Earlier this month I was a member of a group that was greeted by about a hundred children who were not only fluent in the Hawaiian language, but were speakers from birth. Participants of the field study portion of the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC) toured a Hawaiian immersion school in Hilo. Our day began with a welcoming ceremony performed by the students and responded to by Dorothy Lazore, a leader of the Mowhawk language revitalization movement. These children did not bear the burden of language murder or suicide, but just heard and spoke their ancestral language without hesitation or difficulty.
We have not had a birth speaker of a Southeast Alaska Native language in over fifty years, and that creates incredible gaps within our language population. So many of our Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people are currently living day after day without our languages that the death of those languages threatens to happen rather quietly, without any furious uprising or true movement to change attempts at cultural genocide. But we are going to defy that. We are going to imitate others who have been successful. In order to do that, we have to change. We have to understand that the daily routine, the comfort of living without language, is a quiet walk into a setting sun that will never rise again.
The key to language revitalization is this right here: speak it. You may feel like a terrible speaker. You might feel lost and up against brick walls, but you are going to enter into a consciousness that is radically different than an English-only Euroamerican worldview, and that does not come easy. We are going to have to hold each other up and not make fun of each other’s mistakes. We are going to have to create communities of speakers where there are very few or none. And that means giving up a lot of what the modern world would like us to think is necessary.
These children in Hawaii were learning science and math in Hawaiian. They did not have their first classes about the English language until the fourth grade. Now. Stop yourself and ask what you are thinking? Are you thinking that these children have less of an opportunity than others? Or that they will not be able to have the same skills as others? The interesting thing about those thoughts is that the reverse is true. Language is a key part of creating and understanding cultural identity. That is not the same as racial identity and differences. It is instead a worldview that was constructed over thousands of generations in many different places and situations, and exists at the subconscious and cellular levels.
If you take away the connection of people and language, then the people will inevitably die. It is taking a fish out of water. We have to understand how powerful this connection is, and make it a front burner issue instead of one that linguists and those with multicultural interests and empathies understand and talk about in conferences and publications that the majority of the public will ignore.
Language revitalization is now part of our general vocabulary. Genocide is not a bad word, but it is a reality of our collective history. We are the ones obligated to combat the efforts of killing off whole groups of people. Part of this revitalization is going to be ceremonies, healing, rediscovery of self. Another major part of it is putting the language back on the land, and that is where you come in, every single one of you.
When I was in Hawaii I saw the placenames everywhere in Hawaiian. The language was heard as soon as you stepped off the plane and was spoken, at least in part, by a large percentage of people, regardless of their cultural heritage. That is where we are headed with all of this. You might think Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian languages are hard, but learning them is nothing compared to having them stripped away with violent child abuse and cunning lies about intellectual or cultural superiority.
Yes, we are all in this together. It is going to become a much bigger thing than it is right now, and everyone is welcome at the feasts and tables. It begins with seeing that language survival is all about speaking and listening, and not being a passive receptacle for television, radio, and internet. That does not mean those things are bad; instead, we have to take our language to those media sources and create programs in our languages, write on social media sites and other places in our languages.
Our current students are texting in Tlingit, posting in Tlingit, playing games in Tlingit. The key to understanding what makes a speaker is just looking at what you do every day. Ask yourself this: did I speak the language today? Did I hear it? And did I do those things more than I did the day before? The right answers will let you know that you are a speaker of the language, and that you have taken ownership of it.
One of the most powerful things I heard in Hawaii was that they stopped waiting for things to happen. They did not care about regulations and laws, but they challenged them. They made certain that there was nothing else for them to do but succeed. And that means taking bigger steps each time, which is where we are at. We have a growing number of students and teachers. We have children who are ready to learn Tlingit without worrying about how hard it is or who speaks it and who does not. We are ready to worry less about mistakes and changes than we are about life and death.
The ceremony the Hawaiian children performed to welcome us was full of life, harmony, oratory, and healing. It was like coming to the end of a long and treacherous walk, where you have a vision of the brightest of possible days: and finally realize it. For much of my life I have thought about our generations, all of us who are in this place we call Southeast Alaska. It is place where languages are threatened, but will not die. It is a place where a generation was born to speak without the burdens of death, murder, suicide, and doubt holding them back. Genocide will become a thing of the past when we face it together, fading away like some horrible nightmare that we can finally wake from.
What I saw in Hawaii is a snapshot of what the future holds for us in Alaska, but that will only come as soon as we decide to stop waiting and start speaking. It is time for our current leadership to challenge the State of Alaska to recognize that it has 22 official languages of the state, and that only one of those is English. If one of these languages die, then it kills a piece of all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. And when one of them revitalizes, we come a step closer to a concept we call being human, having a consciousness that can look past the oversimplified arguments of “us” and “them”. We can have a multilingual society where children are not killing themselves, where respect is much higher on the intellectual food chain, and where our children are more free from the burdens of a violent and challenging past.
In many ways, we have made life more difficult for our own selves. Out of our current leadership at tribal, city, state, and federal governments, few (if any) elevate indigenous languages as a topic of importance. We sometimes talk about suicide rates, poverty, retention across education, and substance abuse. But we are not talking nearly enough about language, and more importantly we are not living within our languages enough. Those days are about to be put behind us, and that is because of the decisions every one of us are about to make. We will become reborn in the vision of our ancestors, and it will happen now before it is too late.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.