There is a video recorded by the Sealaska Heritage Institute that is worth watching over and over again. Clarence Jackson and Clara Peratrovich share phrases that are rarely used and are really fun to listen to. When I listen to them talking, I think about the way Tlingit people used to think long time ago, and about the way we shared things with all of our neighboring nations like the Tsimshian and Haida. Poor people spoke one language, and the wealthy spoke many.
I am grateful for our elders. This is a wonderful life. There are several elders who leave me messages on my phone in Tlingit. The voicemail is forever nearing capacity because I do not want to erase their messages. I listen to them when I am feeling down, or when I need some late-night guidance on what to keep trying to learn and trying to teach. As we continue speaking our languages, we need to return to the ones who carried it to us, and we need to do things for them to make their lives better.
At the Clan Conference in early November, several elders shared stories they knew or lived through that involved violence against our languages. Children who were abused for being who they are meant to be. It is so hard to believe now that these things were happening here and happening often. Because of that, I am thankful for those who decided to hold on, who rebelled, who spoke to each other and their parents and elders.
But we must always keep in mind the ones who never had the chances many of our students do now. Some of our people wanted to learn but were denied by their parents and grandparents. Others were ashamed because Alaska Native languages were attacked in such inhumane and powerful ways that we often lost track of ourselves. And some of my teachers come to mind when I think of these things, and it leads me to repeat what many of them have told me, like David Katzeek, Florence Sheakley, Nora Dauenhauer, Ruth Demmert, Mary Anderson, John Martin, Selina Everson, and many more. There are some important things to think about as we walk along with our languages, and I want to share them with you here and now.
1. We are not studying or learning our language. We are speaking it. We are living it. We are our language and our language is us. Sometimes we get caught in the idea that our languages are separate from us and have to live in terms like study, practice, immersion, camp. If we eliminate the gap between us and our languages, then we just live with them and are no longer distracted by powerful terms like language death, revitalization, and assimilation.
2. It is up to us to create the change needed for our languages to flourish. It would be wonderful to have a language nest in our community, but in meantime we can speak more of it. Shopping together, eating together, playing together, and raising families together. The way the modern world separates us into little boxes and lives is devastating to us, because we are programmed to be with one another instead of isolated with electronic devices tethering us to substituted connections.
3. The language is not hard if you speak it all the time. There are advanced concepts in any language. If you think you know English well, then try explaining to someone who is learning it when you use “the,” “a/an,” and nothing. We need to study grammar and the fundamentals of languages, but much more so we need to speak them and learn to communicate instead of recite.
These are just some of the things that come to mind when thinking about teachers, survivors, warriors, and heroes. When I watch Clara and Clarence speaking to one another, what might stand out the most is the claim that it is much easier to learn by speaking than it is by books. Fluency in a language comes from interacting in that language more and more, and that means less and less translation and more comprehension, manufacturing, and enjoying language.
At the end of the semester, one of my classes did a series of puppet shows for their final. This was to honor videos made in Juneau in the late 1960s and can be found by searching the internet for “Let’s Learn Language: Clincket [Tlingit] Version” (everyone should watch these!). It was fun to watch students enjoy themselves and communicate a short narrative in a language they are beginning to understand.
These things are all important because people are still getting lost in the world without language. After listening to elders talk about it, I can see it as the force that tethers us to this world, our ancestors, our future generations, and the spirit world. Every year we see the same or growing number of suicides, and Alaska Natives seem to top the charts in poverty, imprisonment, and addiction. We know all about violent crimes and oppression so many forms.
But there is something that keeps our heads in the clouds and allows us to think over and over about respect, honor, and love for one another. When I hear my teachers, I think about these things. Their voices loop inside me because I cannot let them go. It is so easy to talk about respect, honor, love, and unity. But in English, the concepts can disappear as fast as the words leave your mouth.
We need our languages in our lives because we cannot forget the principles at the heart of the them: we can call these things our cultures. The monolingual concept has failed us. The idea that we are progressing towards some European identity and mode of thinking leaves a great hole inside us all, because this is land where Tlingit was born, and we neighbor lands where Haida was born, Tsimshian was born.
The classroom is transforming. We are making it our own thing, and it is a place where a PhD means nothing when compared to a life lived in the language. It is a place of healing. We try and try and try until we have figured out that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing: living languages. Experiencing change and growth. Honoring those who have spent their lives in the language we long to dream in. The days might be far ahead of us when our love for one another is stronger than our habits of negativity.
The community is transforming. Not into something new, but into something that was there all along: a land that is strong enough to support many languages. This is a place where children want to be, where parents want to be, and where grandparents want to be. It is a place where we do not have to wait for life to slow down and give us the opportunities. We make them, we live language, we breathe the breath of our ancestors, and as David Katzeek says, we feed on their words.
• Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.