Learning together

Tlingit conference highlights challenges, rewards of language revitalization

What can be done to support ongoing efforts to revitalize Tlingit language use in Southeast Alaska communities? And why are these efforts so important?


These two complex questions were among the wide range of issues addressed in many different contexts during the “Sharing Our Knowledge” Tlingit clan conference held Thursday through Sunday at Centennial Hall. More than 60 Native and non-Native presenters spoke on topics ranging from Tlingit art to civil rights to education, under a shared theme, “Our language is our way of life.”

Language, and the ways it is interconnected with traditional cultural knowledge, was the direct focus of about a third of the presentations, and, indirectly, many more.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center estimates there are between 400 and 500 Tlingit speakers today, but according to Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages Xh'unei Lance Twitchell, the updated number is closer to 200. Despite the enormous challenges of bringing Tlingit back into everyday use in Southeast, the overall atmosphere of the clan conference was one of hope and determination, as teachers and students, elders and youth shared practical ideas and words of encouragement.

“Five years ago, I didn’t speak one word (of my Native language),” Michelle Johnson, of Whitehorse, Yukon, told her audience during a presentation on language learning Friday. Johnson learned to speak her native language, Okanagan, over the course of six months in 2011 after spending five days per week with five other women in an immersion house in Chopaka, British Columbia.

Roby Littlefield, of Sitka, encouraged another roomful of language learners on Saturday not to be daunted by the task ahead of them. You can teach as you learn, Littlefield said.

“Be brave,” she said. “You will make mistakes. Let them go.”

Bravery was on display during one of the more playful conference sessions Friday, when six students of Tlingit took part in the first-ever clan conference spelling bee. Pronouncer Hans Chester, a local teacher who has been helping to lead Tlingit immersion camps since 2005, led participants through a few practice rounds — words such as hít (house) and kéet (killer whale) — with assistance from organizers Daphne Wright and Linda Belarde and linguist Keri Edwards Eggleston. Looking on were former and current Alaska State Laureates Richard and Nora Dauenhauer.

Difficulty with accent marks and with Tlingit “high tone” and “low tone” vowels led to a fairly brutal first round, in which all but two of the contestants were wiped out of the competition. Will Geiger, a student in Lance Twitchell’s intermediate Tlingit class at the University of Alaska-Southeast, emerged victorious after getting through kanat’á (blueberry) and ch’áak’ (eagle).

Part of the difficulty with written Tlingit, as the bee illustrated, is that a formalized system of written words has only been in development since the 1960s, according to a paper presented by Richard Dauenhauer at the very first clan conference in 1993. That work, begun by Constance Naish and Gillian Story, continued into the 1970s with the work of Richard and Nora Dauenhauer and UAF’s Jeff Leer and, later, Eggleston and other linguists, and included inventing ways of writing out sounds that don’t exist in English. In 2009, Sealaska Heritage Institute published a Tlingit dictionary based on their work, a huge step forward for students.

But having a written record of the language is only one facet of revitalization. The language comes alive when it is brought into the home and “placed on the land,” Twitchell said in a presentation Saturday. He has been working on the former in his own home by speaking only Tlingit to his daughter, and on the latter by teaming up with Alaska State Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins to introduce Tlingit in public places. For example, working with Twitchell, Kreiss-Tomkins has already contacted the Alaska Marine Highway System to see if it would make ferry arrival announcements in Southeast communities in both English and Tlingit, an idea he also plans to float to Alaska Airlines.

According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, these types of real-world, contemporary roles are crucial in reestablishing indigenous languages in their home communities. UNESCO, which acts as a central agency for language revitalization around the world, estimates that, in the United States alone, 115 languages have been lost in the last 500 years, out of roughly 280 spoken at the time of Western contact. Globally, half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken worldwide are in danger of disappearing by the end of this century if no action is taken to preserve them, according to UNESCO. These losses mark the disappearance of not only language, but “unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge,” the organization says.

The converse of this idea of cultural loss, expressed in different contexts at the clan conference, is the idea that language revitalization can be an important tool for intergenerational healing.

On Saturday, Alice Taff shared information during her presentation on language and health taken from the research journal “Cognitive Development” that showed youth suicide rates “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language.”

Later in Taff’s session, a woman who had been punished at a residential school for speaking her language as a child spoke with emotion about her continuing struggles to make peace with the past, and her hopefulness in watching efforts to reestablish the Tlingit language in her community. During a different session later that afternoon, an elder who also broke down when describing her childhood shared her feelings of joy and pride in helping students at a local elementary school learn to speak Tlingit. Just as she has been helping the students, so they have been helping her, she said.

Ending the last session of the conference on a similarly positive note, Twitchell encouraged students to take the task into their own hands whenever possible by creating their own opportunities for using the language, whenever they could. Go to Fred Meyer with a fellow student and shop in Tlingit, he suggested. Or share a joke with an elder on the sidewalk.

“Find someone to laugh with,” he said.

• Contact Arts Editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.

 Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the current number of Tlingit speakers (200).

For more on Alaska Native Language resources, visit uas.alaska.edu/arts_sciences/humanities/alaska-languages and www.sealaskaheritage.org/programs/language_resources.htm.


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