We all survived the turning over of the Mayan calendar, and yoo aan kaawa.áa taat (the night the earth quaked), and if anyone is looking for New Year’s resolutions, then the place to go is our Alaska Native languages. There is no better way to see the world than through the perspective of the Ancient People of this place. With a few semesters of intensive study, you can change the way you think about our homeland and the things that have lived here for over ten thousand years. It is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it.
Let us take a look at a couple of examples of how language shapes the way we see the world. If we are monolingual, we really lose out on the ability to see things from multiple perspectives at the same time. When am playing Words With Friends, my brain is always trying to put Tlingit words into it, which makes my slow pace even slower, but it is fun because I find myself wondering which words my mind is trying to find and why. Do not take that to mean that being multi-lingual slows us down, because what it does is gives us multiple angles from which to see the same situation, which is an incredible benefit for problem-solving and cross-cultural communications.
Language is much more than a different word for the same thing. It can give us so much to analyze about the way people developed in relation to the world around them. There is an interconnectedness of place and time that we are sitting right next to and often neglect to embrace. For the Tlingit people, we still have many of the things we have always done, but speaking our languages will help us to understand the reasons why we do things certain ways.
A fun example is the categorization of objects when they are being handled. Picking up, carrying, handing over, and putting down objects introduces the learner of Tlingit to the categories of nouns that the language uses in certain situations. This came up earlier this semester when a student asked how to tell his dog to fetch. It all depends on what the thing is.
To begin with, here are the types of objects and the verb that goes with them for a generic “bring it here” command: haat tí (general, compact object); haat katí (small, round object); haat satí (frame-like object, object with internal parts); haat kasatí (round, frame-like object); haat jiksatí (coiled rope or yarn, skein, hank or coil or rope or yarn); haat tán (empty container); haat sa.ín (full container, container with contents); haat satán (pole-like object); haat kasatán (small pole-like object); haat sanú (living creature, usually carried in arms); haat satá (dead animal, sleeping baby); haat áxh (fabric, cloth); haat yéi sané (plural objects in general); haat kajél (all of something).
Examples of these can be found in “Lingít Xh’éináxh Sá: Say It in Tlingit”by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer. While an example like this might be intimidating for a student, it shows that there are different ways to see the world. If you are going to talk about moving an object, it matters what type of object it is. This gives us a snapshot into the way language functions and opens the door for pondering the reasons why. The way we handle objects might change when we think about how they change the very language we use.
Beyond that, there are fascinating ways to interact with people and the natural world. In our culture, it is common to communicate with everything around you; whether it is talking to a tree before cutting it down, welcoming the salmon back, or lamenting the weather, language was the common denominator for people and place. Even for speakers of Tlingit today, some of these concepts might seem strange, or perhaps the speaker is worried that talking about these things or doing these things will bring judgment from the world around us.
But this region has been a multilingual place for millennia, and always should be. There is as much room for Tlingit as there is for English or anything else, and we can share perspectives of the world around us. We can share our experience of what happens when we work hard within our language and see glimpses of an ancient and amazing world where Raven interacts with the landscape and we try to describe the unbelievable and spectacular place where we now live.
As you start this New Year, you have an opportunity to change the face of history. All of the things that have led us to this place we are now have not determined anything, because we are living and breathing human beings. We have a love for one another that we can rediscover and reaffirm through the interconnections we find through the languages that were born here.
I am thinking about our elders, and how much joy it brings them to see us giving it all we have to bring things back to a stable place. This is the one and only chance we will have to make this decision, so we must put our hearts and minds together and reform this place so there is more balance and understanding. Language revitalization is something we all own a piece of, right here and now, and it is the best thing you can be doing.
I am thinking about our children, and how they can walk through this world bilingual and intelligent, capable and confident. Somehow a linguistic value system has emerged and it is a completely false one based on shallow ideas of racial superiority. We can look past all of that as individuals and organizations. People can study, speak, listen, and learn. A language lives so long as people simply decide to speak it. Do not fear mistakes or embarrassment. There is a nest here that has been built by people who love their children and grandchildren more than anything.
We can all make the time to do things differently. That is the beautiful thing about oppression in today’s world: it is light as the fog. It is only stopping you if you decide to allow it. There is nothing that will keep us from succeeding now. Our time and energy can go into this revitalization, and we can look back a generation or two from now and be proud of the houses we have built.
For all the organizations, it is time to collaborate in complete unity. We should be having monthly language khu.éex’ (ceremonial gatherings) so we can work on healing and sharing language. We should have a town hall meeting for our languages twice a year and talk about what projects need to be completed and what sources of funding we can identify and go after. The competitive grant world can trick us into thinking that we are the competition, when really we are the grandchildren of the same Ancient Ones who are calling on us now. We should be funding students who want to learn, finding ways to utilize tuition waivers for language study, mandating language study for our employees and board members, and putting more elders into the classroom. We should build an actual language nest that has an immersion daycare and a facility where our language is the only one spoken.
Take a deep breath. Everything you need to improve this world is right before you. It is the decision to do things differently. To embrace the language that is right here, waiting for us to make the right move. I have seen people learning this language. It does not matter how complicated it is because we are brilliant people. We have hope and energy and time. If you keep trying, if you hold one another up, and if you raise your awareness on what kinds of seeds have been planted that could divide us, then we will look back at this year as the time we thought we could change everything and did.
The following classes are now available at UAS: AKL103: Tlingit I (Mon. 4-5 p.m., distance available), AKL106: Elementary Tlingit II (Tuesday & Thursday 5:30-7:30 p.m., distance available), AKL108: Elementary Haida II (Monday & Wednesday, 5:30-7:30 p.m., distance), AKL193: Southeast Alaska Native Song & Dance (Saturday, 5-8 p.m.), Intermediate Tlingit II (Monday & Wednesday, 5:30-7:30 p.m., distance available), AKL393: Documenting Alaska Native Languages (Tuesday & Thursday, 3-4:30 p.m.) and AKL241 Alaska Native Oratory.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.