingual education.

ANLC faculty membersThe ANLC faculty & staff also participates in teaching through the Alaska Native Language Program, which offers major and minor degrees in Central Yup'ik and Inupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. An AAS degree or a Certificate in Native Language Education is also available.

The center strives to raise public awareness of the gravity of language loss worldwide but particularly in the North. Of the state's twenty Native languages, only one (Central Yup'ik in southwestern Alaska) is spoken by children as the first language of the home.

Like every language in the world, each of those twenty is of inestimable human value and is worthy of preservation. ANLC, therefore, continues to document, cultivate, and promote those languages as much as possible and thus contribute to their future and to the heritage of all Alaskans.

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