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Dear Southeast Alaska: three things that will change you (for the better) forever

Posted: September 6, 2012 - 8:13am
tʼá - king salmon

sʼeek - black bear

We are on the cusp of a language revitalization in Southeast Alaska. Just keep saying it. But there is no magic here, no special formula. It is all action, all the time. In order to continue making this happen, we need to be using our languages every day of our lives, as often as we can. Living language is the goal, and that happens by changing your life to include Haa Léelk’u Has (Our Grandparents). My mind drifts to a raven story, and there he is, our trickster friend. His nose has been stuck in the top of the sky since the world flooded; he is looking for a place to safely land. Then he sees it: kháajaa, the kelp islands.

That is where we are today. Our nose in the sky, waiting for something to appear. But it is here already. Maybe we just do not see it, because it is us. All of us. Working in concert for something larger than ourselves, focused away from the self and towards the past and future simultaneously. You know, there was a time when we addressed our in-laws, our clan opposites. Now we break taboo and talk about ourselves. There was a time when we held our values, our language, sacredly. Now it is often a poster on the wall, magnet on the fridge, book on the shelf.

So here is the plan, Southeast: unity at all cost. Sometimes when talking about these things it is easy to stay in the theoretical, to hover at the 20,000 foot level and wait for something to change. But this is about application. We are change. We are going to imitate our ancestors and see what kind of world they saved for us. They suffered at the hands of intolerant societies, had their children taken from them, lost land and rights and self-worth. But they saved all that they could, and they did it for us. We are the ones who are following them now.

Here are three projects that will be starting, one way or another, and the Alaska Native Languages & Studies program at the University will be looking all over the place for help. I hate to lean on a dead metaphor, but we are going to think outside the khóok. It does not have to be a UAS project, or a Sealaska Heritage Institute, or Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, or Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, or local businesses, or individuals. In fact, it is going to take all of us.

The fact of the matter is that attempted mass murder occurred, and now linguistic suicide is occurring. But we are going to fix that. One step at a time. Finally, in unity. Finally, in unity.

A Language Nest (Haa Léelk’u Has Yoo Xh’atángi Kúdi)

This begins with a Tlingit immersion daycare, a place where we can bring children to learn in a way that no one has in half a century. If we can commit to this, we will find that youth do not have the resistance we do to the radical shift it will take to reclaim our languages. Our fluent speakers will have a place to come, where they are honored and welcomed as the teachers and caretakers of knowledge that they are. In this place, we would be careful about switching our language when we walk in the door.

Next to the daycare would be a place where our language lives all the time. I can see a multi-use facility that can house Alaska Native language classrooms, archives, studios, and support areas. The cultural component will be just as important as anything else, because when we truly walk back into the world of our ancestors, we are going to find their pain. We are going to see what they held onto so we could inherit what we have of our language and culture.

We are strong enough and smart enough to make this happen. Language is the only reason this facility would exist, and there would be definite lines. Cross the threshold, speak the language. This is not a tourist attraction or an economic development initiative: it is a method to keep a people from dying. It is the right and only thing to do.

A Regional Language Teacher Program (Yées Khóo At Latéewu)

We have students from all across the region taking classes right now, and that means we have future teachers out there. Our goal should be to teach everyone we can. If I teach five people today, then they can teach twenty-five people tomorrow. We need to develop a true support network that enables us to, at least, teach Elementary Tlingit in every Tlingit community in Southeast Alaska. If there is a class, we can find a way to give college credit for it. If there is not a class, we can find a way to make a class. We teach to everyone who wants to know, and we try to release our territorial grip on materials, methods, and access to resources.

I know what it is like to teach in a remote area, where you are often learning something one day and teaching it the next. We can give our teachers tools, confidence, love, respect, and hope. We can find ways to funnel future teachers into UAS and help the campus to spread across the region. In addition, we can extend our reach into the homes of our people. When the language is in our homes, then our ancestors are in our homes. There are no more chances to sit around and wait for these things to happen. We cannot argue about money and ownership and initiative. We work together and show our children a brand new way of maneuvering in the world.

Selflessness (Ldakát Haa Ádi Woosh Teen Toowahéin)

If we are going to take action for our grandchildren, if we are going to imitate our ancestors, then we have to find an escape from the selfishness this modern world has to offer. We have seen everything on our ancestral land parceled and assessed. We have seen arguments about what the “real world” values, and that is not us, not our language, not our ancestors. We have to take decisive steps away from these concepts and move towards a different understanding of priority, well-being, responsibility, and effort. Sometimes we stop and think, “what is in this for me?” Sometimes we look at someone and start to criticize them when we could move mountains by working together.

I am not such an idealist that I think everyone can get along and just understand what needs to be done. But I am aware enough to know that we could have been doing all of these things already. I have a great faith in all of us, here, in this place. We are right on the edge of something magnificent. Somewhere in time a child was smacked for speaking the language that made him what he was, and another was placed in a cold shower as a toddler for just being herself. We are going to look right at those things and let them go. We are going to heal through the language that gave us life, knowledge, possibilities. We are going to succeed. We have the means and know-how, but we cannot accept other agendas or efforts that keep us stuck in the same circles.

Raven was always tricking people. We keep falling for it and falling for it. But the shift is right here and now, and it starts with all of us.

• Xh’unei Lance Twitchell is an Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS. He can be reached at latwitchell@uas.alaska.edu.

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