If we do not change what we are doing, and how we are doing it, then we will be well on our way to losing the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages by the time our current kindergarten students are graduating high school. We will be lucky to have twenty speakers combined. It is time for a sense of urgency. This brings up an interesting question, which I discussed with students this semester. Tasaku Tsunoda asks in the book Language Endangerment And Language Revitalization: An Introduction: “What to revitalize: language alone, or language-and-culture?” (173). We often see them as inseparable, but in reality they are born in the same place but heading in a different direction.
Thirty years ago, Celebration was born. It has changed the way we see ourselves, and the way that the world sees us, but it also opens a potentially dangerous door to culture without language. Let us return to the words of Kichnáalxh (George Davis), from the Dauenhauers’ Haa Tuwunáagu Yís: “Ch’a yéi gugénk’ áwé a kaaxh shukaylis’úxh haa tlagu khwáanx’i aadéi s khunoogu yé – We have uncovered only a tiny portion of the way our ancient peopled used to do things” (312). There, with so much knowledge and language in one place, they could barely scratch the surface of what we call imitating our ancestors.
And now we gather every two years in a wonderful ceremony and display of identity, survival, and growth. But what Tsunoda was getting at with his question is this: it is much easier to learn songs and dances than it is to revitalize languages. Tlingit is hard. I don’t know if there is anything more difficult in this world, to be honest. Our people had strong minds and spirits, they spoke a language that was born out of this very landscape, and we have to collectively decide to stop letting it drift away from us.
There is a risk here. Some people might think I am saying the same thing, over and over. But that is a difference between the Euroamerican world and the one we are trying to keep alive. In our tradition, we had ceremonies for encouraging young people to be strong. That is what I am trying to imitate here, and that is why I continue saying the same things: we are dying, but we do not have to. We are dying. We do not have to. After thinking about Tsunoda’s question, and Kichnláaxh’s statement, let us now turn to the future with yet another difficult question. What are we preparing for them?
In the Tlingit way of thinking, you are what you imitate. We have an important verb, which is axh’eiwatee – s/he imitated him/her. When we imitate our ancestors, we become them, in time. We are rarely doing that now, but instead are imitating the culture that has oppressed and assimilated us. So we have to fight it. We might feel like we need to be doing something else, or that our privacy is being invaded, but those are foreign concepts that live within the foreign English language that has displaced us.
When talking about language revitalization, the most important term is “intergenerational communication,” which means that generations are communicating in their language. That is where we are going with all of this. Nothing more complicated than that: speak to each other and do it all the time. Some people mistakenly think that we will suddenly forget English, or we will lose ground in some other area like land claims, subsistence, health care, and what have you. Keep in mind that those are also foreign concepts. They are important, vital issues, but we will gain ground with them when we reclaim our languages. We will stop killing ourselves and seeking addictions and abuses. It is a long road, but we will find ourselves taking the steps.
Our goal is simple: connect the dots. When we are successful, our ancestors will be holding hands with our unborn children. It will be amazing at that time, because we will gain new understandings that we had no idea where there to begin with. Visiting elder Randall Tetlichi talked about this with one of my classes several weeks ago. Our language lives on the land, our voices are heard on it, and in return we hear our ancestors. But they are not speaking foreign languages. They are Tlingit. They love us and love the idea of giving gifts to their grandchildren.
When you stop and think about it, or better yet, when you walk out on the land and speak any amount of Tlingit you know and are learning, it will make sense. We are imitating them so we can discover all these things we were meant to see, know, and do. We were born in this place and time so we can stand united and create a world our grandparents always dreamed about, hand in hand.
I come back to thoughts like this when I hear our people cutting each other down. Doubt. That is another foreign concept, the way we fail to trust one another, fail to share everything that we have. We have learned to scrounge everything around us, and to forget the immeasurable wealth that complete generosity brings. Every time you think about it, and feel like you would be missing something by sharing everything, then you can laugh because you have been tricked again.
This time, our eyes are wide open. We are looking towards our future, and our children and grandchildren are speaking Tlingit without hesitation. They are speaking English as well as any of us, and are understanding more of themselves and us because of the work we are doing for them right now. My dear friend Ishmael Hope says it best: “Anyone can learn this language. They just need to work hard.” Put this down, take the hand of your grandparents, and know you are valubale, loved, needed.
• Lance A. Twitchell (Xh’unei) is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.