Our region and people are in the middle of an incredible storm. Our ancestors used to soak themselves in the winter waters for times like this. As Clarence Jackson said last year in his opening remarks for Celebration, they used to go in when the water was steaming from how cold it was. They strengthened themselves for moments just like this. They suffered tremendously, and they did it for us. Maybe this is the result of a hundred years of solid oppression. Maybe this is what it feels like when one generation turns over to another, and no one has prepared like we used to for cultural change.
There are things within our culture and language that allow us to pull each other together for emotional turmoil. It is embedded within our grammar, as we see from page 238 of the Naish-Story Tlingit Verb Dictionary: sh toonxh yee kkhwalyéixh – I am going to make myself united with you all. It is embedded within our oratory, in songs, stories, and speeches. There were times we held each other so close that we achieved the highest levels of human compassion and possibility.
But now we are adrift. It has undoubtedly always been difficult to make transitions from one generation to the next. All these fantastic human beings, who leave a wake so substantial that we feel as though the world will never recover. Because of that, we call ourselves has du eetí kháa – the ones in their remains. They have prepared us as best they could, and whether we believe it or not, we are ready.
The humility within our people leaves us thinking that we are never enough on our own. But that is the right way to feel because when we walk with our language and culture we never are alone. Our ancestors are there to help us, and we have a stronger ability to communicate with one another about sensitive and dangerous subject matter. My uncle Paul Marks was saying to our class today, over and over, that it is a sensitive thing, death, so we always paid close attention to our words, our mannerisms, the way we laughed and what we laughed at.
There were ways we used speech so that it became ceremony, medicine. There were ways we addressed a room so that those who suffered most knew they were the reason everyone came together. There was purpose, honor, reverence, and most of all language. I think that if you take away language, you realize that it was the thread that held everything together. The other evening, I interviewed my uncle Smitty Katzeek, and he kept saying in Tlingit: that was the way Raven said it.
Just because we feel astray, just because the waves are crashing over us, does not mean we cannot decide what to do about it. There was a time when we never sat back and waited to see what would happen to us, but instead we made a fortress to protect ourselves, our children, our elders, our people. And that time is returning to us again. In these difficult times, keep in mind that we have the greatest strength imaginable, and it is called unity.
When you are thinking about criticizing someone for the way they act: strengthen yourself. When you are thinking that we are in the worst of times: strengthen yourself. When you start thinking that we are not ready for the shift we are about to undergo: strengthen yourself.
Perhaps the shift we need is to return to our language and make it live. We do not need to continue talking about learning our language, and documenting our language, and lobbying for our language. We need to just live our language. As Barbra Meek points out in the early chapters of her book, “We Are Our Language,” we create a disconnect between ourselves and our languages when we think it is something we have to practice or wait for, when in actuality it is something we just need to live.
You do not need to wait for that class, or that new book, or that recording you wish you made. You do not need permission or to feel like you need to accommodate anyone who does not speak. You do not need to wait a single moment longer, because the glaciers are calving once again. They are exposing a new face and that is you. I see our next generation of orators, and I am sure they feel as unprepared and uncertain as the last generation and the ones before that. We see our heroes walking away from us, but we must keep in mind all that they are leaving behind.
One of the strongest images Austin Hammond left us with is a dream he continued to have. Many of his elders, his teachers, who had already walked around the point, were seated at a table amongst a great feast. They were waiting for him. It was his time. Over and over he had this vision. We are right there. They have left all these things for us, and we can take these gifts, these tools, and prepare ourselves to create a better world for our children and grandchildren. There are seats at the table for everyone.
What we have been trying has not been working. So we will try harder and with more unity. We do not have to pretend to be anything else. A brilliant colleague of mine, Alice Taff, has amassed one of the most amazing linguistic and cultural collections of Tlingit language and speakers. In one of her pieces of work, the late Walter Soboleff says, “Ligéiyi át áyá yaa gaxhtootée – it’s a big thing we’re going to carry”. My dear friend Ishmael Hope, one of our future orators, interviewed elder and teacher Ruth Demmert, and she said:
“Yées kháa Lingít,tlaxh wáa sá haa toowú sigóo, yá haa Lingítxh khusteeyí. Hél ch’a aadéi yéi yee.úxh’xw. Lingítxh haa sateeyí kei haa naltseen dé tsú. Haa yoo xh’atángi tsú. Kei ntugút ayáxh gughwatée.
Young people, how very much we want to have our Tlingit way of life. Don’t live another way. Our Tlingit ways of being gives us strength, too. Our language, too. It’s like we are going to rise up.”
All of these things are here, waiting for you. All of these ancient voices are wanting to be heard. To hear you speak and practice. We will stand up: for Kake. We will stand up: for our grandchildren. We will stand up: for ourselves. We will stand up: for all those who soaked in the waters of a difficult life. We will never wait again for the moment to arrive.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.