Honoring our elders, establishing our traditions

Xh'unei, Lance A. Twitchell

Last week I was blessed with the opportunity to watch the Children’s Celebration take place in Centennial Hall. I sat next to my clan grandson Kingheestí, and near many of my favorite people in the world who are working tirelessly to revitalize our Tlingit language. There were many times when I looked up at the stage to see a young boy or girl speaking Tlingit, singing in Tlingit, and I watched through unabashed tears of joy. And in many of those moments, those around me were doing the same. We would laugh loudly because something wonderful was happening. This is what we have been fighting for, and now we are beginning to realize the possibilities.


Flash forward one week and I am sitting with Ethel Lund at the Wooch.een Native Graduation Celebration. She was overjoyed as she talked about the University of Alaska Commencement Ceremonies and the Tlingit language that was part of the ceremonies. She kept saying to me, “it’s coming back!” Chancellor John Pugh talked about the fact that it was the largest graduating class and the largest Alaska Native graduating class is UAS history, and one of them, Yankawgé, was the commencement speaker and the first to graduate with a minor in the Tlingit language.

Yéil: Raven

Ch'åak': Eagle

One day after that, and the Juneau Alaska Native Language faculty were at the State of Alaska Roundtable Discussion on Alaska Native Languages. Ghuneiwtí, Wudasheeyi Tláa, and I joined more than 50 participants in a meeting that was chaired by Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell. Several others joined by telephone, and many were key players in the Alaska Native Language revival that we are currently entering. The meeting was held as a result of Senate Bill 130, which would establish an Alaska Native Language Revitalization and Advisory Council, which would likely be the first of its kind in the United States.

Will all of this momentum, we as teachers and learners of our sacred languages are now looking to our governor to keep this momentum going by signing the bill into law. In only one day of meeting, it was obvious how much people wanted this revival to have state sponsorship and support. You can make a difference yourself by contacting the governor’s office and voicing your support for this bill, and we can continue revitalizing our languages and working towards a healthier, more vibrant, and culturally rich Alaska.

I keep thinking of the children. During the Children’s Celebration, a young girl gave a speech in which she stated that we are all human beings. We may be Tlingit or Haida or Tsimshian, but we are human beings just like you. She was speaking truth, and if your language and culture were threatened, we would be there to support you. When we talk about the health of cultures and languages, we need to keep in mind that this is an endeavor that all of us are invested in and will benefit from. The joy of sharing knowledge, respecting elders, rediscovering identity, healing from centuries of oppression, and brining our languages back into daily use is a contagious one. Consider this your official invitation to be a part of that.

Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that we need to tear each other to pieces. Here is a smattering of things that I hear and see out there: There are not enough resources to do this. The languages are outdated and of no use anymore. People chose not to speak it, so it is just the nature of things. Languages shift over time. Why should I feel guilty for what happened hundreds of years ago? Who is he/she to think he/she can teach our language? Why should I be forced to learn? This is just political correctness. They are doing it wrong. Wait, look at what is happening to English!

When it comes to resources, we should keep in mind that federal and state resources funded unimaginable attacks on indigenous languages. The guys who said, “the only good Indian I ever met was dead,” and, “kill the Indian, save the man,” were both federal employees. the movement to kill Native American cultures and languages was federally mandated and inhumane. I recently spoke with an elder who wanted to tell her story about forced assimilation and the accompanying brutality that is common with Indian boarding schools, and she said it would take a week to tell her story. She would peel layers of hurt away, and then would have to allow herself time and energy to heal before she could go on.

Alaskan Native languages are in no way outdated. Their decline in use was completely unnatural and certainly not the process of some sort of evolution or conversion to a more useful way of communicating. In fact, the whole argument that there is something more useful or of higher global/ economic value is a tired, outdated, and illogical rhetoric that we call manifest destiny. Native American people did not have choices when it came to their languages, any more than someone who has to choose to be shot or jump off a cliff.

No one of sound mind who is clear of bigotry would walk into the Holocaust Museum and say that the people who suffered unthinkable acts of genocide in Nazi death camps chose to go hungry, work themselves to death, or be killed. That was no more of a natural shift than the current state of Alaska Native languages, so the comments that suggest otherwise need to stop. You make yourself look foolish.

But this is not about the negative comments and ignorance. There was a time and place where those voices had power, but that is not now or here. You can say anything you want about this, but it is happening. Join, help, cheer it on, or step out of the way. If you think English is dying, then you need some perspective. I appreciate the irony, but bilingualism is not a threat to English proficiency. Student after student will show a higher command of grammar and understanding, and study after study has shown it.

I have seen our children learning because of teachers like Seighóot, Daaljini, Naakil.aan, Shgendootaan, Khaasanákh, George Holly, and others. It’s time to call it what this is: a revolution, in the way we carry our languages with us, in the way we create change for our children, in the way we honor the courage of those who came before us.

Everyone is invited. We can heal ourselves through language. That’s the key in all of this. We do not save these languages, but we invest in them and they save us. There is so much fun in discovering a way of seeing the world that was born right here, and that will never die. We will hold each other up, and we will stop at nothing. I have seen the bright future that is right before us, and it sings with a strength that carries us all a little closer to a perfect world.


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