For those who are students of Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian languages, I have some words just for you: we can do this. We will do this. Sometimes we think about heavy terms like “language death” or “extinction” and are crushed by the weight of them. With so much on the line, we might think that every mispronunciation or error is going to push us right over the edge, we might feel humiliated that we do not know the answer, or we might be angry that we never had the chance when we were younger. We might forget to use the language every day and place.
But now is the time to know that you are supported, honored, cherished. Our generation of current speakers are seeing the change that their parents and grandparents had been hoping for, and it is continuing with you. The tide is coming back in for our people, at last. Every time you practice a single word, you are a walking miracle, you are soaking in the winter waters for strength for all of us. These small steps you are taking will add up, and one day you will see an island rebuilt where we can be with our grandparents.
We need these metaphors to heal our spirits and give us strength. Revitalizing languages is hard, messy business. But if you are learning, then you should be teaching. If you are stuck, then you should ask for help. Together we can find workable solutions and ideas that will help us connect to fluent speakers, to continue to develop our language skills, and to find a context for all of these new things we will be learning.
One of the most important parts of this process is a collective healing, a grieving process and then a ceremonial end to language grief. The grief I am talking about is the guilt, shame, anger and pain that comes with losing your language. Yes, it has drifted out to sea on us. Yes, it has been beaten and shamed and washed out of previous generations. We harbor a great deal of negativity that can come out in the wrong ways and push us father away from our ancestral selves. It is easier to criticize someone for pronunciation and attempts than to be a part of social change.
The classrooms we create can be our own thing, something different than what we know or associate with historical traumatic memories. There are stories about children removed from their homes and smacked for speaking their language, mouths washed out, time spent in isolation, sweet rewards for not speaking their language. Even more dangerous are the accounts of other inhumane acts: violence and sexual assaults against children. All of this was happening while identites were being erased.
Meanwhile, at the community level, ideas of racial supremacy were put in place and the mantra emerging from federal policies and officials was, “kill the Indian, save the man.” These collective acts were attempts to murder languages, and they were as successful then as they are invisible today. These are the things we will look straight at. We will feed them in ceremony, and we will find a way to let go of them so we can discover what medicines our languages hold.
It is time for khu.éex’ (potlatch) for our languages, a series of ceremonies where we can allow people to release the grief they feel from being left out, or being shamed for who they are, or not running back to our languages while they sit at the cliff’s edge. When we find these spiriual wounds and begin to heal, we will find gems in the languages that fill empty spaces within us. You will hear Khooteen (Amy Marvin) say, “woosh daa tuwudzinóokw xhá” (people used to cherish each other, you see). You will put those words inside you.
And if anyone thinks this is an attempt to create guilt out of a traumatic history, then you are absolutely missing the point and making this about yourself, when it is about something much larger than that. It is not the time to be self-centered. Instead, it is taking an honest look at mistakes that were made and doing what we can to correct them. The devestating effects of colonization can be countered with a love for one another, with a passion to understand the people who walked this very place hundreds and thousands of years before us. Right here. Right now. We are the ones in control of this decision: we will follow them.
The ones who are suffering will need the most time, attention, patience, and support. Somewhere a child is neglected. Somewhere a combat veteran is not all the way home yet. Somewhere someone knows his family walked away from him, or her language was never taught by her parents. We know all of these things and can heal ourselves.
In Tlingit, there is an important verb, “sh tóo at wudlitóow” — to teach oneself. When we are learning, we say, “Lingít yoo xhʼatángi sh tóo xhaltóow” (I am studying/learning Tlingit). In this verb we have a reflexive action, basically saying I am putting this knowing inside myself. Here is the important part: no one can take language away from you, and no one can give it to you. Only you can put it inside yourself. There are parts of it that are there already, because you are here, because you have ties to this place. But only you can take the countless hours of repetition and study it will take to think in Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian.
There is a canoe sitting in the water waiting for us. The time of great suffering for our people is at an end, and the tide is coming in for us. If you think there is no time, then you are right. There is no more time to wait for someone else to do it. There is no more time to be pacified by television and the internet. They are out there, ready for an embrace that helps us let go of the pain, anger, and shame. We are becoming reborn in language, and discovering a new way to see the world and give something ancient and sacred to the coming generations.
• Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.