Ten practical steps to your language revival

Xh'unei, Lance A. Twitchell

I want to start by thanking my friend and colleague, Khaagwáask’ (Ishmael Hope) for pointing out that there was an error in the Celebration column. Kichnáalxh (George Davis) was Deisheetaan of Shdeen Hít (Steel House). Please forgive that mistake. And now that the wonderful madness that is Celebration has wound down, and we have all recovered our voices and stamina, it is time to consider one of the most important quotes from Kichnáalxh:


“Tsu héide shugaxhtutaan, yáa yaakhoosgé daakéit, haa jéexʼ anákh has kawdukʼéetʼ ” — “We will open it again, this box of wisdom, which was left in our hands.” This portion of a speech was made into a song by Harold Jacobs, and has recently been adapted by Selina Everson and local teachers of Tlingit language and culture to say, “we have opened this box of wisdom, which was left in our hands.” It is a response, stating that we have heard the call, and are doing as we were told. But in order to live up to that response, we have to carefully consider, and probably change, our daily lives.

Jánwu: Mountain goat

Hít: House

One of the dangers of a biannual celebration is that we will close the box once the doings are over. We will walk away from it and back to our daily lives, where language and traditional ways of living are rarely used treasures. This is one of the biggest problems with forced assimilation, is that at some strange point it becomes natural, easy, and expected. To help us combat sliding back into a place where our languages die a little more each day, let’s put some things in our toolbox that will help us live with our languages. We do this together. We do this with great hope. We do this with fearlessness. We do this for our grandchildren.

Sometimes I can be too heavy with the “our language is dying” rhetoric, but it is hard to avoid the subject when the math is clearly not on our side. But I want you to know something: we are going to win. The answers are not that complicated, but they will take conscious effort, hard work, and determination. We have all of the power in the world when it comes to living hand-in- hand with our ancient ones. They are right there, waiting for us to succeed. Here is a list of suggestions to get you started:

1. Find a way to use it every day. This can be done in a number of ways. For starters, you can buy a few packs of sticky notes, and write the Tlingit words for things in your house. When you need to talk about that thing, always use the Tlingit word for it. Shál, gaaw, gúxʼaa, katíxh’aa. These are things you can learn. If you are unsure of pronunciation, then just ask someone who speaks. If you cannot do that, then do your best and we can fix that part later. The important part is to use it every day: in your home, on your commutes, with friends. Every time we speak even a word, we invite our ancestors to spend time with us.

2. Do not fear errors, but do not ignore them either. Sometimes we feel embarrassed by mistakes, or we think that endangered languages will be damaged by mistakes. We learn from mistakes, so do not worry about them as long as they are teaching tools. If they do not become habits, then they are just small things on your path to learning. As you are learning, you do not need to always apologize, because you are learning. That will be understood, and you will be helped. If you are in an environment that is not conducive to realistic learning, then find or make one.

3. Avoid saying “I can’t.” Even a subtle switch from that to “I am having a hard time with that,” is a big deal. Once we say we cannot, then we resign to that fact. If you have been speaking a colonial language your entire life, and then want to come back to an indigenous language, then you are going to have a hard time with certain things. You are going to have to pronounce difficult sounds and reshape the way you see the world through grammar and concepts, but these are things you can do. Never give up on yourself, but instead allow yourself room and time to grow.

4. Follow this simple rule: speak to speakers. Once you commit yourself to learning Tlingit, then you are a speaker. Sometimes we use words like “fluent” and “proficient” too much, and those are limiting. Instead, we are all speakers with the same goal: using language daily to understand ourselves, the world, our ancestors, and our future. So, when you see someone who uses or might use the language, speak to them in it. This worked in Hawaii and other places where language revival occurred. Stay in Tlingit as long as possible, and then switch to English when you have to. Do not worry about offending or excluding anyone. Everyone is invited to be a part of the revival, but we cannot afford to wait for them to make up their mind.

5. Seek out the cultural context. There is a danger in translating things, and that is losing the cultural context. As often as you can, try to keep in mind that the Tlingit mind sees the world differently than the English-only mind, and it will be especially evident in the grammar and figurative language. When you are looking at oratory, remember that there is a lot going on outside of the words you may see or hear if you are looking at a book or listening to a recording. The cultural context comes by interacting respectfully with culture bearers and elders who speak the language.

6. Do not wait for permission. Self explanatory. Sometimes we feel like we need government sponsorship, organizational backing, or just a nod of the head from someone. We just need to speak, listen, learn, and try.

7. Do not allow excuses. We all have a lot to do, and little time to do it. But every day we make decisions that leave our language behind. Just change the way you see time and your commitment in this world. You are all we have, so make your decisions count. There are no reasons not to learn. Contact me if you want help finding a way to live with our language.

8. Listen to speakers as much as possible. The books and lessons can only take us so far. We need to put ourselves in places where the language is everywhere. If you cannot find speakers of the language who can surround you with it, then look into recordings at Sealaska Heritage Foundation, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, University of Alaska Southeast, and the State Library. Your local Tribe may also have recordings. Even if you do not know what is being said, play it as often as you can, listen to speakers as often as you can. We absorb language organically. Most of us do not block it up within ourselves, but instead soak it in when immersed.

9. Begin finding more and more time to live in language. The modern world divides everything into tiny pieces. So take a bunch of those pieces and put them together into a sense of identity that will help you through life. It is obvious that what we are doing now is not working. We have the highest levels of poverty, violent crime victimization, and suicide, and the lowest rates of retention and graduation. It’s time for something new, and that new thing is the old thing that has been there all along. Time is something you make, not something you have.

10 . Thank the culture bearers and speakers, and honor their time. I was listening to Keihéenaakw (John Martin Sr) recently and he said, “haa khusteeyí, haa jeet has awatée, yá Aas Khwáani,” which would translate into, “our culture, they gave it to us, the tree people.” This is a Tlingit way of seeing the world. We learn from the natural world around us, and our elders were raised in a time when the Tlingit way of seeing the world was still taught and understood, even if it was under violent attack. Thank them for spending time with you. Thank them for their life’s work to retain language. Honor their time by letting them know they are important. Honor their time by listening, speaking, and learning all you can with what you have.


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