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Alaska Native Languages: Back in the home, at long last

Posted: June 6, 2013 - 12:05am

Language revitalization has some pretty simple goals, but they are hard to achieve. Here they are: make the endangered language an equally used language in the home, use it between generations, and put it back on the land. We seem to be gaining momentum by continuing to have conversations about language revitalization, but there is a big difference between talking about languages and speaking them. For a wide variety of reasons, the overwhelming majority of students who pass through a series of language classes end up using the language sparingly, if at all, after about five years. These students know a lot about the language, but they do not speak it. If you were to ask them to tell you what happened to them yesterday, or to relay a short story, they probably could not do it.

This is not said to bring out anything negative about past efforts or programs. It is a symptom common among languages in the Americas, where English is threatening to destroy everything after all these years. If you are a movie fan, then think of great films where the underdog struggles against all odds and defeats a seemingly unbeatable and terrifying foe. English is the Darth Vader here, and that is a difficult pill to swallow. We all speak a common language, and it is a tremendous killing machine.

That is not to say that I do not love the language. There are so many fun things to do in English, and I can speak it much better than I can Tlingit. That being said, however, we must examine what is going on and how it is an extension of the greatest colonial force the world has ever seen. If your language is nowhere near extinction, then you might not feel the urgency needed to create real change and create a world where indigenous languages have a chance to survive and grow.

Time is showing us a startling fact that I think we overlook too easily and often: killing languages kills people. It breeds failure and feeds oppressive systems that create situations where people have no chance at being themselves, being the vision their ancestors had for them so long ago. But the beauty is we are the ones creating the system. We are the ones who have the capability to create change.

If you are on a school board, then you can begin looking at language programs that are more than a handful of hours per year. You can begin examining what a school would look like that actually valued indigenous languages and did all it could to bring them in the door instead of at the doorstep.

If you are a local business, you can ask what can be done to put language in your establishment. You can host events for the small groups of people who are lonesome for a place where our language is spoken. You can sponsor language students, classes, teachers, events, and more.

If you are leader in this community, then you can work together to find a way to build a language nest. This would be a facility that houses an immersion daycare and a place where we can gather to speak our language. It would be the only place in our community where Tlingit is the primary language.

If you are a human being, then you can start listening and speaking.

What we are witnessing, in our generation, is the potential death of a language that has been here for over ten thousand years. Where was English ten thousand years ago? What was English ten thousand years ago? Can you sing a song from that time? Tlingit has evolved tremendously over that time, a descendent of the vast Na-Dene language family that has languages from interior Alaska and Canada down to the Oregon & Washington coast and Northern Mexico.

We need more minds and more energy. We need more real commitment. We have generous, phenomenal elders who seemingly never tire of the work and questions that are asked of them. We have an amazing group of dedicated students and learners who know they are up against it all and are tackling the task of becoming speakers with undeniable courage. But all of this is happening too quietly as the world moves along while genocide is still carried out in this country.

This is a heavy conversation, but these things need to happen. If you are tired of hearing it, then you must know that I am tired of saying it. But there must finally be an awareness before there is a change. There needs to be more language classes, activities, camps, and more, that are conducted entirely in our languages. There must be unity between the warriors who are standing up for Haida, standing up for Tsimshian, standing up for Tlingit. We may have lost a tremendous amount of land, rights, dignity, and more, but our language can never be taken from us if we do not let go.

But look at us. I would estimate that 95 percent of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people cannot speak their own language. I would estimate that less than one-half of one percent of Southeast Alaska can speak Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian. We are letting it go, and we do not have to. We can stand together on this one. It does not matter if we have personal battles with each other. Now is the time to right the ship and stop waiting for some other person to take charge.

If our statewide, regional, local, and tribal leaders cannot make this a priority then we do it ourselves. Every region that has had successful language revitalizations did so when they realized that sovereignty means you do what you are supposed to do. You listen. You try with everything you have. You speak. You protect something for your grandchildren.

A long time ago we dedicated everything to our future generations. We need to return to that. We need to put the language back on the land. We need the placenames that mean so much to our ancestors, our children, our selves. We do not need to accept the names that were arbitrarily given to our home when we have ones that come from countless generations of interactions between people, places, and all those people who are not human (tree people, salmon people, land otter people, etc).

This is not a question of ethnicity or belief systems. This is the ultimate question of humanity. Do you think it is right to kill off entire cultures and groups of people? Of course you do not. But you have to realize that the default action is in agreement with cultural genocide. You have to see that the default language, the act of doing what we are doing right now, will result in more poverty, more suicide, more homicide, more loss. We have to know that we have the power to create something different, and to learn so much more about this place, each other, and this world as we do so.

Monolingual is boring. Our languages contain so much humor, power, intelligence, and hope. We have all been taught that there is something primitive or lesser about these languages. Those lessons are embedded within our subconscious by now. But when we bring those myths out—the concept of a racial superiority—then we can see the fabrication it actually is. We can finally step out of the savage colonial past and into a future where our children can talk to one another in a wide variety of ways, which increases the chances they will understand each other better than you and I do one another.

Listen. Speak. Try. The alternative is darker than you can imagine.

 

• Xh’unei Lance Twitchell is an Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS. He can be reached at latwitchell@uas.alaska.edu.

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