Avoiding the language of failure

Tlél kei khwadaleet: I will not quit.


This is from a story told by David Katzeek. You can find this and other videos, resources, and more at www.tlingit.info. In addition, you can find an electronic version of the Dictionary of Tlingit by Keri Eggleston at www.sealaskaheritage.org and a tremendous Tlingit verb database at www.goldbeltheritage.org/verbs. These are accessible from computers, smart phones and tablets. So let your fingers take a Tlingit walk.

We have the tools now. We have the time and the energy. We have the speakers and all the reasons in the world to empower our communities and work for a better future. No matter what your heritage, as soon as you stepped foot in this place you became part of a bigger story. That story is full of hardship and attempts at cultural and linguistic genocide. but it is a choose your own adventure style of story. We are going to write the ending. We are going to change. Just say it with me, say it with conviction: we are going to change.

One of the important things to think about in language revitalization is the language of failure. It sounds like this: I don’t have the (time, money, concentration); someone else can do that; I am busy; I am rusty; I have been lazy. I can understand any of those things, but at this point that kind of talk is hard to tolerate. Sometimes we act like we can take care of this problem tomorrow, or that someone else can, but neither of those are true. Like it or not, the actions you take or do not take is going to determine the future of our languages, and the hope for our grandchildren.

Alaska Native Languages are in a critical state, and now is the time to take action and reverse language shift. Recent studies of our three languages estimate that in the entire world there are 200 speakers of Tlingit, 20 speakers of Haida, and maybe 20 speakers of Sm’algyax. If we can create real change now, then we can avoid continuing language loss and the cultural and social damage that will follow.

More importantly, we can make positive connections between generations, communities and place. There are things within these languages that we cannot find anywhere else, and that is why we need your help at UAS. Some of our enrollments in language classes are lower than in previous years, and we are looking for ways to promote language revitalization in Southeast Alaska. We have an incredible opportunity to build a new generation of speakers, and to help those who can speak now to know they are not alone.

As individuals, we can sign up for classes, and more importantly we can commit to learning language every day. There are no reasons to avoid doing so, or to put it off any longer. We can create the time and space in our lives for the thought-world of our ancestors, and in the process we will discover what it means to live in this place. The singing and dancing, the artwork, those things give us an identity we can easily see and distinguish, but it is through the language that we see the way our ancestors viewed the world.

Sometimes we are bogged down by the idea of language loss, or by the daunting task of learning languages that are complex and, these days, hard to find. But we cannot let that stand in our way. If our grandparents really needed something, if their lives depended on it, then we would find a way to get it. If our grandchildren were in great need of something, then we would not wait because it was far away or hard to get to. We would not quit on them. We are going to change. We are going to turn around and walk into the arms of our grandparents, and plant seeds for generations to come.

As organizations, tribal or not, we can sponsor students and classes. We can take a relatively small amount of money and make sure that if a family wants to speak their native language in the home, then they have the means to do so. We can recognize the irony in having to pay to have your language back after it was beaten and taken from you. We can stand united in this fight. We are not looking to just survive, but we are looking to revitalize our languages so they are everwhere.


Language Revitalization: The Positive Side

I know I talk about the responsibilities and the impending doom of language loss, and my lovely and intelligent wife has asked me to write about the benefits of language learning, about the positive side. Sometimes I feel the pressure of what we are up against, and focus on that too much, which might discourage potential language students. The goal is always inspiration and positive change, and I am grateful for the reminder to show the benefits, the perspectives that will be gained when we stop talking about languages, and start living with them.

When you learn a language, you teach yourself an entirely new way to think. Living in the language is different than knowing some words and phrases. It gives you a different way of looking at the world. One of the things for colonized people is that we sometimes fail to see that we are thinking so much differently now. We fight for rights and recognition, we fight against poverty and loss, but we need to look into that thought-world of our ancestors (as Oscar Kawagley said and my brother Ishmael Angaluuk Hope continues to point out).

One of my teachers in the interior, Khaaklighé (Norman James), recently told me something like this: “those old folks, seem like they just go around looking for each other just to laugh. When we were young, we used to say, ‘it’s like they just walk around looking for someone to laugh with.’ After a while, it turned out out we were doing just the same thing.”

That is important to realize. When you are part of language revitalization, you will laugh and share jokes and other forms of humor that very few people understand anymore. It will be the funniest things you ever heard. That is because you are healing, looking straight into the pain and fixing what is broken. That is joy. Through moments like this you will develop a new way to see the world that helps things become more understandable, enjoyable, medicinal, and fun.

The world is full of dark stories and cycles of loss, pain, abuse, death. We can move away from that and see what happens when we breathe life into the world in which our ancestors reside, waiting for us to become a part of what they know and love. They shaped this world for us. They rebelled against tremendous forces and violence so we would have the opportunities we do now.

Over this past month, I sat at the bedside of an elder who switched to speaking almost entirely Tlingit in her final days. The family had to find people to talk with her, and sitting by her side was an indescribable moment. It lessened the weight of what she was going through, and in the end, before I stood to leave, I gave her words of encouragement in her first language. She smiled and said, “Now I know I’m not alone.”

A week later I sat in another elder’s kitchen and we talked in Tlingit for a solid half hour. We talked about our families, our clan migrations, and what people are doing now with language. Before I left, she smiled real big and said to me in Tlingit, “Since my dad died long ago, I don’t have anybody to talk to. My spirit is so happy today.”

There is a part of you that is holding onto language. That is the core of our identity. It is the sinew that ties us to this place where our people have roamed for tens of thousands of years. Think about the following question: Where was English 10,000 years ago? 20? If I were to ask it about Tlingit, you could say, “it was right here, being born on the land that is now Southeast Alaska.”

You are an important piece of this puzzle. You have such amazing capabilities that will be realized when you let go of an English-only existence. You can be a part of the revolution. All it takes is time, energy, positive commitment, and a willingness to laugh: at yourself, with each other. You need the humility to say, “I am born again, thinking like a baby with a grown-up English brain.” You need the strength to say, “assimilation is not the right answer.”

We don’t need to walk away any more. We don’t need to stand by and watch our elders and ancestors suffer from loneliness. This is our era, and we are making the most of it. No one needs to tell us it is okay. We can stand by the shore and listen to ancient voices who tell us quite plainly: speak, listen, live, and give gifts the unborn children of the land. We have immeasurable power; all we have to do is listen.

Register for Haida or Tlingit classes today at www.uas.alaska.edu

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


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