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Two firsts, one great weekend

Posted: April 4, 2013 - 12:00am
Lance Twitchell
Lance Twitchell

Over this coming weekend, the first Alaska Native Studies Conference will convene at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The planning has involved faculty from the University of Alaska Southeast, UAA, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kodiak College, and students of Alaska Native Studies programs in Alaska and elsewhere. The event kicks off tomorrow with a preconference symposium titled “The Things We Make: Alaska Native Art in the 21st Century” and then continues through the weekend. For more information, including a schedule of events, please visit the Alaska Native Studies homepage at the University of Alaska Anchorage (www.uaa.alaska.edu/native).

Meanwhile, the UAS Honors Program—which has been initiated with the leadership of Sol Neely, Assistant Professor of English — will continue its first ever Honors Spring Symposium. The symposium theme is “Transgenerational Suffering: historical violence, memory & repair" and all events are free and open to the public. The first event will take place Friday evening at the UAS Egan Lecture Hall from 6:30 – 7:30. It features discussions led by visiting scholars Patricia Huntington (“The Trauma of Gifted Children”) and Martin Beck Matusik (“Out of Silence: Repair Across Generations”). Activities will continue on Monday April 8, at 5:30 p.m. at the UAS Rec Center with a student-led discussion on the text Haunting Legacies, which will include contributions on the topic of transgenerational suffering by students and speakers of the Tlingit language. The Symposium wraps up on Friday April 12 at 7 p.m. with a Lecture in the Egan Lecture Hall by Monica Osborne (“After Representation: On Culture, Catastrophe, and the Midrashic Impulse”). For more information, please visit the UAS Honors Program at www.uas.alaska.edu/honors .

The topic of transgeneration suffering is an important one to consider in discussions of language revitalization. We see it in the pain of generations who chose not to speak to the next, and in subsequent generations who have to do the hard labor necessary to repair generational fissures. We also see it in the aftermath of unspeakable and unimaginable child abuses and other inhumanities that are an integral part of our shared history, whether you are from here or not.

Some of the common misconceptions are that it was long ago, and we need to move past it (get over it, let it go, stop dragging it into the moment, stop making people suffer). The reality is that all of this terrible history — the attempts to destroy languages and cultures, racial hatred and separation — these things have not been dealt with. Just because they stopped happening does not mean we should no longer talk about them. The type of suffering we are talking about does not go away. People have to consciously make them go away.

Part of this discussion is extremely painful. But we must enter that pain in order to find ways to release it. We absolutely must. Alaska has long-since had the highest suicide rate in the nation. The highest rates within Alaska are among Alaska Natives, especially our children. The leading cause of death among Alaska Native youth has been suicide for some time. It is a problem statewide, yes, but it is an absolute epidemic among Alaska Natives. Our children are dying, so we need to bring these discussions to the table and do everything we can to understand the causes, the effects, and the gaps within the capabilities of our communities to protect our children.

From the Tlingit perspective, we return to the quote of Khaal.átk’ (Charlie Joseph, Kaagwaantaan) from Because We Cherish You (Dauenhauer 1981). He said: “Ch’u tlákwdáxh haa dachxhán haa kináa kei wtusinúk. Aaa. Xh’atulitseen. Tsu khushtuyáxh daa sá yaa tushigéiyi át du jeedéi yatxh gatooteeyín haa dachxhanxh siteeyí kháa. Ách áyá yáa yeedát s du wakhshiyeexh tulayéxhxh.” This translates to: “Even from long ago we have placed our grandchildren high above ourselves. Yes. We cherish them. Even those things we treasure we used to offer up to them, to those who are our grandchildren. That is why we made these songs their vision.”

These are critical words for us to internalize. All of us. When I see the statistics of Alaska Native Suicide, I cannot help but think that these children and young adults did not kill themselves. They were killed. It is an extension of a nationwide plan to kill people off, and it continues because we have not become united in our efforts to heal from what has happened. The wounds exist on all sides of our populations. Whether you are children of the oppressed or the oppressor, you suffer. Whether you acknowledge it or reject it, you are a part of the fabric that makes up the world that is this place, this moment.

We have dying languages and people. For some reason we have learned to dehumanize the entire thing. But if we can stop and see discussions that have occurred and helped in other areas where genocides and holocausts occurred, then perhaps we can gain some traction for our own homeland. Southeast Alaska is a place where multiple languages were born and will live forever. Everyone is invited to the feast that will be our recognition, our healing, and our rebirth.

In our classes and studies, we often laugh and get ridiculous. This is because we know subconsciously what kinds of healing must take place in order for us to succeed. In order to live. Learning Tlingit is probably the hardest thing you can do, and our students and teachers are making incredible strides despite being such a small part of the population. Our elders come in and give us hope. They lend us the strength that they have gained because Tlingit language flows through their veins and in their minds.

This movement is gaining momentum, but the need is much greater than the current collective effort. Stop and think about it. Everything that you think is more important is not at risk of dying or being killed like our languages are. If we can finally turn the corner, we will then realize how much more power and beauty can exist in our homeland. If we can just come together more and with more resolve, then we will realize that vision our elders had long ago, when they made their grandchildren their vision and mission.

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

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