Alaska Native languages: It all comes down to choices

Xh'unei, Lance A. Twitchell

Linguists have been predicting the death of Alaska Native languages for decades now, and whether or not those predictions prove accurate comes down to the choices you and I make on a daily basis. The past 200 years have been devastating; from boarding schools to disease to social discriminations, we are now left with the aftermath of successful attempts to destroy languages and cultures. But that does not mean we have to resign our efforts or just allow this to happen. In fact, it leaves us all with a tremendous amount of power and the decision is right here before us: speak now or let it go forever.


Our languages have developed in specific places for thousands and thousands of years. Within them we see patterns of migrations, grammar that allows us to see the world differently, and an ability to communicate more closely with our ancestors and the natural world around us. Just the other day I sat with some school children and watched a Tlingit speaker talk to the porpoises. He called out to them, the ones we call “cheech,” and they came back to the surface in response, showing themselves to the kids who sat down to learn from the Tlingit speaker.

And there is more. The recent release of Tom Thornton’s book, “Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land,” gives us nearly 3,500 names to put back onto the land on which we live in Southeast Alaska. These names collectively show an intense and long-standing relationship with the land. They connect us linguistically to stories, migrations, animals, the supernatural and more. When you think about it, and when you really try to use these names, you then realize that you are not just living in Anywhere, USA.

But there are so few people who are using our language. Recent surveys leave us with this estimate: there are fewer than 250 people who can speak a Southeast Alaska Native Language. That is three languages combined. Tlingit has about 200, Haida has about a half-dozen, and Coastal Tsimshian has about 30. This means that the clock is ticking quickly for each of these languages. This also means that we have some important decisions to make.

I could spend a thousand words on the reasons for language decline in indigenous populations. I could spend a thousand more on potential solutions, useful studies, new curriculum ideas. In reality, all of that compares very little to these two questions: Who will speak? Who will listen?

There is nothing that will determine the future of our languages more than this. Despite everything that has happened, and all the things we may think should happen, we have to realize that we are the ones deciding to let these languages die. Maybe we have been fooled into thinking that progress moves us towards an English-only world. Perhaps we have been beaten and teased and shamed into staying away from our languages.

I can understand those things. But we have to move beyond them, as a region, and listen to these languages. Every time I hear notions of racial supremacy disguised as progress or world economy, I think about how sneaky all those things are. But I still stumble through the language with my baby daughter when we are home alone in the mornings. I still talk to the cat and whomever else will listen. I make my family guess what I am saying, and even better yet, they are just starting to figure it out. I speak with other speakers, and learn what I can when I can.

We need our communities to embrace the existence of our languages. This is more than just nodding or saying, “good idea.” This language was beaten, washed, and bribed out of our people. There is a trauma here that was government-sponsored, church-driven, and rarely resisted at the community level. That means that we can choose to work together to make sure these languages have a place to live, and that is the same place where they were born. It does not matter what your ethnicity is.

This is not a race issue. This is a human issue. I think of it as this: you are walking past a dying person. Do you just walk past? It does not matter how it happened or what you may think of that person. What type of human are you? When we examine the history of this area, we can see that the human obligation is to help people survive and to be kind. Recently, I heard a wise man say that politics is bullying, and Alaska Natives do not make good bullies.

The goal of Alaska Native language revitalization is not to force anyone to do anything or to try and destroy anyone else’s identity or sense of place. Ironically, there seems to be a real fear of the revival of Alaska Native languages, or at the very least a reluctance to see it. But it is coming. Our languages are now beginning to go through the process of death, the result of decades upon decades of a killing machine that we can call assimilation. We will no longer allow that to happen.

Study after study has shown that bilingual people test higher in education. Study after study has shown that when you take away a group’s established identity and substitute it with something else, it creates systemwide failure within that group. Suicide rates among Alaska Natives are enormous, and most social gauges show a people in peril. But we do not have to stay on this road. We can make our own decisions and future. We can open our minds to a new existence that allows languages to thrive, and connects generations back to time immemorial.

We have talked about language revitalization in our region, but we are not there yet. It will take a sea change among our communities, organizations, and individuals. It will take unity like we have not yet realized. It will take partnerships that leave the self behind. We will discover that we are all human beings, and that connections to each other, our land, and our ancestors will make every one of us stronger. We have incredible power and we will learn how to use it.

Speak. Listen. Do it every day. Change the future and the world.

• Xh’unei, Lance A. Twitchell, is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.


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