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Alaska Native Languages & Studies degree comes to UAS

Posted: August 23, 2012 - 12:00am
Xh'unei, Lance A. Twitchell
Xh'unei, Lance A. Twitchell

Dennis Demmert and Walter Soboleff come to mind when I think about the field of Alaska Native Studies, and Richard and Nora Dauenhauer when I think about Alaska Native Languages. Now there are certainly more than those four, but that is where my mind is today: in a state of gratitude towards the ones who paved the road for those of us who are teaching indigenous ways of knowing today. Several days ago a new degree program was launched at the University of Alaska Southeast: Alaska Native Languages & Studies.

This could not have happened without the dedication of scholars and culture-bearers who taught in Social Sciences and Humanities for years, often frustrated with the fact that at a certain level the classes would stop counting towards anything. The launching of this degree coincides with a theme that has been ongoing and challenging over the past several decades: the transforming of the university.

I have heard the argument that if there are Alaska Native Studies, then why are there not Euro-American Studies (called by many different things in the same question). The answer to that, of course, is that there has been for a long time and we just called it college. It is a great pleasure to work with the students who have graduated and lobbied for a degree like this, with the faculty who have struggled to make it happen, and with the current group of gifted and driven students who will be the first ones to ever declare the major at UAS, which happened for the first time a day after the degree was in the system.

Indigenous knowledge is worthy of degrees and intensive study. I know that discussions will come that somehow the university or the overall sense of knowledge will be diminished because of the inclusion of Alaska Native knowledge. One of our highest-ranking politicians recently addressed a group that gathered to discuss the recently passed bill to form an Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council (which may be the first of its kind in the nation). During that presentation, the politician lauded our efforts and spoke of the importance of Alaska’s original languages. Then he respectfully requested that we “not forget about English.” As if we could forget about the thing that just about killed off everything.

The complexities and richness of the Tlingit language are being discovered more and more each day by the Dauenhauers, Jeff Leer, Keri Eggleston, James Crippen, Seth Cable, and the dedicated group of speakers, learners, and teachers that are working with them in one way or another. And I will tell you this, without a shred of doubt in my mind. If you can learn to speak Tlingit and understand the grammar and mechanics of the language, all the while understanding the complexities of social and psychological phenomena that can describe its ongoing decline, then you deserve the highest degree the world has to offer.

When I look at the students of our language, the dedicated group who is making the ultimate statement of resilience and strength, I see our ancient ones inside them. Despite every thing you may think about the languages, whether you think we are beyond the point of being able to save them or that the world has just outgrown them, I challenge you to give yourself to these ways of looking at the world. The language will change you and you will be able to open doors you never knew existed.

The knowledge is right there, waiting for us to return to it. One of my mentors, who recently walked into the forest, left me with this. I asked her what our students needed to hear, how they could stay encouraged and positive, and she said:

Yee gu.aa yáxh x’wán.

Yee léelk’w has xhá yee xh’éit has wusi.áxh yeedát.

Yee gu.aa yáxh x’wán.

Ghunéi axh tu.áadi tsu.

Yee gu.aa yáxh x’wán.

Uháan áyá, haa léelk’w has,

has du ítxh yaa ntu.át

Yee gu.aa yáxh x’wán.

Ldakát yeewháan.

Have strength and courage, all of you.

Your grandparents are really listening to you now.

Have strength and courage, all of you.

We are beginning to walk along it, too.

Have strength and courage, all of you.

It is us, our grandparents,

we are the ones following them.

Have strength and courage, all of you.

Every one of you.

There is no hope like what I feel when I hear our children speaking, when I know we have made the right decisions just in time. Our knowledge is making it into academia, so we can show a different way of looking at the world instead of being looked upon and analyzed from an external perspective. When thinking about Alaska Native Languages & Studies, I think of the late Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, who said, “My ancestors made my language from Nature. When I speak Yupiaq, I am thrust into the thought world of my ancestors … As we lose our Native languages, more and more of us begin to take part in the misuse and abuse of Nature.”

As Alaskans, we all benefit from additional perspectives and knowledge. The idea that we are losing something by bringing knowledge and language in that was previously rejected is based in exhausted and disproven notions of racial superiority. Today I am thankful for a supportive administration (Dean Sousa, Provost Caulfield, Chancellor Pugh), the fellow faculty who championed this effort (Dan Monteith, Kevin Krein, Robin Walz), and the staff of Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Registrar’s Office who helped navigate the complexities of degree development. Of course, the idea would be nothing without fellow faculty members who are teaching Alaska Native Languages & Studies at UAS.

This is a concept that is gaining momentum statewide and nationally as well. Several brilliant minds have forged valuable paths in the areas of language revitalization, criticism and theory, literature, art, and social sciences that will enable our students to enrich their lives with indigenous ways of knowing. In fact, the first ever conference on Alaska Native Studies is scheduled to occur on April 5-6 of 2013 at the University of Alaska Anchorage. You are all invited to participate in that, and to help us continue building our degree and revitalizing our languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.

• Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.

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