One of the more courageous students in my class asked how to deal with the emotions of being left out. How could someone who grew up in a traditional house not know about the language and culture? This brings us to an interesting and vital part of our language revitalization, what some might call the middle generation: the parents of the current 30-somethings from Lingít’aaní. These are also grandparents to young children, like my toddling daughter, and sometimes they are carrying a tremendous pain.
As we move forward with concepts of language revitalization and changing the world as we know it, we have to talk about the things that are stopping us, the holes inside us that we can fill with medicine and the words of our ancient ones. None of this is easy. One of my aunties talks about being beat up all the time while growing up, just because of who she is, and how that created a great shame in associating herself with Tlingit culture and language. These are things we must address in order to move forward.
Many Tlingit children now have the opportunity to be around their language. It is not enough time to create speakers, but it is more than we could have imagined 30 years ago, or 50. These children are coming home with words, phrases, and songs that they are learning from young teachers and fluent elders. Sometimes their parents might hear these things and continue speaking English in the home, watching English-only television, carrying on without the language. Sometimes adults will hear their children speaking a language they never had a chance to learn, and it will cause suffering.
This is why we need ceremony. People who do not know or are in denial would suggest that we chose not to speak and teach our languages, that they became outdated. Few people take an honest look at the damages of generations of violent assimilation and wonder what that does to people who survived it. To their children and grandchildren. We need ceremony, and we need to take in all those who wish to learn more about our culture, our language, and themselves.
It is easy to bottle up that anger and pain. It is easy to avoid facing. It is difficult to transform it into a love for our ancestors and children. But when I look at my daughter, I think about the fact that we may only have a few dozen speakers by time she is 18. I have a great hope for changing the way we think about ourselves, our time, and the burdens that we carry, but we need to change and change fast.
Some of our middle generation know so many words and phrases that the language will come quickly to them if we work hard and stay together. So many things in this world are pulling us in different directions, so that we become isolated with technologies and solo activities. To counter those things, the students of Alaska Native Languages at UAS have decided to dedicate time and energy towards spaces where our language can be heard and spoken.
If you have time, please join us on Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. in the Mourant Cafeteria on campus at UAS, or at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on the first Thursday of every month from 12-1 p.m., also on Fridays from 12-1 p.m. in Egan 224 on campus, and Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. at the Student Rec Center. These meetings are free and open to the public, and sometimes will consist of lessons and practice, other times conversations with fluent speakers, and other times talking about language and what we need to do to reverse language shift.
Just remember that we will not forget you. There may be times when we ask to stay focused on language, or to try and move lessons forward, but we will take time when necessary to talk about what it is like to be left out, forgotten, looked over, oppressed, made fun of, pushed aside. We will create a space on the land of our grandparents where we understand the love they had for us and the strength they carried that allowed them to survive in a difficult world.
We need to make new speakers every day. We need to finally wake up from this nightmare where our language dies and we do little to nothing on a daily basis. We need the comfort that our culture and language can bring, and to reclaim all of it. Visiting Gwich’in elder Randall Tetlichi said several times, while visiting our campus last week, that we do not lose knowledge when our elders pass away. It returns to the land, and when we speak our language on the land, it comes back to us in our dreams.
Sometimes the talk about language death can overwhelm us and keep us from trying, but we need to remember that it is all right here. As Ishmael Hope reminds me, over and over again, anyone can learn this language if they work hard to devote the time and energy it takes to internalize it. There might be times when you feel great pain, but that is the release of that pain, giving it back to the world and exchanging it for knowledge, words, stories, and ancient ways of seeing this wonderful place.
* Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.