When I was in my undergraduate program, my friend Chad Uran and I talked about how we were going to change the world. The other day, I saw quotes he posted online from a text called Defying Maliseet Language Death, which was written by Maliseet tribal member Bernard C. Perley. The first one read, “I argue that if we change the terms of imminent language death to language suicide, then we acknowledge our own complicity in the erasure of the Maliseet language from our lives. This is important because it grants the community members the opportunity for linguistic self-determination” (122). I had to think about this one for a long time.
After thinking about it, I realized how often I had used the term “death” when it came to Alaska Native languages, which removes the causes from it. Maybe this is why some people think that our languages are dying from old age, or lack of need, or some other invented cause. Instead, there were generations of attempted language murder by missionaries, federal employees, educators, and many others. But now, I cannot honestly say someone is right there trying to kill our languages. I realized that I agreed with Perley: we are walking away from our languages. We are committing language suicide.
This is a bold claim, but behind it is a great call for self-determination. No one can take it away any more. No one can make you feel ashamed for trying. There is no need to fear failure, embarrassment, and pain. You can stop what you are doing right now, and go ahead and say it: “we will not walk away from you.” You are not saying this to a language. Not to verbs or nouns. In fact, you are saying it to your ancestors, who have suffered time and time again to keep our knowledge and way of life alive all these thousands of years. You are saying it to your grandchildren. We cherish them, you see. It has been said time and time again. That is why we will change it. That is why we are waking up to the fact that the choices are right there in front of us. We don’t need a classroom to make it happen. We don’t need apps and dictionaries and computer programs. Those things help make the process move, but more than anything we need a great healing and a return to consciousness.
My good friend James Crippen shared a story recently that he was working on translating, and we can look to his thoughts on the language to find a metaphor for language revival. The story comes from the incredible work of Richard and Nora Dauenhaeur, who have given us hours upon hours of recorded and written Tlingit material. At one point in the story, a man loses consciousness, and then comes back to. One part of it goes like this: tlél sh daaxh awdanúk (he lost consciousness). Literally, this could be taken as “to not be sitting in one’s surroundings.” Later, in the story, it says daa aawadaakh (he recovered), which could be translated as “his surroundings cleared up.”
This is where we are at today: our surroundings are clearing up. That means it is time for all of us to take responsibility and make our languages vibrant and living upon our ancestral lands. As Perley also says: “My decision to use ‘language suicide’ may seem to blame the community for Maliseet language death, but I use the phrase to make a case to community members that it is not a foregone conclusion the language will die due to outside pressures” (121-122). Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in this victim mentality: if only our grant had been renewed, if we only had fancy software, if only I had more time and money. Those things are nice, but we do not need them. We do not have to wait for the university, a tribe or tribal organization, a school district, or anything like that to do something. The decision is ours, and so is the power.
My hope is to continue to stress how language murder/death/suicide is not a done deal. It is up to us, and it will be the greatest joy when discover that we have reclaimed it. There are ways to say things in our languages that show an incredible connection to one another. There is a great and powerful sense of humor, like when my uncle Johnny would point at soy sauce and say kóoshdaa lóox’u (I won’t say why that is funny). Some of my strongest memories come from language immersions. When we wrapped up the one we had in Lkhóot (Chilkoot) back in 2005, we did so with closing speeches, from the youngest to the oldest participants. When I stood up to talk, I was emotional because I knew it was ending and what we had there was magical. The language was alive and was in every one of us. While speaking, I often struggled to find the right word or the correct way to use it, and then I realized that my elders and teachers were finishing my sentences for me. They knew me that well.
Don’t walk away from it. Our opportunities are right here, especially with our wonderful and knowledgeable fluent speakers. I have seen a wonderful working community of language teachers and students. I wanted to recognize them here, although I am undoubtedly forgetting some. But, as Cyril George likes to say, “a pat on the back never hurt anyone.” When you see any of these folks around, thank them for what they do for our language, and let them know you are joining them in walking with our language and living with strength and determination. Gunalchéesh! Marge Dutson, David Katzeek, Lillian Austin, Irene Cadiente, Paul Marks, Helen Sarabia, Flora Huntington, Diane Church, Mary Anderson, Bessie Cooley, Vida Davis, Ruth Demmert, William Fawcett, Nellie Lord, Ethel Makinen, John Martin, Carolyn Martin, Alfred McKinley, Irene Paul, George Ramos, Fred White, Dionne Cadiente-Laiti, Edward Hotch, Hans Chester, Jessica Chester, Mary Folletti, Shendootaan George, Alice Taff, Marsha Hotch, Linda Belarde, Duffy Wright, Gary Johnson, Vivian Mork, Roby Littlefield, George Bennett, James Crippen, Nora Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer, and Florence Sheakley.