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Haa yoo xh'atángixh haa sitee: we are our language

Posted: January 31, 2013 - 12:01am

I have seen a brighter future, and that is a roomful of children who are not thinking about the fact that they have more than one name, and more than one language. It was two days ago in Yakutat, where a diligent language team is pushing their own abilities and seeing results in the community’s children. The best moment was when the children were introducing themselves, and were disappointed that I was not pronouncing their names correctly after they said them. Proper pronunciation was expected, which means they are using their language.

As a region, we must understand the simplicities of language survival: speak it and it lives, don’t and it dies. These children had time with elders and speakers. It was not enough time, but it is making a difference. With the current state and needs of our region and its people, the time has come to make a more concerted effort with indigenous languages in our schools. The teachers, advocates, and programs currently in place are incredible; they are more than we could have imagined 20 years ago, or 40, but still it is a quick nod of the head compared to the amount of time our children spend in education.

So many of our notions of a quality education are rooted in outdated concepts of superiority. There is a feeling that something will be lost instead of gained by pushing to create bilingual children; not just children with knowledge of a second language, but children that speak and think in two languages. There are powerful stories going through my mind as I think about it and reflect on what these children and their teachers have shown me.

Before I left Yakutat, I had a chance to speak to the language teachers, and I told them that we were seeing something unbelievable. We were living something that our ancestors saw in a dream: their grandchildren returning home to them, to the land. If we go back five or six generations from now, we do not have a monolingual place but a multilingual one. Our ancestors, the ones who lived at that time, want to speak to us and hear us in our native languages. They are so very lonesome in the places they are now, but it does not have to be that way. It will not be that way for much longer.

Here are two things: 1 – education in Alaska Native languages should take up at least one-third of the total time spent in education for all Alaska children. This is a step in the right direction. It would be incredible to be at a 50-50 ratio, but a goal like this could begin taking us there. Ask yourself what you are thinking right now, and what might be driving that mode of thinking. There is no evidence whatsoever that making genuine efforts to revitalize languages born in this place will result in young adults with less ability, self-worth, or understanding. There is evidence, however, to the contrary.

2 – I saw several online comments in response to an article on the Idle No More protests in Juneau. The spirit of these particular comments can be summed up in this question: what more do you Alaska Natives want? The short answer, for me, is this: an end to ignorance in terms of what Alaska Native people have, want, have lost, and are losing. If you have to ask that question, then you have no idea what is at stake because you probably stand to lose nothing comparatively.

I am continually surprised that there is not more momentum in the realm of language revitalization. We have more resources right now than we will have in a long time, and there is nothing stopping us. We have all of the reasons we might need to stand up and fight back by learning more about ourselves and the languages that tie us specifically to this place. English does not accomplish this. It allows us to describe things well, to communicate just fine, and to enter a world where the few are eliminating the many. But it does not heal our spirit. It does not allow us to see the knowledge that was born here in an ancient and powerful relationship of land, people, animals, and spirits.

What more do we want? We want our language to live on the land. Everywhere we go, we see an English-only existence, and our children are not succeeding at anywhere near the level they could if we had a chance to truly co-exist in our own ancestral homeland. We want balance for every one of our adults who had to endure unfathomable racism that were attempts to destroy who they were. When you ask such questions, in the face of what is happening now in terms of language loss and social struggle (poverty, suicide, homicide, victimization, marginalization, exploitation), it makes me think of the following stories I have recently heard.

When some children were caught speaking their own language, they were smacked on the hand or across the face. Some of them had their mouths washed out with soap. In certain cases, repeat offenders were locked in an unheated closet without food for two days, although they were given a small cup of water. On the other hand, children who assimilated were rewarded. We are always seemingly just beginning to understand some of these stories because nobody really talks about them or calls for attention to them. They are buried.

Recent studies are estimating “that as many as 25-50 percent of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976” (Gregory W. Rutecki, MD 2010) as results of medical malpractice and coercion. In addition, the adoption of Native American children to non-native families was a regular and likely calculated attack on family structures, cultures, and language. No one experiences violent crimes like Native American people, especially women. Our traditional lands are increasingly threatened by pollutants, exploitation, radiation, and other unknown unnatural disasters.

But despite all of this, we are still here, standing up for our future generations with the strength of previous ones. The question is not how much more do you want, or how can you possibly stop losing more. Study the treaties that formed the countries in North America, and ask how they can possibly be valid after repeated failures to honor agreements on the part of the United States and Canada. Despite these ongoing atrocities, the genocide of hundreds of cultures, millions of people, we have all the hope and capabilities we need. I have seen the children hungry for more language, fun, healing, laughter, understanding, and connection. For those who are wanting to be a part of the revitalization movement, then we should decide to ignore ignorance and focus on power: learning, understanding, pushing ourselves, and embracing positive change.

David Katzeek has been spending time with our students, and he continues to say, “you are intelligent beings.” You were born to challenge yourself with these languages, and to challenge the courses of history that have led us here to the edge of ultimate loss. Television and other devices of the modern world stupefy your mind because the isolated and passive results of a media-fed world creates frozen observers. Instead of watching things in the world, be in the world, be change, live the dream that our ancestors had when they broke the rules and spoke these beautiful languages. They kept them alive, and now we must build a forest from these saplings. You can change it all by walking on the land and speaking everyday, building your strength, increasing your knowledge, improving the lives of our elders and children.

• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.

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