Language revitalization: a total shift in values

When talking about our languages and what has been happening, what is happening now, and what should happen in the next decade, we encounter every emotion imaginable. There is joy in seeing the number of speakers growing, especially with our children. There is sorrow in thinking about our passionate teachers and advocates who have “walked into the woods” and away from us for the moment. There is passion and drive as language learners and advocates spend every waking hour trying to live with multiple languages. There is guilt and shame at not knowing or trying as much as we might feel we should.


There was a time when everyone who was Tlingit spoke Tlingit, everyone who was Haida spoke Haida, and everyone who was Tsimshian spoke Tsimshian. Now the figure is right around 1 percent. That means 99 percent of our people are illiterate when it comes to their ancestral language, and we have an English-only culture that allows most of us to be okay with that. But there was a time when our people would defend what was ours, and would do so with tremendous force and determination. That is the place where we are returning to now, building a fortress around our languages to protect them from loss.

Regardless of how you are feeling right now, your emotions can be used in the language revitalization movement. You are a part of it right now, no matter where you live and what your background is. You are either speaking the language and listening to it, helping the movement to bring the language back to a cherished state with common usage, or you are not, and you are helping the movement that has been called “manifest destiny,” one which seeks to eliminate the languages and therefore cultures that originally called this place home.

If that makes you feel guilty, then simply find ways to put more language in your life. As Ishmael Hope says, we all can give 45 minutes per day, listening, speaking, practicing. What is 45 minutes out of 1,440? I know we all have to sleep, eat, work, entertain ourselves and others, and do other things, but if you say you cannot spare 45 minutes then you are probably not being honest. This in no way makes you a bad person, but it raises awareness of the root of language revitalization obstacles: values.

If you look across the board at the organizations of Southeast Alaska, you will find very few that elevate Alaska Native languages to a place of equality. Education systems, including public schools and universities, do not make Alaska Native languages a legitimate part of their curriculum, except in rare circumstances. Modes of transportation do not seek to integrate Alaska Native languages and knowledge into communication and identity. And worst of all, Alaska Native organizations, the state government, and the private industry do not make a legitimate place in Alaska’s economy for Alaska Native languages.

I told a group of students last semester that their pursuit of Alaska Native language learning, teaching, and advocacy will perhaps net them $50,000 per year. That is if they are very lucky. I have seen CEOs of ANCSA corporations donate nearly that much in a single gesture, and I know that salary is low in business, law, and medical fields. But who determines this? Just because the norms exist in modern corporate structures, why should that affect what we do with our time and money? The decision is not: should we succeed financially or should we succeed at being ourselves. We are presented with that either/or structure as part of the myth, that Alaska Native languages and identity are on an opposing spectrum of financial and life success.

The “we” in that question and in statements made here is not made up of only Alaska Natives, Tribes, and ANCSA organizations. If we are going to revitalize languages, then we need a sea change in value systems across our state. The idea that a global economy will not accommodate local shifts is just another way to justify manifest destiny. First god did it, and now money does it. The world does it. These are the myths, when the realities are that people did it and people still do it today: they justify killing languages and people. It is the same philosophy that allowed people to put children though genocidal boarding schools, and it is built upon false notions of racial superiority.

Alaska Native organizations need to rapidly assess and adjust their value systems and find a way to be successful while also noting that an elder who really knows an Alaska Native language is of — at least — equal value to someone who is skilled in government, law, and business. I am certain an ANCSA CEO made over a million dollars per year last year, and I work with fluent speakers who are doing all they can to make ends meet. Poverty should not be an opposing value of assimilation, and the power in changing that comes when we embrace the way we use our money and develop our programs.

Someone was surprised when I talked about paying elders to come into classrooms. I was surprised at the surprise, but noted that when we bring published authors and other folks to campus, we pay them for their time. When you call a lawyer, they will often start the meter for you, or if you step into a cab it will start costing you money. However, our elders are often expected to just come in and give, give, give, or else they do not love the language, their ancestors, and their grandchildren. The emotions are tangled here as well. George Ramos once laughed and told me that he was beaten for speaking Tlingit in schools, and now schools are paying him a good rate to come in and teach the language.

Indeed, we have seen strange reversals of how the world works. Barbara Meek, in her book “We Are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community,” notes that 20 years ago indigenous languages were in the homes and not in the schools, and now they are in the schools and not in the homes. Shifting our values takes conscious effort and a unified approach. You have to make a bold decision, grab hands, and jump into the deep end of the pool. It is time to really elevate Alaska Native languages, and to do so with money, programs, plans, and absolute determination. This is not a new concept. Language advocates like Nora and Richard Dauenhauer have been talking about things like this for a long time: unless we collectively change as people and the organizations we build and run, things will not change for us.

I think we will find that manifest destiny really has no teeth. We will not go bankrupt tomorrow, or forget how to read and write. There will not be a long-term erosion in skills or knowledge, but there will be an increase in abilities, intellect, and self-worth. We will have fewer people depressed and unsure where they fit in the world, because they will have options of imitating their ancestors. We will have education systems that are a lot less racist because they mandate Alaska Native knowledge in addition to Euro-American knowledge. Elevating Alaska Native languages will not create division, but will create unity because schools will stop being, as Paul Berg says, killing machines.

In Alaska education, an Alaska Native learns quickly that they are not the ideal student, or the model citizen, or the definition of success. That means we must retool the system into something entirely different: an Alaskan dream of equality and hope. A place where all of our children have a chance, and can feel good about what they are learning. These places are killing hope, fostering suicide and violence, and teaching our children that racism by omission and oversight is okay. These values need to change and change immediately.

Some of these things seem insurmountable, I am sure, but a massively coordinated effort by human beings got us here: at the verge of language death. So a massively coordinated effort by human beings will get us out of here. Everyone can help and do their part. Put the language back into homes, into the mouths of children, and see what it does to these emotions. If we know we gave it all we could to reverse the errors of the past, then we will not feel remorse, but will feel joy.

Peter Metcalfe, an author and historian, recently told me, “Tlingits don’t make good victims. They are warriors.” No one is going to take this from us or tell us that we have to wait. All the language and knowledge is right there in front of you. There are elders who walk the same streets as us and love to speak and listen to our languages. There are websites with thousands of pages of resources. There are learning videos, online classes, meeting groups, Facebook groups, and more.

Every excuse or reason to wait is an agreement with manifest destiny, so let’s put that terrible idea to rest and move on, united. There were times that disagreements in how to do things, conflicts in personalities and lifestyles, or competition for resources divided us in these efforts. Those days are passing as well, as people unify in the name of fighting for a wonderful cause. All those people who were rebels, speaking their languages in the face of torture, child abuse, humiliation, and other forms of violent Othering, we will listen for them, we will speak for them. We do not accept value systems that are intended to fit everyone in America, but we inherit and protect them from this very place. We are the warriors of today, and we are succeeding in every waking moment by staying strong on the path, and coming back to it after wandering away because we needed a break.

When you see an elder who speaks, thank them. When you see an elder who does not, embrace them. When you see someone who is ready for language learning, meet them on their level and try not to show off or embarrass them until they are ready for teasing, humor, and fun. This is a wonderful time to be alive, when you can fight like you were supposed to and restore our languages to a place of equality and strength. This is what you were born to do. We will never be oppressed like we once were, or like we are now. Tsu haa kát kheiwa.aa: it has dawned on us again.


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