There are fewer than one percent of Tlingit people who can speak the language. I recently talked with students and my good friend James Crippen about what would happen if we did not have the Tlingit language. We would still be Tlingit. In fact, one could easily argue that speaking Tlingit is a negligible part of identity to many people, or else we would not have such a language crisis. I would not make that argument, however. I have seen the tears of joy our elders have, because their grandchildren are choosing to fight, to work hard for the words of our ancient ones.
We could be Tlingit without our language. But we would be the Tlingits they wanted us to be when they began degrading our language and knowledge, our respect for all things, and our ability to communicate with animate and inanimate things. We would be assimilated and removed from the ways we once saw the world. There would still be khu.éex’, we would just call it potlatch or memorial party. There would still be clans, we would just be Raven-Frog and Eagle-Wolf instead of Ghaanaxhteidí and Yanyeidí. We would start to lose more and more of the threads that ties clans together, and people to specific places and one another.
Without it, we are driftwood on the open seas, wandering. But with it, we are as Dáanaawaakh (Austin Hammond) once said: trees whose roots hold themselves together. He would point at the rugged hillsides and ask: do you see how steep those mountains are? Do you ever wonder how trees can grow up there? It is because the roots beneath the ground are intertwined, holding onto one another. That is how our Tlingit people are, and always have been.
This is seen in other Tlingit oratory, beautifully transcribed and translated by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer in Haa Tuwunáagu Yís. For example, the words of Katyé (David Kadashan): Yá Lingit’aaní gheix’ woosh jin toolshát yeisú — In this world, we’re still holding each other’s hands (236-237). Now we could live without that, just as we could live without a lung or a kidney, but would we really want to?
But I find myself having to rethink the question. Can we live without Tlingit? There is a practical voice within me that suggests we could, but my spirit says no. I see it as our very breath, haa xh’aséigu. When it is gone, we go with it. One of they keys to battling suicide within depressed communities and populations is convincing people of their own power. We have lived with generations of racial profiling, exclusion, belittlement, theft, violence, sexual abuses, dismissal, cutting humor, and more. But we have all the power we need. All we need to do is pick it up and begin walking in the steps of our grandparents.
I used to think about the fact that our strongest healers, the íxht’, are all gone now. But their knowledge returns to the earth, waiting for the next one to venture out and find it. We might be a long ways away from that, but then again we might not. When I sit with our elders and talk with them, when we dream about a world where we have created the change that we actually need, that will help keep us from dying off, then I think we have incredible medicine. We indeed have something stronger than we can imagine.
I am filled with hope because I see children who are learning our language. I see non-Tlingit people learning our language. A particularly bright student recently told me that we are dealing with a sleeping giant. That we are going to start speaking, and then it is not going to stop. We can and will convince ourselves to stop putting it away, to stop thinking there is something more important. We can stop investing millions into asking why Alaska Native and Native American people experience astronomical rates of addiction, abuse, violence, suicide. It is because we no longer know who we are. Language suicide leads to physical suicide. Being what we were told to be simply does not work. We fail.
But our ancestors have always wanted us to win. They hold their grandchildren up. That is why, when you are studying this language on this land, you will have days when you say things that you never knew before. It is because someone is speaking through you, giving back pieces of ancient knowledge that has held us together. This is something that we have experienced, those of us who are trying so hard to learn our language. Knowledge is not lost, it just waits for the next person to come along in the right way, with the right words and humility.
I am overwhelmed by the determination and abilities of our students. They are facing gigantic beasts, like cultural genocide and broken families. They are overcoming their fears and discovering new things about our people and themselves. They are learning more about their neighbors, and about the fact that there are so few of us now fighting this way. But there will be more. Another of my students keeps saying that there will be many, speaking and being heard.
There is nothing that can stop this. We have heard over and over again how difficult it is to learn Tlingit. We might even say it ourselves. But David Katzeek, when he is inspiring our students, continues to say that once you tell yourself it is difficult, that you actually make it difficult. This is something to stop and think about. As a student, you should not say “I can’t say that,” or “I don’t get it.” Instead, say “that is hard, but I am going to get it.”
Tlingit is not hard. It is full of so many wonderful complexities that you will never run out of questions. It will make you see the world differently, especially when “hand me the pencil” is different than hand me the rock, ball, clock, or puppy, and “open the window” depends on whether it is in a sash or opens with a crank. It is an infinite ocean of possibilities and changes, because it is a language. It is only a language. People learned it from birth before, and will again. People learned it as a second language before, and that is what they are doing now.
Tlingit is not hard. Not having Tlingit would be hard. Not having electricity and heaters and cars would be hard. We are living in a time when our challenge is to learn, and when we do that we will strengthen our mind, body, and spirit. We will make the world better for our grandchildren, and their children. We will continue holding onto one another, doing what we were born to do.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.