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Wooshteen Kanaxhtulaneegí Haa At Wuskóowu

'Sharing Our Knowledge' Tlingit clan conference begins today Theme of the conference: Our Language Is Our Way of Life

Posted: November 7, 2013 - 12:02am

Starting with a Wednesday evening Warming of the Hands ceremony at the JACC, the biannual Clan Conference will kick off in Juneau at Centennial Hall with all-day events Thursday through Saturday. The “Clan Conference” concept — bringing together cultural experts and scholars from diverse backgrounds — was pioneered by the late Andy Hope III. The first conference was held in May 1993 in Haines/Klukwan, followed in the next few years by conferences in Ketchikan/Saxman and Sitka. Ten years lapsed until the March 2007 conference held in Sitka, which attracted over 400 participants and 90 presenters speaking on a wide variety of topics, including linguistics, archaeology, museum studies, cultural anthropology, education, ethnohistory, art and music, traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous law, and fisheries.

Subsequent conferences in Juneau (2009) and Sitka (2012) continued this multi-disciplinary and cross- cultural spirit. Native tradition bearers, tradition learners, academic scholars and students, shared their knowledge and work involving a wide variety of topics. The 2013 conference will afford another opportunity for key researchers and experts to share information with their colleagues, students, members of the Native community, and the public. A few highlights at the conference will be:

Leanne Hinton, whose research has focused on language revitalization of Native American languages and resulted in numerous programs that have revitalized highly endangered languages;

Tlingit elders Joe Hotch and Ethel Makinen, who have contributed decades towards language education and advocacy in our region and have produced dozens of Tlingit teachers;

Alaska Writer Laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer, a poet and Tlingit scholar who has contributed tremendously to Tlingit language studies and the elevation of Alaska Native oral literature.

This conference is a chance for us to explore a wide range of topics and methods for engaging in cultural and linguistic research. It features a great mix of Southeast Alaska Native values, elders, youth, academics, and will be conducted in an environment that calls for respect of self, others, place, and history. It gives us a safe space to explore some of the concepts surrounding the history of this place, which is rich in stories, language, and the thought worlds of our ancestors. The entire community of Juneau is invited to take part in the events and be a part of the dialogues that are occurring about our shared past, present, and future.

Southeast Alaska has crucial decisions to make in the near future regarding the state of our languages and the ways that they function in our traditional territory. The theme of this year’s conference is fitting, because we are collectively on the verge of becoming a multilingual community. As I hear the stories of our elders, who have suffered tremendously to keep our languages alive, I think about the resilience of our people and the ways we can work together to create better places for our children.

We can all take comfort in the fact that we are hearing more words, more sentences, and more conversations in Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages. It is a long road back to everyday use and children who are truly multilingual, but can head in that direction. Some things are going to have to change, though. Our schools are going to have to be more supportive of multilingual families, and our community is going to have to give itself over to situations where English is not the only language that is regularly heard.

One of the main goals of revitalization is to make sure that indigenous languages are spoken in the homes of the people, and that is the focus of several sessions. The collective hopes of language advocates is that children can speak. When they do, it helps ease some of the shame some of us feel in not having more knowledge of our language. It relieves some of the intergenerational pain that many of us feel because our languages were taken from us. And it educates us on how much more diverse this world can be, starting in our own backyard.

When I think about a multilingual child, I think about telling jokes in Tlingit and English. I think about telling stories that tie us to this place for tens of thousands of years. I think about a child who can see something and think about it in multiple perspectives simultaneously. When I think of these things, I am grateful for our elders; their generosity, courage, and patience are beacons that will guide us back to a good place with our languages. I am grateful for the students of the language, who are not afraid of making themselves look silly in order to get to a place where the language makes sense more often. I am grateful for our children, who can shed off many of the burdens we carry, teaching us the power of letting go. And I am grateful for Andy Hope III, that I had a chance to know him and that we all could carry on with the vision he had about people coming together to know more about each other, about this place, about the many things that happened over time and will be happening soon that collectively make us who we are. I hope to see you there.

In addition to language, there are presentations on anthropological activities in Southeast Alaska, Northwest Coast Native Art, civil rights, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, self-governance, education, literature, repatriation, at.óow, cultural contact, traditional foods, mission schools, environmental change, children, indigenous women’s knowledge, canoe making, and more.

Conference Registration is $75 for the entire event ($25 for students or elders), and single day registration is $25 ($10 for students or elders).

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

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