I keep a list of known Tlingit speakers. It is from an informal survey done by colleagues working in the language, and needs some help to stay complete. If you can speak and understand Tlingit, or know someone who does, please let me know so I can keep the list up to date. We almost got up to 200 people when we began to run out of names of known speakers. Then I realized a terrible problem: maintaining the list is an act of subtraction and not addition.
As a region, we need to continue to grapple with the realities of language death and act accordingly. This is not something to fear. It would be understandable to think that saving a language is too daunting of a task, but the reality is that revitalizing our language is really just an act of returning to what we are supposed to be. It is like a fish returning to the water, breathing and living once again.
This world can trick us. It is a little bit like that Raven we know so well. Always wanting more. Always taking and taking, and up to no good. Studying, listening to, and speaking the Tlingit language is hard work. There is no doubt about that. But what is equally hard is stepping away from the media-flooded world that engulfs us.
Whenever we engage ourselves with media, be it television, the internet, newspapers, or magazines, then we are most likely entering an English-only world. We have to step away from that in order to embrace our languages, to create a nest for them to live within our lives and homes. We might feel like we are going to miss something: the next episode, the big game, the latest status updates, whatever. But the reality is that by immersing ourselves in a media-flooded world, we are missing more than we might realize. We are leaving our speakers, past and present, behind and are collectively committing langauge suicide.
So instead of that, we will be taking our language back. It is the one thing that we have left after centuries of colinialism and loss. It cannot be taken from us at this point: it can only be given away. We will not allow that to happen. We will change the way we interact with the world and reclaim that most true part of our identity.
As individuals, we can make decisions to change our lives and create time for our grandparents. We can take classes, engage other speakers, take breaks from (or better yet quit) drugs and alcohol, and we can give time to our ancestors and our sacred language. We can use our languages every day and we will be pleasantly surprised when we begin thinking like our ancient ones. We can learn so much more about ourselves and the place we live.
As organizations, we can sponsor individuals by paying for their tuition and fees, or can sponsor classes so that no student of the class has to pay tuition and fees. It is not that expensive or difficult considering what is on the line. We can support individuals who study our languages by granting them time off for the classes, or come up with other incentives that show we are backing up our statements with action. And yes I am looking at you SEARHC, Sealaska, CCTHITA, Village Corporations & Tribes. We have pretended to not be ourselves for long enough.
As a university and a state, we can find ways to reduce or eliminate tuition for Alaska Native Language classes. Sheldon Jackson, Richard Pratt, and many others with intentions or orders to destroy indigenous languages were federal employees, so this is a public problem, an epidemic we all share. This is not a private issue. This is not a Native problem. This is not the burden of Alaska Native people and ANCSA Corporations. We are in this together, united in the greatest act of humanity.
This column is dedicated to the life and spirit of Jessie Johnnie, Chookansháa, a speaker who recently walked into the forest. If you want to engage yourself in language, then here is a list of classes available this semester at UAS. Classes at UAS are not the only answer, but are a part of the solution. The real answer is a shift in who we are, a beautiful people reclaiming their history, knowledge, identity, and love for one another.
AKL 103 – Tlingit I (1 credit): A class designed to help students speak and understand the Tlingit language. Students learn the alphabet, pronunciation of alphabet sounds, words, simple sentences, and grammar. Meets on Mondays from 4-5 p.m.
AKL 105 – Elementary Tlingit I (4 credits): An introduction to basic Tlingit grammatical structures and vocabulary with an emphasis on the development of listening and speaking skills. Meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
AKL S107 – Elementary Haida I (4 credits): The Haida Language, Xhaat Kil, is the traditional language of the Haida people of Haida Gwaii and Southeast Alaska. Students will learn to speak and understand basic Haida and focus on four basic language skills: listening, speaking, cultural context, and reading. Meeting times TBA.
AKL 193 section 1 – ST: Tlingit for the Family and Dormant Speaker I (2 credits): In a family-based environment, students learn methods to utilize Tlingit in the home across generations. Household nouns and activities are covered, with methods to remain in the language and create a positive atmosphere for language learning. Meets on Fridays from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
AKL 193 section 2 – ST: Intro to Tlingit Reading, Spelling (3 credits): Designed to help speakers of the Tlingit language learn the alphabet, pronunciation of alphabet sounds, words, simple sentences, and common grammatical terms. Focus is on reading written Tlingit, and writing Tlingit in the sandardized coastal orthography. Meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3–4:30 p.m.
AKL 193 section 3 – ST: Southeast Alaska Native Song and Dance (3 credits): Explores the traditional physical activities of Southeast Alaska Native groups through dancing, singing, and drumming. Examines the differences between types of songs and dances within the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida cultures with a focus on proper use and performance protocols. Covers basics of regalia making, and use of clan crests. Students will make their own drum, learn how to introduce songs, and and will learn different styles of Southeast Alaska Native dancing. Meets on Saturdays from 5–8 p.m.
AKL 205 – Intermediate Tlingit I (4 credits): An intermediate level continuation of the AKL S105/S106 sequence with further emphasis on development of language skills (listening, comprehension, reading, writing, speaking) and an added focus on the orthography and tone system, as well as vocabulary building and cultural elements. Meets on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
AKL 293 – ST: Tlingit for the Family and Dormant Speaker III (2 credits): Designed for the dormant speaker, which is someone who was raised around the Tlingit language and can understand much of the language but has difficulty forming complete sentences. Through a series of family-based activities and lessons, this class aims to take learners who are already familiar with the language and move them toward conversational fluency. Meets on Fridays from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
AKL 305 – Advanced Tlingit I (3 credits): An advanced continuation of the AKL S205/206 sequence. All communication skills will be refined, especially the ability to identify and interpret complex grammatical patterns. Students will focus on advanced grammar; reading, anaylsis, and discussion of texts transcribed from Tlingit oral literature; practice speaking with fluent speakers; and transcription and translation techniques.
AKL 401 – Alaska Language Apprenticeship/Mentorship (3 credits): Structured study of an Alaska Native language. Student works intensively with a mentor fluent in the target language. Selection of mentor requires instructor approval. Attend weekly class with instructor and meet regularly with mentor for a minimum of 7 hours per week. Meets on Tuesdays from 3–4 p.m.
AKL 493 – ST: Tlingit Conversation, Transcription, & Translation (1 credit): Students will work in supervised lab on translation and transcription from video recordings of Tlingit conversations. During transcription, and translation with elders, and in individualized proof-reading of their work, students will advance their knowledge in language skills such as complex verb morphology. Meets on Wednesdays from 3:30–5:30 p.m.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is an Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS. Contact him at email@example.com.