My first encounter with Tlingit as a living language was almost 30 years ago when I was commissioned to write (paint) an icon of St. Nicholas for the Orthodox Church in Juneau. I was asked to write the inscriptions on the icon in two of the liturgical languages used at the church — Tlingit and English. Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, both of whom were parishioners as well as scholars, poets and Tlingit speakers, translated the inscriptions into Tlingit for me.
I’m grateful for that experience and for their friendship, because as a newcomer to Southeast Alaska (that is, as one of those who has arrived or whose families have arrived here in the past 150 years), I might have mistakenly believed that the traditional ways of life, cultures and languages of our Tlingit, Haida and Tsimsian neighbors were a thing of the past.
Fortunately, since the 1960s, a remarkable cultural renaissance has occurred among Alaska Natives in our region (and throughout the state), made even more remarkable because of the many preceding decades of cultural and linguistic suppression that followed the purchase of Alaska in 1867.
One of the amazing cultural and spiritual initiatives in recent years has been the movement to revitalize spoken Tlingit and form a new generation of Tlingit speakers here in Southeast. The Tlingit language, which has been spoken in Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia for at least 10,000 years, is now, because of forced assimilation in the 19th and 20th centuries, only spoken by an estimated 200 people.
Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, is one of the leaders among those working to revitalize the use of Tlingit in everyday life and to pass the language on to the next generation. In one of his Juneau Empire columns on language revitalization, Xh’unei quoted elder Kichnáalxh George Davis, who said, speaking of revitalizing Tlingit,
“Tsu héide shugaxhtutaan, yáa yaakhoosgé daakéit, haa jéex’ anákh has kawduk’éet’” — “We will open it again, this box of wisdom, which was left in our hands.”
I’m grateful for the commitment of all those working to “open again the box of wisdom” of the Tlingit language, as well as other efforts to revitalize Alaska Native and other indigenous languages. Every language is a treasury of wisdom passed down to us by our ancestors in stories, proverbs, poetry, songs and history. Every language and the peoples who speak and think in their own languages participate in the divine Logos, the divine Word through which the cosmos and everything that is, came into being and remains in being. Our loving Father who created men and women in the divine image bestowed upon every person the gifts of language, consciousness, moral conscience, artistic expression and spirituality.
With only 200 speakers in the entire world, the work of Tlingit language revitalization faces enormous challenges and long odds. But reflecting on the almost miraculous revitalization of icon painting in the past three decades, I am encouraged.
Recall that, for almost 70 years in the former Soviet Union, icons were desecrated and destroyed or sold off. Those fluent in the ‘language’ of traditional icon painting were forbidden to speak it. Some iconographers died or were imprisoned in the Gulag. Nonetheless, despite the odds, the tradition of writing icons was nurtured and kept alive by a handful of devoted icon painters in Russia and in exile.
Thanks to their perseverance, there are now thousands of men and women writing icons again in Russia and around the world. I’m grateful to count myself among them.
May God bless those fluent Tlingit speakers who are striving to open the “box of wisdom” for their children, their grandchildren and future generations. May God bless all those who are receiving it in our time and into the future. May the revival of Tlingit, of such significance for the First People of this place we all call home, contribute to healing the wounds inflicted across the generations on so many of our Native friends, neighbors and fellow Christians.
• Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is an iconographer and serves at the Cathedral.