Lillian Austin (Shangukeidí), George Bennett (T’akhdeintaan), Irene Cadiente (Teikhweidí), Diane Church (Deisheetaan), Genevieve Cook (T’akhdeintaan), Nora Dauenhauer (Lukaaxh.ádi), Herman Davis (L’uknaxh.ádi) Marge Dutson (Ghaanaxhteidí), Selina Everson (Deisheetaan), Bill Fawcett (Lukaaxh.ádi), Flora Huntington (Tsaagweidí), Ann Johnson (Dakhl’aweidí), David Katzeek (Shangukeidí), Paul Marks (Lukaaxh.ádi), Ethel Makinen (L’uknaxh.ádi), Carolyn Martin (Wooshkeetaan), John Martin (T’akhdeintaan), Florence Sheakley (Lukaaxh.ádi), and Fred White (Shangukeidí).
These are fluent speakers who have recently participated in Tlingit language classes at the University of Alaska Southeast. Behind them are many more, but the most important thing to realize is that these are the best teachers we have. And there are more, in our rural communities, sometimes in areas outside of Lingít Aaní. This is part of what makes our language program unique: the amazing walking libraries of traditional knowledge who take time out of their lives to help us on our journey.
Khaal.átk’ (Charlie Joseph, Kaagwaantaan) delivered a famous speech at an elder’s conference hosted by Sealaska thirty years ago. In that speech, he said:
“Ch’u tlákwdáxh haa dachx’án haa kináa kei wtusinúk. Aaa. Xh’atulitseen. Tsu khushtuyáxh daa sá yaa tushigéiyi át du jeedéi yatxh gatooteeyín haa dachxhanxh siteeyí kháa. Ách áyá yáa yeedát s du wakhshiyeexh tulayéxhxh (Even from long ago we have placed our grandchildren high above ourselves. Yes. We cherish them. Even those things we treasure we used to offer up to them, to those who are our grandchildren. That is why we made these songs their vision).”
And we respond today. We cherish our grandparents. From the time we are born, we are eating food chewed from their mouths. They are the ones who suffered to keep our language alive. This is what we must remember. Despite all the hardships, all the possibilities of a certain and fast approaching death for our languages, they are still alive. So, we lift them up, those who can speak, and those who take the time to teach.
On October 11, there were six fluent speakers who visited our Elementary Tlingit class. They spoke to the students and to each other. This was done entirely in Tlingit for over an hour, and then in English for about another hour. If not for these speakers, these students would probably never have an opportunity for that type of immersion. For that, I am grateful.
We are working to develop a way to bring fluent speakers into our classroom and to recognize their time and contributions. It is a different way of doing this academically, where the instructor becomes as much of a coordinator as a teacher. This is the unique situation with indigenous languages: our true teachers will not have doctorate degrees and prepared syllabi, but will instead give us a direct link to the world and thought process of our ancient ones.
We balance the world we live in by keeping the voices of our grandparents with us at all times. We find that we are strengthened in dark times, sometimes by just a single word. I tell my students, over and over, to stick with it. It seems like you are barely moving, barely taking in anything new, and being stuck on the same hurdles. But then it will click. You will begin to recognize words. You will sit and realize that you know what someone is talking about. You may now know specifics, but you will know what is being talked about. That is your new awakening.
One of the most important things that can happen in revitalization is reclaiming language. I have probably said this before, but I will say it again because oppression is a dangerous brainwasher. We are taking our language back. We are recognizing it as a necessary tool for existence and the very thing that shapes our consciousness. Our language is a canoe sitting out in the water. It began to drift out to sea, but we are taking the rope and pulling it back in.
It takes hard word. It takes dedication. You will not succeed just by saying you will, but will instead have to restructure your life to accommodate what is truly important: our grandparents. The elders who visited my classroom, and others who have been my teachers, they have kept this door open, the lid to what is our culture. These are heavy words and concepts, but they gave it to us. Our grandparents, they gave us spiritual strength and courage. They did this by showing us love for one another.
My first word is gratitude, and my second is courage. Be strong. Be brave. Do not submit to this other way of thinking that will fool you into thinking something is more important, superior, of more value. You are a priceless human being that was cherished by a grandparent. You will return that everlasting love by dedicating yourself to make sure we survive as a people who are not fully transformed, but can imitate our ancestors and can shape the world in the love they had for us when they opened that box of wisdom once again.
With life and love, I dedicate these words to my Náan Dorothy Dennis.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is an Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast