Time for tough conversations

Lance Twitchell

No matter what they might think of themselves right now, students of Tlingit have blown me away with their hard work, dedication, courage, and resolve. This is one of the finer moments of my life, working with people who also hear the calling. It is time for revitalization. No more waiting for something to happen. It is addition instead of subtraction. At long last, we are hearing their voices, our grandparents. At long last, we are reaching out to our elders and trying to hear them in a way they love and understand. Yes, this is a hard path to take. Yes, there are thorns along the path. Yes, you build your new house with tiny stones. We are doing exactly what we were meant to do.


It has been a tremendous year for language learning at UAS and in our region. Things are gaining momentum, but we must always be cautious. One of my colleagues recently spoke about his experiences touring immersion schools in Hawaii, and he noted that the language leaders there would probably never say that they have made it, that they have succeeded. This is a battle we will be fighting our whole lives. That does not mean we cannot have so much fun, feel so spiritually relieved and fulfilled. But it does mean that we cannot rest in our fight to bring our languages back to our home, back to our children, and back to our land.

The day is coming when all four languages of Southeast Alaska are sharing time in educational and other systems. Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit are more than things you carry in your wallet, or use in conversation to mark who is different and who is the same. Instead, they are things we were born to work for: languages. They survive when people just find ways to use them. We play games. We make dumb jokes. We tease each other. These languages are living and are on their way back to thriving, but we need more people, more energy, more hope. This is much bigger than who is one thing and who is another, but that is unfortunately a major part of it.

A couple of days ago I was shopping around Juneau. Just the usual fill the cart up with a wide assortment of things over the weekend type of thing. I stood in line at this large shopping center and waited my turn. The cashier was chatting with the customer in front of me, smiling and ringing up groceries. The customer left, and I loaded my things onto the belt and stepped towards the credit card machine in front of the cashier. Then I noticed something. She would not look at me. I said hello. There was no response. She rang each food item up, and then put them in the bag. This might have been done more carelessly than for the customer before, but by then I was already looking for it: treatment.

I have talked with members of the Native community about things like this. There is a list of stores that we talk about amongst ourselves that do these types of things on a regular basis, so it is time to end the silence about treating people differently because of who they are. And I have braced myself for the comments that might come from people who want to avoid the conversation. Maybe that customer was a friend of hers. Maybe I am just too sensitive. Maybe I am imagining things. Maybe I am the one who is keeping racism alive.

The bottom line is that we are ready to progress to a place where we can minimize the power dynamic in this whole thing. It does not make sense to argue about whether these things happen, but it does make sense to talk about what to do about it. We need forward-thinking managers of stores to let the community know that discrimination based on appearance will not be tolerated. But this is going to take a lot of work. This is going to take some time. It is our duty and our time to figure these things out, though, because they contribute to hostility, oppression, language death, and social dysfunction.

We can move from a relatively small thing like being rude to the customer, and jump to a larger part of the discussion. When I take an honest look at our schools in Alaska, I see a system that is intolerant and is performing one of the missions that it inherited as a system: killing cultures and languages. If we stop and ask ourselves why English is the default for education and community activities, then we find ourselves looking back at a troubled and racist history. This is also something we can fix, but it will take monumental risks. It was also reap immeasurable rewards.

There is a genuine fear about opening the door to other languages and cultures in our schools. To be humanistic, compassionate, fair, and intelligent, we should be teaching Alaska Native languages as much as we are English. The history is on the side of English. We all speak it and will continue speaking it. Teaching other languages does not result in a lesser proficiency in English. English has only been here for a minuscule amount of time compared to Alaska Native languages, yet we rarely talk about putting these things on equal platforms.

When I lived in Skagway and worked for the Tribe, we attempted to create a daycare for our community. The plan was to alter the curriculum to allow Tlingit language and culture to be learned from our children. All of our children. When enough time and rumor came into the equation, the word in the community was that my plan was to force these children to speak Tlingit. Force them. A dear friend pulled me aside one day and asked to confirm it. I said we were integrating curriculum, but would not force anyone to do anything. The kids should be happy to learn, as should the community. She looked at me, very concerned, and said without humor: that is how Hitler started.

For some reason there is a feeling that teaching Tlingit would be forcing language upon victims, whereas an English-only curriculum is not seen as that. This is the world we live in. But it is time to face these assumptions and dig deep into the things that keep us from finding out more about each other, about keeping one another alive and well. When Alaska Native languages die, they do not become anything else. They are gone from us, for all time.

Ancient languages of Europeans became other languages, so sometimes we mistakenly believe that this is all part of an evolution. It is not. We are ready as a community. We are ready as a region. We are ready as a people. It does not matter what color your skin is, how impoverished you might look, what belief systems you have, or what language you speak. What matters is that our community knows how to treat one another.

Racism is not going to meet a silent minority. I was in a meeting last year where that word kept coming up: minority. Finally, I raised my hand and said, “I am not a minority. I am a majority. I am on the side that’s right.” There is an entire world to be discovered when we free ourselves from these forms of hatred. There is a different place where Alaska Native people are not continually othered by a system that is supposed to educate their children and prepare them for the world.

The multilingual can encounter a problem and think about it in multiple perspectives at the same time. Our languages can co-exist, but not until we drastically change the systems. English-only is a terrible killing machine. Treating people poorly as they spend their money at your store is outdated and foolish. Let us unite against these things and see what we can become. I think the result is going to surprise us all.

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


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