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Alaska's official indigenous languages and the emotions of revitalization

  • Author: Lance Twitchell
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published April 23, 2014

In the long hours of waiting for the state of Alaska to recognize Alaska Native languages as equals to English, the group of advocates for the bill laughed as hard as we ever had. It is a coping mechanism. It's medicine. When I was retelling some of the jokes that we were telling then, which were already more funny in Tlingit than they were in English, the jokes fell flat. There is something about standing there, feeling powerless and knowing your bill could be killed off at any time, that leads you to search for reasons to laugh. Earlier in the day, some of our elders who stood with us in protest said they hated that they had to beg for recognition, but they also said several times that they would do anything to make life better for future generations and to help ease the pain of current generations.

We began arriving around noon on Easter Sunday, and shortly after 3 a.m. HB 216 passed, making an incredible statement for the state of Alaska. If you have never been a second-class citizen in the only place where you can live, then the gravity of it can be hard to explain. As this process has unfolded over the past several months, and I recounted some of the stories that our elders have been telling us about the torture they went through as children, I often wondered if the stories seemed unbelievable because of their intensity. Who would grab a child by the hair and shake her violently in front of a class for speaking her language? Who would force a child to go outside in the freezing cold and put his tongue on a metal flagpole? Our elders have lived these stories, and we keep them alive so we remember what they went through so we can have all that we do of our languages and cultures. We are forever grateful.

One of the biggest problems in language revitalization work is the idea that it is someone else's problem. Within our communities this can be found in thoughts like these ones: I'm glad someone is doing this, because I don't have time to. I don't have to speak Tlingit to be Tlingit. Those guys are taking care of it, so we are safe. This bill has passed, so we are safe. A preservation council was formed, so the languages are preserved. I wasn't even born then, so why is it my problem? Why can't you just get over it?

When we are talking about language revitalization, it is important to get some terms clearly understood. When we are talking about revitalization, we mean reversing language shift. Language shift means the movement from speaking one language to speaking two languages to speaking one language. For example, at one point all Tlingit people could speak Tlingit, and then they became bilingual in English, and now hardly anyone can speak Tlingit. Language revitalization means we want to create more speakers than we lose. It does not mean we acknowledge that our languages are dead or dying, but instead states that we intend to keep them from doing so.

Throughout this process, I have been thinking about the emotions of fighting for your languages. When the bill was first put on the floor, we had been in survival mode all day. We felt that the bill to make Alaska Native languages the co-official languages of Alaska could be killed at any time, which is way too familiar for us. In the past week, we have lost three birth speakers of the Tlingit language, and that puts incredible strain on us as learners and defenders of our language. Because of this, we kept looking to each other for hope, laughter, strength. We kept convincing each other that we could do it.

And even though we often felt powerless, we saw allies emerging throughout the legislature and across Alaska. We transformed into one of the most powerful political groups in state, for just a moment, because we stood together for a single cause and that cause could be broadcast through all media possible. No one was looking for cutbacks or tax breaks. No one was being paid to be there. We were standing up for our future grandchildren so they would not have to endure what we collectively went through.

One of the most alarming things I heard, from several sources, was that making languages (and therefore cultures) equal would create more racial division. That is such a stock answer that it conjures up the exact same type of arguments that were made against the anti-discrimination act. I tried to find the logic in that argument and failed, because it is rooted in a paranoia of losing privilege and not in protecting diversity. It is an argument to keep inequality intact. The reality is that our group of advocates on the hill and statewide were a culturally diverse group of people of all different backgrounds. We had, in fact, racial unity for a single cause: equality and justice.

That might be the most powerful part of all of this for me: This is a cause that everyone can stand behind, unless they believe in some sort of linguistic, racial or cultural superiority. Racism is much harder to make a case for than it was 70 years ago, when civil rights leaders were advocating for the passage of the anti-discrimination act. If we look back through the history of Alaska Natives and American laws, this might be the first time that something comes right out and recognizes us at our core and says, "We are of equal value. We are of equal importance."

This statement moves mountains, but it does not in itself create revitalization of languages. We need to celebrate this incredible moment and progress. We need the governor to sign the bill into law. And then we need to dive into the deep pool of our languages and live them every single day of our lives. And that means everyone who wants to be a part of the movement, to feel the overwhelming joy of overcoming generations of oppression, should grab a hand and jump in with us.

In our first Tlingit language class since the bill's passage an elder stood up and addressed the students who were not born Tlingit. He said that he does not see them as non-Native. He recognized them for standing with us and pointed out that they know more Tlingit than 95 percent of the Tlingit people in the world today. He said they are one of us, and that we are all in this together. There are no racial divisions when we stand together like this and succeed in the way we did the other night.

When the bill was first read all I could hear was my heart pounding in my head. Those of us who stayed there to support it stood up, and many of us instantly began to feel the tears coming. We thought of all those who were there throughout the day and could not stay the whole time. We thought about our elders who were living long enough to see this amazing change. We thought about hours upon hours of advocacy, planning, writing and speaking that kept us from our families, work and sleep.

There is not a better moment than when the vote came through. When this idea was being discussed months ago, I never imagined that it would have passed through the Legislature by a total count of 56-2. Alaska now stands as the only other state in America to recognize Alaska Native languages, standing next to Hawaii as leaders in the language revitalization movement. We know the all the hard work we still have to do, but now there is another thing that we know: We can win. We can succeed, and this is not just a Native problem. This is not a thing that small crowds of people talk about and work themselves to death trying to solve. The day is coming when we are not revitalizing Alaska Native languages any more, but we are instead just living them and keeping them safe.

We will never be in a state of dying languages like we are now again. The call has collectively gone out, across our state, to make all of our languages protected, sacred, official. This is a wonderful day, and I had to tell my students something Kingheestí David Katzeek taught me: Tlél ghidaleet -- don't quit. I said it to my class over and over and over. I know that there are so many things that can make us give up. Standing so close to the edge, sometimes it is easy to just jump.

But it is so much more fulfilling to push back, to stand up, to unite in a cause that makes the world a better and safer place for future generations. If you have not felt the joy and unity in it yet, then you should know that the invitation is there for you to stand with us. Thank you Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins. What you initiated has changed things for us all, in ways I think we are only beginning to imagine. Thank you to those who joined in, especially the bill sponsors: Reps. Millet, Edgmon, Nageak, Herron, Gara, Guttenberg, Foster, Drummond, LeDoux, Kito III, Kawasaki, Munoz, Josephson, Gruenberg, Isaacson, Tuck, Holmes, Seaton, Tarr, Olson, Costello, and Feige. And Sens. Egan, Dyson, Olson, French, Stevens, Ellis, Wielechowski, Micciche, Dunleavy, McGuire, Gardner, Bishop, Fairclough, Hoffman, Meyer, Stedman.

This commentary is dedicated to the memory of my buddy Cyril George, who lives in my heart forever, and to Miriah Twitchell, who stood with us by taking care of our babies while the movement kept calling.

Lance A. Twitchell carries the Tlingit names X?'unei & Du Aaní Kawdinook, and the Haida name K?'eijáakw. He is from the Tlingit, Haida, and Yup'ik Native nations, and speaks and studies the Tlingit language. He is an assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, and lives in Juneau with his wife, son, and daughters. Beginning in the spring of 2013 he worked with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Liz Medicine Crow, and a team of language advocates across the state to create and pass a bill that made Alaska Native languages the co-official languages of the state of Alaska.

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